In "The Yellow Wallpaper," what is the signifcance of the woman behind the yellow wallpaper?

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In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the unnamed woman narrating the short story is virtually a prisoner in a small yellow room with horrendous yellow wallpaper. She is staying at this small summer house with her husband, newborn baby, and sister in an attempt to get some rest and recouperate from her post-partum depression. She is not allowed to see her baby, read, write, or do anything that may strain her, so out of boredom, she resorts to studying the hideous yellow wallpaper.

After weeks of meticulous observation, she starts to see eyes peering our from the paper, staring at her. She believes that the paper knows her better than anyone else. Finally, she sees the form of a woman hiding in the pattern. The narrator notices that the pattern is double, bars in front and an intricate display behind. The woman is behind the bars and is shaking them, trying to get out. Full of empathy, the narrator locks herself in the room and desperately tries to get the woman out by ripping the paper.

Because the woman in the yellow paper is trapped and alone, she symbolizes the narrator in her incarceration. Both women are trying to escape their "jail" unsuccessfully. The woman in the wallpaper is behind bars, unable to be heard. The narrator's prison is both physical and intellectual, as her husband controls her actions and words. He undermines her in every way and trivializes her fears and desires.

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Two weeks after arriving at their summer rental house the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper" has been gazing at the walls of her bedroom long enough to "see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to sulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design." This hint of what will develop into a fully-formed, active woman "behind" the "outside pattern" of the wallpaper reveals how gradually the "treatment" prescribed by her physician-husband the narrator is undergoing is in actuality degrading her mental health.

Months later the narrator is convinced that the figure in the "dim sub-pattern" is a woman "as plain as can be" and in the final week of her stay at the house the narrator notices many of these women "creeping" around the grounds outside the house. In the chilling final paragraph of the story, the narrator takes the place of the original figure by walking around and around the room pressed against the wall while she wonders about the women "if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?"

There are at least three significant reasons Gilman included the woman behind the yellow wallpaper in her short story: literary genre, psychoanalytic analysis, and feminist critique.

First, Gilman's short story draws on the genre of Gothic literature in which supernatural events amplify a sense of foreboding. The mysterious and not-quite-human woman behind the wallpaper is a strong Gothic element.

Secondly, from a psychoanalytic perspective, the woman behind the wallpaper functions as a symptom of the narrator's illness--she is evidence of the dissociative or out-of-body state suffered by the narrator at the conclusion of the story. As the final paragraph reveals, the narrator has lost her sense of self and now claims to actually be the woman in the wallpaper circling the room, while the original figure has multiplied and spread outside to creep around at will.

Finally, the woman behind the wallpaper provides a broader context for Gilman's larger critique of the role women, particularly those of the leisure class, were relegated to by husbands and male doctors during the Victorian era. In her repetitive creeping around and her shaking the "bars" of the pattern the figure represents the circumscribed conditions of 19th-century women's lives in England. Indeed, it is the "pattern" that "strangles so" that keeps her subdued during the day, perhaps Gilman's reference to the societal codes of conduct that women were encouraged to conform to, codes that came at the expense of self-expression and mental health.