In The Yellow Wallpaper, the author uses a number of literary devices to express the political theme of feminism and the oppression of women. To achieve her goal of expressing feminist sentiment in The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman creates a narrator who is at once expressive about her feelings but is also prone to devaluing her own assessments. While this, along with her constant assertions that she is going mad, creates an unreliable narrator, it allows her to convey several different emotions as her moods change. This in turn allows Gilman to posit two theories about her main character; either she is insane or she is suffering from these feelings of oppression. It appears that the latter is the case as the narrator remarks on her unhappiness and ties her husband’s treatment of her to this in subsequent statements. The overall effect, combined with clever uses of symbolism that enhance the theme of the oppression of women in The Yellow Wallpaper, is that the reader leaves thinking that her husband is more than a little responsible for the conclusion.
Part of Gilman’s technique in expressing her political theme in The Yellow Wallpaper is centered in her use narration. The author has created a narrator who is not entirely reliable yet is prone to making very potent statements about her situation as an oppressed woman. Although she peppers her complaints about feeling trapped and unhappy with admissions that it all might be because of her nervous condition (as opposed to a legitimate sense of oppression by her husband) it is nearly impossible for the reader to ignore the fact that it might be her husband’s treatment of her that is the problem. For instance, Gilman’s narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper tends to make seemingly innocent remarks such as, “John laughs at me, if course, but one expects that in marriage" (833) and “he is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction" (834). While such “offhand" comments about the nature of her relationship and marriage might not be taken seriously in another more comedic context, the narrator’s growing madness makes these statements about John’s habit of being overprotective and oppressive impossible to shrug off. By creating a character whose narration becomes increasingly out of touch and mad, the narrator’s statements that follow the more innocent claims discussed above are to be taken more seriously. For instance, just after one of her more innocent-sounding remarks about marriage, the narrator states in one of the important quotes from The Yellow Wallpaper, “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition" (833). Although she says it is probably due to her condition, the reader cannot help but wonder why, only a few paragraphs later, she reveals that despite her love for writing, “He hates to have me write a word" (834). This narrator is clearly feeling trapped in a marriage that does not allow her freedom. Meanwhile, as a man, her husband is free to come and go. This inability for her to express herself in a meaningful way eventually leads her to associate herself with the woman in the wallpaper who looks to be, like the narrator, behind bars or in a cage.
As this thesis statement for The Yellow Wallpapersuggests, aside from creating a narrator that reveals the complex dynamics of female oppression, she also employs symbolism to further reveal and enhance her message. For instance, given the fact that the narrator feels trapped by both her husband and surroundings, it is not farfetched to assume that the woman she sees behind the wallpaper is a symbol of herself and the Victorian women like her. In The Yellow Wallpaper Gilman seems to go out of her way to express the symbolic relationship between the real and wallpaper woman. Much like the main character, the wallpaper woman is described as “all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern — it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads" (837). In some senses, the pattern is a symbol for the pattern of the woman’s oppression in that she can’t get out of her “cage" because her husband is keeping everything about her suppressed. The many heads can be seen as a symbol of all the things the woman wants to do, She wishes she could write and have guests over, but she can’t and instead, the woman in the wallpaper has all these “heads" or ideas of what she wants to do. Conversely, these heads could also represent the many male influences who are constantly interfering with her sense of freedom, most notably her husband. At the tragic conclusion of the story, it is significant that she exclaims, “I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back" (844). Her final words, if the assessments of the symbols are correct, mean that it is only through a final devastating act that she can be free from the oppression. She has escaped for good and the “paper" she has pulled off can serve as yet another symbol for the “ties" that have, until this point, kept her bound.
Although the ending of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is somewhat ambiguous, it appears that the narrator has killed herself. While it could easily be argued that she did this simply because she was mentally disturbed, there are far too many statements made by Gilman’s narrator about the oppression of a woman for this to be an easy argument. By creating a narrator that the reader can view either way, Gilman forces the reader to read into all of the narrator’s words more closely than he or she might otherwise do. As a result, it becomes clear that the narrator’s unhappiness seems directly linked to the fact that she is being treated like a child and is not allowed to leave her cage. If the reader of The Yellow Wallpaper has any doubt about this, the symbol of the woman behind the wallpaper should serve as convincing evidence, especially given the story’s ending. In sum, by presenting a carefully constructed narrator and offering clues in the form of symbols, the reader is more inclined to see The Yellow Wallpaperas a story with more political slant than one simply about mental illness.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume C. W.W. Norton, New York: 2002.