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Symbolism in "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Exploration of the various symbols in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
by

Iona Black

on 2 March 2015

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Transcript of Symbolism in "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Jennie
Jennie is the housekeeper for our narrator and her husband. She cleans the house and takes care of most chores. Jennie symbolizes the "perfect woman"; One who does what she's told, and fills the role of a basic housewife.
MAry
Mary is the woman who takes care of Jane and John's child. Her character is an allusion to the Virgin Mary, a biblical mother-like figure. Like Jennie, she reinforces the idea that Jane does not fit into the basic female role of the time.
Moonlight
The Mansion
"There was some legal trouble, I believe, something about the heirs and coheirs; anyhow, the place has been empty for years."
"[...] I don't care to renovate the house just for a three months' rental." -John
Symbolism in "The Yellow Wallpaper"
Physicians
Doctors were regarded with respect, generally people believed them to be right above all others. Jane's husband and her brother are both physicians, both with high standing in the community. They're both male, revealing that those with respectful and important jobs were almost always male.
"Of course I didn't do anything. Jennie sees to everything now."
Jennie's character is there to emphasize that the narrator, Jane, doesn't fulfill the gender roles set by society at the time.
"Jennie wanted to sleep with me—the sly thing!"
Jennie also starts to become a threat to Jane. She is everything Jane is not, and Jane views her with distaste because Jane interally wishes to be free, and Jennie represents exactly what Jane wishes to escape.
"If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?
My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing."
Jane questions "what is one to do", suggesting that it's typically normal to go along with the notions of men without question. She follows the general opinion of society and does whatever they tell her to do to get better, takes whatever medicine they give, and listens when they tell her that her problems are simple. These two males basically represent men in general, in the sense that they're the one who have the respectable jobs and should not be questioned.
Pattern of the
Wallpaper

"One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin."
"It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions."
Realistically, the wallpaper is simply an ugly pattern. Unpleasing to the eye, with no coherence. It catches attention with its seemingly random lines, and according to Jane the composition doesn't follow any type of artistic rule.
"There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down."
"Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere."
Blank white eyes that never change their viewpoint. White, like the blind. Broken necks and bulging eyes, surely that of a dead person. This pattern in the wallpaper represents those that are content to live out the lives outlined for them, never truly seeing the potential of woman, and the ridiculousness of gender roles. So inclined to live a domesticated life, so robotic and repetitive that it's almost zombie-like, essentially dead to the world.
The pattern of the wallpaper also symbolizes the pattern of oppression of women society follows. It goes on and on, and makes no sense. The continuity of it all follows a set pattern of sexism.
Color of the
Wallpaper

"The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight."
When something is yellowed due to age and decay, it looks gross. Like teeth that have seen many years of smoking, the wallpaper has probably gone quite a long time remaining unclean and abused by time and tenants. Symbolically, this reinforces that gender roles and treatment of mental illness are ugly.
Woman in the
wallpaper

"The front pattern DOES move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!"
"I didn't realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman."
The woman behind in the wallpaper simply wants to be free. She sneaks out at night, where she is able to be free. At night, no one can see her. However, in daylight she is restrained.
"I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?"
The woman represents Jane, as well as woman in general. Those who want to be set free from gender norms; those who want to be able to express themselves freely.
"As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her"
The woman behind the wallpaper and the women who creep all do so at night. When it's dark no one can see them, suggesting that it's embarrassing to do so in light when people are watching. Much like how it was seen as wrong to stand for women's rights and join the suffrage movement. Also, moonlight has multiple attachments to women including the moon cycle relation to a woman's menstrual cycle and the greek moon goddess, Artemis.
The mansion is the place John takes Jane so she can rest in peace. It does not belong to them, and they don't fit in there. Much like how Jane doesn't fit into the housewife role. It's also very secluded, which shows that John was trying to hide Jane away from the public because he may have been embarrassed of Jane's illness.
Creeping
(in the end)
"It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!"
"Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!"
Jane is creeping at the end, becoming the women who she has seen out the window and behind the wallpaper. Generally, being on your knees is a sign of submission, and yet Jane creeps over John. In this scene, she is the one walking over him, she is the one in control in the moment. John has been walking all over Jane the entire story, constantly "putting her in her place". In the creeping in the end, there is a role reversal.
Daylight
"On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance
of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.
By daylight she is subdued, quiet."
"In the daytime it is tiresome and perplexing."
"It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping,
and most women do not creep by daylight."
"I always lock the door when I creep by daylight."
Daylight is when everyone can see whats going on. This is why the woman behind the wallpaper (and Jane) rarely creep by day. They wish for no one to see them. In the same sense that it was taboo to be seen supporting women's rights. To be out and about instead of in the house doing chores. When Jane decides to tear the paper down and ultimately free the woman behind the wallpaper, and herself, its done in the daylight. This can be seen as an admission to her acceptance that she does not fill the common gender roles of the time. She is out where everyone can see her, creeping in daylight.
Writing
"There comes John, and I must put
this away,—he hates to have me write a word."
"I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me."
Writing is Jane's form of expression. The act of restricting her writing further shows how much control was warranted on women. They were not allowed to think for themselves. Allowing Jane to write (and just be herself) would have had her better a lot faster than the rest cure that had been imposed upon her.
Tearing of the
Wallpaper
"I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper."
"Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor."
The tearing of the wallpaper was done to get the trapped woman out. This symbolized tearing away the specific gender roles and judgement Jane received, and the oppression put on women. This was Jane finally giving in, and freeing her emotion.
Windows
"[...] he said what I felt was a DRAUGHT, and shut the window."
"It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children [...]"

The room in which Jane is confined is described as having multiple huge, barred windows. Windows symbolize freedom and opportunity, and John shuts them in one scene. This symbolizes John closing the window of Jane's opportunity and freedom, being the controlling man he is. The bars on the window also symbolize Jane being locked away from her expression. She is jailed, confined to be within the norms upheld by society.
Getting into the
room
In the last scene, when Jane is going insane, she locks the door to her bedroom and throws out the key. When John comes, he at first demands it be broken down. Symbolizing his use of his higher power to get what he wants as a male. Then, ignoring Jane's instruction, he asks her to open the door. Symbolizing that he is still demanding to have control over her, and have her do what he wants instead of fetching the key. Finally, he must relinquish his power and find the key. He must listen to Jane. Jane get's control, and although she gives him that control over opening the door, it was her decision to let him in.
"One"
"John laughs at me, of course, but one
expects that in marriage."
"And what can one do?"
When Jane utilizes "one" instead of saying herself explicitly, she refers to that of all women. This highlights the gender roles of the time, showing how each and every woman was expected to fill such a common role that you could refer to all of them as one. In reality, someone could see this as her simply questioning what anyone would do, but what anyone would do is clear to Jane and that's what leads us to the conclusion of the application of "one" to all women of the time.
Thanks for reading!
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