“The Yellow Wallpaper” is, on its surface, about a woman driven insane by post-partum depression and a dangerous treatment. However, an examination of the protagonist’s characterization reveals that the story is fundamentally about identity. The protagonist’s projection of an imaginary woman — which at first is merely her shadow — against the bars of the wallpaper’s pattern fragments her identity, internalizing the conflict she experiences and eventually leading to the complete breakdown of the boundaries of her identity and that of her projected shadow.
Constantly alone and forbidden to leave her bedroom, the lack of something to occupy her time causes the protagonist to become delusional. With “barred windows for little children and rings and things in the walls” the room is much like her prison (Gilman 174). Even the pattern on the wallpaper (which at first was completely random) “at night in any kind of light, twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all moonlight, becomes bars” as if she is caged (Gilman 182). Both times here she refers to aspects of her room as bars. As she begins to feel imprisoned she projects her feelings onto the wallpaper, but the idea of the room being her prison goes from figurative to more literal as the isolation deepens her need for an escape.
Not just the wallpaper, but everything about her bedroom (including those that occupy it with her) sets the stage for the protagonist’s insanity. When her husband John says: “bless her little heart; she shall be as sick as she pleases” we catch glimpses of his childlike treatment of her (Gilman 181). The use of the word “little” to describe her heart gives the image of a small body to go along with it, like that of an infant. The fact that he says she is “as sick as she pleases” reflects the way a child conjures up illnesses to escape certain chores they do not wish to do. This would make sense because he also diagnosis her with “temporary nervous depression;” which is what was said about women who suspected of trying to escape housework and sexual duties (Gilman 173). This childlike treatment of her, and his misdiagnosis, is the cause of her segregation; which is the root cause of her eventual insanity.
By the end of the story the woman behind the wallpaper is an elaborate hallucination, but in the beginning she is simply a shadow. At first this woman is simply a “formless figure sulking about behind the silly and conspicuous front design,” much like the blurred shadow that all objects possess (Gilman 178). The fact that the figure is at first “formless” suggests that there is a definite evolution of this being, since eventually she claims to clearly see a woman; describing the wall as “silly and conspicuous” hints to the pattern being something very loud and noticeable… but not threatening. This also changes by the end of the story when the wallpaper seems to plague her. Therefore, her eventual personality transition is something that seems to happen slowly as her isolation in the room takes hold of her mind.
It is only when the mental illness takes a stronger hold on her that the form takes on a distinctive shape. With the constant loneliness causing the protagonist to obsess over her surroundings, the mirage begins to contour. To confirm this she writes in her journal: “I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman” (Gilman 180). She does not seem to waiver at all in thinking that the “thing” behind the wallpaper is specifically a woman. Instead of recognizing just a human form she specifically deems it female. The reasoning for this is that the outline of the form is not only her shadow, but a projected being of what she wishes it to be. Calling this form a woman gives her an avenue of escape now that the two are of the same kind. The “dim sub pattern” is that of the bars which gives way to the illusion of her shadow, which has now become an actual person to her, being entrapped behind it. This transformation from formless shadow to hidden woman gives way for her transferal of identity.
Initially, the shadows of many things appear to her as the woman behind the paper. More specifically she claims to see her in the garden “on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines” (Gilman 186). These figures could very well be the shadows of the many things growing in the garden that she has morphed, in her mind, into the shape of the artificial woman. The fact that she imagines the woman being able to escape during the day is most likely a reflection of her own desires, as if she lives vicariously through this fanciful creature. Evidence of her jealousness is shown in the sections where she begins to mirror the woman’s actions; creeping in her room during the day (Gilman 186). The hallucination becomes a venue for her to be free of the reformatory she has been living in. Although the figure appears to be behind the wallpaper, from the outside looking in the protagonist would be the one behind the bars. The room with the yellow wallpaper is her jail cell, and night after night the woman in the paper taunts her with her freedom until she has ripped away yards and yards of it.
There is a shift, however, when her motives for the woman in the wallpaper seem to change. She writes in her journal that “she has a rope so that if the woman does get out, and tries to get away, she can tie her” (Gilman 187). This moment is when her identity is spliced; the fact that she wishes to tie the woman reveals this. Instead of wishing to free the poor woman, she now plans on capturing her; thereby proving a change is taking place since her motives have suddenly altered. This switch is confirmed when she looks outside and ponders “if they all came out of the wallpaper as she did?” (Gilman 188). Using the word “they” implies that where there was once one woman, there are now many. It’s as if in this new mind she is able to see the world differently and reveal the others like the woman in the paper. Clearly she is no longer herself. Now, in the mind of her hallucination, she begins to worry if “she shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night,” this ties back to her observation that the woman creeps about during the day but is trapped behind the bars again during the night (Gilman 188). Now that the wallpaper has been removed she has escaped and the narrator is free to retreat into the hallucination’s mind.
There is a single part of the story that reflects the breakdown of her identity all in its own, and that is when she writes: “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman 189). It’s not easy to catch because of her sister-in-law Jennie, perhaps this is on purpose, but we have never heard the name Jane before. In the entire story the narrator is giving her personal account of what’s going on so we never hear her name, until the very end when this excerpt appears. Jane is the narrator, and therefore the only logical explanation would be that the person speaking now is the hallucination; which of course is also Jane. It would seem they have switched places where the woman behind the wallpaper has become Jane’s new frame of mind, and the old imprisoned Jane is now on the outside looking in.
One might assume that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is simply about a woman driven insane by post-partum depression and constant isolation, but it is so much more than that. It is the illusion of the protagonist’s shadow against the bars of the wallpaper’s pattern that drives her to complete insanity; and eventually into believing she and the so called women in the wallpaper have traded places. This story is beautifully disturbing in the sense that the content is revolving around something so sinister, and yet the writing and plot are so intriguing. It has a lot to say about the treatment of women in late 1800’s, and just how far the human mind before it snaps.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Seagull Reader. 2nd.2. Joseph Kelly. New York : W W Norton & Co Inc, 2008. Print.