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The Writing on the Wall: A Study of the 1892 Short Story “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Written as a denouncement of the role of women in the late 19th century, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is still fervently discussed and widely regarded as a significant contribution to both literature and the feminist movement.
Depicting an era when women’s desires for self-expression and social contribution were roundly dismissed—and characteristics such as sensitivity and imagination were misdiagnosed as mental instability or nervous depression—“The Yellow Wallpaper” chronicles the mental decent of a young wife whose husband (who was also a physician) whisked her away to an isolated summer home in hopes of a “cure.”
Forcibly locked in her room for days at a time and strongly discouraged from activities such as working or writing, the woman secretly kept a journal of her bleak surroundings, especially the spotted and torn yellowed wallpaper which slowly consumed her every thought.
As her solitary confinement continued under the guise of “treatment,” her fascination and ultimate obsession with the yellow wallpaper lead her to tear and bite at its tattered patterns, hoping to liberate the woman she was convinced was trapped in the wallpaper and struggling to break free.
Throughout the story, the wallpaper’s symbolism evolves from faded covering to prison bars to her only means of escape.
But with her descent into madness, the yellow wallpaper ultimately symbolizes the silencing oppression from an unenlightened patriarchal society.
Gilman’s expressive themes not only inspired other writers such as Alice Walker and Sylvia Plath, but was a major catalyst in the woman’s suffrage and equal rights movement of the early 20th century.