Themes and Meanings
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is partly autobiographical. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote it after she fled from her husband with her infant daughter to California. More important than the story’s similarities to Gilman’s own experience is the larger issue of a woman’s right to be creative and autonomous. The story can be seen as advocating a woman’s right to act and speak for herself; the alternative clearly leads to madness, as it does for Jane.
At the time of the story, most people believed that women were delicate and prone to madness if overstressed. A common treatment for their presumed mental illnesses combined isolation, rest, and inactivity—the very things that cause Jane’s breakdown. From her own account, readers know that Jane enjoys writing and reading, yet John considers these to be dangerous activities to be avoided at all costs. At that time, it was common to remove a depressed woman from all sources of stress or sensory stimulation; women such as Jane were separated from their children, kept in bed, hand-fed, bathed, and massaged. It is precisely this type of treatment that drives Jane to begin hallucinating. The silent madness into which Jane withdraws is not only her reaction to the cure that men prescribe for her, but her only available form of rebellion against these tyrannies.
As Jane becomes more distanced from the world and from any source of sensory stimulation, she begins to hallucinate. Her visions of the creeping women and the woman trapped behind her bedroom’s wallpaper symbolize her own binding and oppression. It is the rest treatment prescribed by physicians such as her husband and brother that metaphorically cause the women whom Jane sees to creep like infants rather than walk as independent adults. Jane’s rest cure becomes her own wallpaper prison, one that simultaneously drives her insane and pushes her to assert her own rebellious selfhood. By freeing the woman from behind the wallpaper, Jane succeeds in freeing herself. Sadly, however, her mental state has deteriorated so badly that she has become truly insane and will remain utterly dependent on her husband.
At the story’s conclusion, the narrator locks herself in her room and ties a rope around her waist so that she cannot be removed. Jane, the woman from behind the yellow wallpaper, creeps about the edges of her prison, a room that she will now use as a fortress. It is significant that Jane waits to reveal her name to readers until after her husband faints in horror at seeing her reduced to a crawling madwoman.