What is the main idea of "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

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In the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the narrator is brought to a colonial mansion by her husband, John, for a rest cure. John is a physician, and he believes that isolation and a surcease from domestic activities will help his wife get over her "nervous depression" and "slight hysterical tendency." He relegates her to an upstairs room with garish yellow wallpaper. As the story progresses, the woman becomes more and more obsessed with the paper and convinced that there is a woman trapped behind it. In the end, it appears that she has gone insane: she imagines that she has "freed" the woman from behind the wallpaper and, simultaneously, that she is that woman.

The story has been subject to various interpretations over the years since it was first published. According to Gilman, the main idea of the story is that the woman is being mistreated in her isolation and lack of activity. Gilman wanted to protest this form of treatment, which was common for women at the time. Instead of doing nothing, the woman should have increased her activities or had her own freedom to choose how to spend her time.

Gilman was writing from experience. She herself suffered from melancholy and a nervous breakdown, and a renowned doctor who specialized in nervous diseases prescribed bed rest and a complete absence of artistic activity. After three months of getting worse, Gilman defied the doctor's orders and resumed work. She wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" to show how wrong it was to treat women as she was treated. She later found a female doctor, Mary Putnam Jacobi, who prescribed increased mental and physical activity for women suffering from depression. In an article explaining why she had written "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman writes,

It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.

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The main idea of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" is the subordination of women to men and the dehumanizing treatment historically suffered by the former at the hands of the latter. Early in Gilman's story, which is told in the first person, the narrator laments the inability or unwillingness of her physician husband to respect and understand her condition:

John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster. You see, he does not believe I am sick!

Women in most cultures or societies have been treated as intellectually as well as physically inferior, and their roles in society had, for many centuries, been limited by these prejudices. Gilman's protagonist is condemned by virtue of her gender to remain a virtual prisoner in her own home, the gradual deterioration of her mental state being a direct result of the frustrations she endures. When she finally breaks and tears emotionally at the wallpaper lining her room, it is a futile effort at freeing herself from confinement that, the reader can be assured, would not exist were the character a male.

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At heart, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a critique of women's position in nineteenth-century society. The narrator of the story suffers from what seems like post-partum depression, and she is forced by her husband and her doctor to take the traditional "rest cure" for all female ailments. This nameless woman is forbidden to read, write, or leave her room, and her thoughts begin to prey upon her.

This character's helplessness illustrates how powerless women were during this time in history. The woman has no money of her own, no social identity beyond being her husband's wife, and no control over her own actions. While Gilman's original audience tended to view the piece as merely a "horror story" about madness, it is regarded today as a landmark of feminist fiction.

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