What influence does setting have on relations between characters in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Setting plays a crucial role in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as even the title of the story suggests. The title alludes to the annoying wallpaper covering the room in which the narrator mostly resides. She eventually becomes obsessed with the paper and ultimately loses her sanity as a result of this obsession. Thus setting is one of the most important factors in this fascinating story. Its significance could hardly be more obviously emphasized.

The wallpaper, however, is just one of many symbolic aspects of the setting in this story. Others include the following:

  • The story takes place in the “ancestral halls” of a “colonial mansion” – a fact that already implies that the narrator and her husband are wealthy.
  • The narrator describes the mansion as a “most beautiful place” – an ironic description in light of the psychological deterioration she suffers while living there.
  • The narrator says that the mansion

is quite alone standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village.

Symbolically, the house is as isolated as the narrator herself will come to feel.

  • The narrator mentions that the house is surrounded by “walls and gates that lock” – phrasing that foreshadows the kind of symbolic imprisonment she will later feel.
  • The narrator describes the gardens surrounding the house, but she doesn’t visit them. Thus the pastoral language, associated with freedom, seems ironic in light of her own confinement.
  • The narrator mentions that the greenhouses on the estate “are all broken now” – language that foreshadows her own mental breakdown.
  • The narrator mentions that “the place has been empty for years” – language that foreshadows the sense of isolation and emptiness she will increasingly come to feel there.
  • The narrator likes to think of the house as ghostly, which is ironic since she will soon feel haunted there.
  • The narrator wanted to live in a downstairs room

that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window, . . . but John [the narrator’s husband] would not hear of it.

Instead the narrator is symbolically distanced from contact with life and nature, and this happens to her precisely because of her husband’s power.

  • John mentions the possibility that he may take a room separate from the narrator – another way in which details of setting emphasize her isolation.
  • John suggests that his wife live in the “nursery at the top of the house” – a detail symbolizing the ways in which he treats her like an infant or child.
  • The nursery has bars on the windows, symbolizing the ways in which John has in a sense imprisoned his wife.
  • The dilapidated condition of the room foreshadows the steady deterioration of the narrator’s mind.
  • The wallpaper – which seems chaotic in design – symbolizes the mental chaos into which the narrator will descend.

One could easily extend this list, but by now the point is clear: the setting of this story is crucially important to the symbolism of the story, especially to the symbolic relations among the characters. John has done everything possible to isolate and confine his wife.

Something extra: This story obviously lends itself to interpretation from both feminist and psychoanalytic points of view. In a sense, by the end of the story the narrator has lost her sense of reason and reality (associated with the Freudian "ego") and has succumbed to her subconscious emotions (associated with the Freudian "id").

 

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