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What are the primary themes of "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman? 

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user4528855 | (Level 1) eNoter

Posted February 15, 2013 at 5:50 PM via web

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What are the primary themes of "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman? 

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted February 16, 2013 at 6:40 AM (Answer #1)

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote this story in 1892 after suffering from depression after the birth of her first child. A neurologist Dr. Weir Mitchell placed the author on his “ bed rest cure.”  She was not to work or do any kind of intellectual activity; furthermore,  she was to stay in bed most of the day.  After her treatment, Gilman wrote the story “The Yellow Wallpaper” to convince doctors not to use this kind of treatment.

The narrator of the story is the unnamed main character who is suffering from postpartum depression.  By the end of the story, the narrator is completely mentally ill, her focus on the grotesque wallpaper which the narrator believes comes alive.  Thinking that another woman is trapped in the wallpaper, the speaker works to set the woman free.

Repression of women

One theme centers on the repression of women in marriage.  In the late nineteenth century, women were tied to their husbands both financially, emotionally and sexually.  For the most part, women depended on their husbands for almost everything. 

The husband provided the finances and the woman was responsible for everything else in their domestic life.  The woman was responsible for taking care of the house, cleaning, cooking, and washing the clothes and linens.  In addition, the wife bore the children and then raised them usually without much input from the husband.  She was to be at the disposal of the man in every respect. 

If a woman suffered from depression, the doctors  would label her  as hysterical.  Usually the woman would be expected to rest in bed and then "buck up" and go on with her life.

The narrator in this story was under the care of her husband who was also a doctor.  He did not listen to his wife about her feelings or emotions.  Very little communication went on between them.

John, the narrator’s husband, was happy to tell his wife what he thought would pacify her; consequently, as she sank deeper into mental illness, John was completely unaware of her regression. In fact, he treats her much like a child. It was not until he finds her crawling around on the floor with the furniture gnawed on that he passes out as he views his wife’s condition.

Mental Illness

Mental illness is also a primary theme of the story.  The main character has no outlet to focus her time. Since she is already unstable, the narrator sinks deeper into her problems and holds back her rage. 

From the beginning of the time in the summer mansion until the time that her husband finds her in the full throes of insanity, the narrator has focused on the wallpaper in the bedroom. 

...no person touches this paper but Me--not alive! Then I peeled off the paper I could reach standing on the floor.  It sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it.  All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungu growths just shriek with derision.

Initially, the narrator perceives that the wallpaper is dirty and torn.  Later, the pattern begins to bother the speaker.  Her attempts to understand the pattern of the paper holds her fascination. 

Her next level of obsession stems from her seeing a woman who tries to escape the wallpaper pattern by crawling around in the wall.  She begins to see the paper as having bars like a cage,  and in the cage are the heads of women.  Each woman is choked as she tries to leave the cage.  The theme of the horrific wallpaper represents the world that has trapped the woman in an untenable position.

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