In "The Yellow Wallpaper," which is more injurious to the narrator--the psychological demons or the societal demons the narrator faces?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Indubitably, the setting of Victorian repression is much more damaging to the protagonist than the post-partum depression that she suffers. In fact, the title underscores the tremendous impact of environment upon the unnamed narrator; for the wallpaper completely surrounds the protagonist, denoting the theme of Victorian confinement and entrapment for women of the age. And, as the central image, the yellow wallpaper--the color of doors that once belonged to traitors and criminals in France--aptly symbolizes the social repression of the narrator.

With its hideousness of tone and lack of symmetry, the wallpaper credibly effects the mental rebellion of Gilman's repressed woman who has an aritistic eye and soul. Were she left to her own devices, the protagonist could effect her own cure by walking in the garden as she mentions her delight in the garden with its "riotous old-fashioned flowers," and bushes and through writing and having visits from Henry and Julia, two "stimulating people." Instead, she is confined to a room with barred windows like those of a prison. Unlike the "pretty rooms" downstairs; this one has "horrid" paper, the furniture is "no worse than inharmonious," the floor is scratched and "gouged and splintered" while the plaster is "dug out." The large ponderous bed "looks as if it had been through the wars."  Above all, the wallpaper offends the protagonist's sense of the symmetry as the paper is not arranged "on any law or radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry."

Added to her torturous confinement, the woman of Gilman's story has an authoritative husband who is completely insensitive to her needs and wants. Following the advice of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the husband, John, laughs at his wife's requests and tells her that she has "a slight hysterical tendency" that requires complete rest with work of any kind forbidden to her. So, while she desires "more society and stimulus," John tells her such is "the very worst thing"; he directs all her actions as he is permitted under the femme covert law of the Victorian Age. He belittles her feelings, declaring 

"nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies." 

Surreptitiously, the protagonist writes in her journal after days of confinement; however, since her unrecognized suffering has now taken direction into delusion as she blames herself--"I am a comparative burden already!"  She,then. projects her feelings of inadequacy and depression onto the figure that she perceives behind the prison wallpaper of yellow and bars and begins to feel suicidal.  Finally, she decides to free the women creeping with her behind the paper and she herself creeps around the room until John discovers her, mentally and spiritually damaged by the gothic horror of her confinement. 


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The Yellow Wallpaper

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