Irony In The Yellow Wallpaper

What is the irony in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

There many examples of verbal, dramatic, and situational irony in "The Yellow Wallpaper." The most profound irony, however, is that John, who is certain of his superior scientific knowledge, turns a sane and healthy woman into a severely mentally ill one through his disastrous course of treatment.

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One irony of Charlotte Perkins's disturbing story is the fact that if the narrator were empowered to choose her means of recovery, then she probably would have cured herself, rather than having fallen victim to terrible repression and later to what one critic calls "the seduction of insanity." Her nervous...

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One irony of Charlotte Perkins's disturbing story is the fact that if the narrator were empowered to choose her means of recovery, then she probably would have cured herself, rather than having fallen victim to terrible repression and later to what one critic calls "the seduction of insanity." Her nervous condition worsens because neither the husband, who is a physician nor the attending doctor understands her sensitive and artistic nature. Thus, the two physicians are a negative, rather than a positive influence on her.

When the narrator, who suffers from post-partum depression, is prescribed fresh air and exercise and is forbidden to "work" until she is well again, the narrator feels differently about her cure. She is convinced that "congenial work, with excitement and change," would benefit her more. As an outlet from her depression, she tries writing; however, because she has to do this activity secretly not to suffer "heavy opposition," she becomes overwrought. She thinks,

I sometimes fancy that ...if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus--but John says the very worst thing I can do is think about my condition....

Ironically, it would be good for her to socialize and to think about her condition and what she can do for herself. If she were given agency to work around the house or to go out onto the piazza with "roses all over," the narrator would be distracted from her depression. Instead, she is confined to a room she does not like, preferring to have stayed in one that is on the first level. Then, when this sensitive woman tells her husband that there is something strange about the house, he dismisses her feelings, saying that she has merely felt a draft.

It becomes apparent that the narrator is an intuitive woman of an artistic nature whose husband has no understanding of her. Moreover, he imposes his will upon her until her repression in the "atrocious nursery," where she is made to stay, worsens. For she hates the "lurid orange" in some parts of the room and the "sickly sulfur tint" in others. When she asks her husband to repaper the room, he refuses, telling her that there is nothing worse than "letting it get the better of [her]." He also tells his wife that her imaginative power and habit of story-making should be checked by her will because they are sure to lead to "all manner of excited fancies."

As she is left alone in this room while her husband is away on medical calls, sometimes even in the evening, the narrator has nothing to do. She is also prevented from caring for her baby because she becomes "nervous" with her child. While she feels imprisoned in this room with "inharmonious furniture" and torn and irregular, ugly wallpaper, her creative imagination that has not been afforded an outlet becomes perverted like that of a terrorized child. The frightened woman begins to imagine a "strange, provoking, formless sort of figure" behind that "silly and conspicuous front design" of the wallpaper. Eventually, her request to be taken away from this "hideous woman," who is herself in the woman's mind, is denied by her husband. It is then that the narrator begins to succumb to "the seduction of insanity." Ironically, rather than bringing about the cure for this woman's depression, both the physician and the husband extend it, driving her to insanity.

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There are several ironic aspects to the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," which concern the narrator's treatment and the mental anguish that she suffers. While the narrator's husband insists that the best treatment for his wife's physical and mental health is for her to stay secluded in an upstairs bedroom of a country manor, his treatment has the opposite effect on his wife's well-being. The narrator suffers from a lack of social interaction, physical exercise, and mentally stimulating activities, as she stays secluded in the upstairs bedroom. Ironically, John believes that secluding his wife and preventing her from physically exerting herself will cure her, but his treatment only makes her situation worse. As the story progresses, the narrator begins to lose her mind. However, every time the narrator's husband visits his wife, he believes that she is getting better. Ironically, the narrator is completely delusional despite her outer appearance.

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The greatest source of irony in "The Yellow Wallpaper" stems from the negative impact that the narrator's treatment has on her well-being.  Medical treatment is very much intended to make a patient better and is prescribed by physicians to better a person's physical and mental health.  However, in "The Yellow Wallpaper" the treatment that the narrator receives has the opposite impact, making the narrator's condition significantly worse.  The irony is further illuminated when one considers what might have happened if the narrator had received no treatment at all.  It is likely that having been allowed to go on with her normal life and interact with others she would have recovered significantly and more quickly than she does with medical treatment.  Moreover, this is especially ironic given that the treatment that she receives stands in direct opposition to what is generally recommended for women in her condition (walks in the outdoors and communication with others).  This connects strongly to the underlying thematic messages of the story because it demonstrates how men in control of women's lives often suppress the true and natural desires that lead to female fulfillment. 

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"The Yellow Wallpaper" abounds in irony—dramatic, situational, and even, at the beginning, verbal. When the narrator is thinking relatively clearly, she describes her marriage ironically, saying that one expects one's husband to laugh at one.

The dramatic irony of the story is most pronounced in the narrator's description of the room where she is incarcerated. The reader who is paying attention will quickly realize that her conjectures that the room may have been a nursery, a playroom, or a gymnasium are naive. A more plausible explanation for the rings on the walls, the bars on the windows, and the furniture nailed to the floor is that the room has been used for the confinement of a mentally ill person.

The most profound irony in the story, however, is situational. The narrator initially believes that her condition—"temporary nervous depression"—is not very serious, and she has a perfectly rational prescription for it: "congenial work, with excitement and change." It takes the careful treatment and scientific knowledge of her husband, the physician, to drive her insane, whereas her simple common sense would almost certainly have preserved her sanity. John scoffs at his wife's ideas, and she accepts his supposedly superior knowledge, but it is John's intellectual arrogance that finally destroys the mind of his wife, turning her into a lunatic by treating her like one.

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