Why is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "Yellow Wallpaper" an accurate depiction of the oppression of women in the 19th century? How is oppression represented in the setting, characters,...

Why is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "Yellow Wallpaper" an accurate depiction of the oppression of women in the 19th century? How is oppression represented in the setting, characters, symbols, etc.?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The theme of oppression of women can certainly be seen all throughout Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," particularly in the oppressive nature of the husband and in the symbol of the yellow wallpaper.

The husband can particularly be seen as oppressive in disbelieving the protagonist of the story is actually ill other than having "temporary nervous depression." Because he disbelieves she is really ill, he also asserts he knows the best course of action to make her feel better, which is "phosphates or phosphites ..., and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and [she is] absolutely forbidden to 'work.'" However, the protagonist disagrees with his decisions; she even feels that being able to work and having some excitement will make her feel better.  

He even dictates what room will be best for her to stay in in the house he's rented in the country. He chooses the nursery on the top floor because it has many windows even though it is very ugly and depressing. She begs him to let her have one of the pretty rooms downstairs, but he refuses, a refusal that eventually drives her mad.

Not only do the husband's actions and attitude represent oppression, so does the yellow wallpaper the protagonist detests to the point that it drives her mad. The color yellow itself can symbolize many things. When people are ill, particularly ill in the liver, they turn yellow; hence, yellow can symbolize illness, an illness the husband uses as an excuse to oppress his wife. Also, psychologically speaking, while yellow is also known to be an "optimistic and cheerful" color, it can also represent "impatience, criticism, and cowardice" ("Understanding the Meaning of Colors in Color Psychology"). Hence, it can be said that one reason why the yellow wallpaper drives her so made is because she sees it as representing her husband's criticism of her and her own cowardice to assert control over her situation; she also sees it as representing the dichotomy between the depressed state she is in and the cheerful state she should be and wants to be in.

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