What is the significance of the setting in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?
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Interestingly, the unnamed narrator of Gilman's "The Yellow Wallppaper" begins her narrative with this description of the house that is her medical retreat,
A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house....
Further, she describes,
It is quite alone, quite three miles from the village, standing well back from the road, ...there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for gardeners and people.
Clearly, the setting holds much significance as it indicates the isolation to which the woman will soon be subjected, as well as a sense of imprisonment. The narrator herself is prescient as she feels "something strange" about the place in addition to her dislike for her room. She prefers one downstairs that has lovely chintz curtains with roses all over the window and a door that opens onto the piazza; however, her husband John confines her to an upstairs room that has bars on the windows and a "repellent" and "smouldering unclean yellow" wallpaper which she claims is the worst she has ever seen. It is, she observes ,
One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin....[It] commit[s] every artistic sin....
At first repulsed aesthetically by the design and color of the wallpaper, the unnerved narrator, left to "rest" by herself, finds little else to focus upon than this paper that is hideous to her. And, with the narrator's internalizations upon her mental and physical state, she begins significantly to project her inner feelings onto the paper. In an eerie foreshadowing of the final crisis, the narrator describes the paper with continuing prescience,
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.
This hideous paper becomes for the narrator symbolic as she envisions a woman who, like herself, must hide and creep behind the "patterns" of the Victorian femme covert laws that suppress wives. In her effort to free herself from her repression and depression, the narrator tries to free the envisioned woman who is in need of rescue. But, in this effort, the narrator sacrifices her own identity. For, while she has unraveled the pattern of her life in unraveling the paper, she has sacrificed her own personal identity. For, after her husband retrieves the key and opens the room, he sees his wife continuing her "creeping" on the floor:
"I've got out at last," said I, "in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!"
Now, the narrator perceives herself as the woman trapped behind the paper and her former being is "Jane." As in her prescient remark, the woman has committed a suicide of her personality [Jane, which is her name] "plunging off at outrageous angles," and
destroyed her own identity in the "unheard of contradiction" of becoming the woman freed from the repressive patterns of Victorian womanhood.
The yellow wallpaper is, indeed, significant in the narrator's journey from repression to independence. But, the cost has been "uncertain" and "at outrageous angles," so much so that the narrator is disassociated from her true self in a suicide of her mind that leaves her, like the house, "quite alone" and in "a separate house" from her husband and others.
The narrator's view of the setting is colored (literally and figuratively speaking) by her limited and troubled perspective. That is to say, she sees the yellow wallpaper in the room as a particularly evil and disturbing presence, whereas it actually may not be so. because the whole story is from her point of view, the readers gradually see the ways in which her mind is affected by the yellow wall paper. the room that she is in could be a nursery, as she claims to have been told, or it could be a room of confinement for mental patients (it has "rings and things" on the walls). The isolation of the house, and the room, enhances her isolation and distance, both psychological and emotional. The "smouldering, unclean" yellow of the wallpaper, the form of the woman trapped behind it, the "bulbous eyes" watching over it, all reflect the narrator's hysteria and paranoia, which increases as the story progresses.