What does the woman symbolize in Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Interestingly, Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses the conventions of the Gothic horror story to present the psychological entrapment forced upon postpartum women as well as the repressive state of women in marriages where they have been prevented from reaching their full potential by being held in a state of childish dependency as was prevalent in the Victorian Age. Thus, in "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator, who is under the care of Dr. Weir Mitchell, has had complete bed rest prescribed for her after giving birth. Because she is to follow the "resting cure," she is forbidden to walk in the garden or write in her journal or talk with someone.

Such a cure the narrator finds utterly intolerable. When she gazes out a window and sees a lovely garden, she longs to walk there; inside, she must look at the furniture that is "no worse than inharmonious." But it is the yellow wallpaper that she finds unsymmetrical and most disturbing. As she is made to remain in the room with this hideous paper, the narrator becomes "angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness" of the pattern. In every direction she sees "unblinking eyes."

After repression of her strong imaginative power, the narrator constantly longs for a mental or emotional outlet, but is given none. This forced activity dooms her because then with her thwarted imagination, she begins to envision a woman trapped behind the paper. This woman behind the yellow wallpaper represents the narrator, who is trapped by society's conventions and is completely misunderstood to the point that her imaginative power is so repressed that she must retreat to a "safe place" where she can exercise her mind. There, too, she feels some control. When she envisions her inner soul as a woman trapped behind the hideous pattern, she feels compelled to free her, so she creeps along the floor, eventually peeling off yards and yards of the paper, hoping for a psychological release.

"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."

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