Self-Repression in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

An element of the (female) gothic that is very evident in The Yellow Wallpaper is the recurring theme of repression. In one sense, the main character, through her confinement to the room with the yellow wallpaper, is being forced to repress all of her creative and intellectual urges. She isn’t allowed to leave the room, write, do any sort of physical activity or have human contact with others. This deprivation of all stimuli is arguably what causes her to go insane, as all of her repressed energies manifest in the observations of her immediate surroundings i.e. the wallpaper.

One element of the story that struck me was how absent John, the main character’s husband, is. On the one hand, he takes on the role of the male oppressor; he is the one who has ferreted the main character away to this mansion and is urging her to complete the rest cure. Yet in the immediate story, he is rarely physically present; most of the time, he is alluded to through the narrator’s own mental projections of what he might say or think. Some examples are:

  • John would suspect something at once
  • And I know John would think it absurd
  • John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least.

In this sense, ‘John’ embodies all of the societal pressures and expectations of the woman’s role that the narrator has internalised. From when the husband is physically there, his role is less that of the villain and more the doting husband who wants his wife’s mental condition to improve. This situation reminded me of the poem from Christina’s lecture about the imaginary (male) obstacle standing in the narrator’s path. Most of the villainous image surrounding John comes from the narrator’s paranoid ramblings (I am getting a little afraid of John). Even at the short story’s conclusion, John’s efforts to get into the room could be expressing his fear for his wife’s well-being rather than sinister intentions. Even when he enters the room and faints, the narrator simply continues ‘creeping’ around the room; John as a physical entity carries little importance, it seems. Through this aspect of the story, Gilman could be commenting on the internalised sexism that women at her time were undoubtedly feeling: the phenomenon where women believe and internalise the gender expectations and stereotypes in society around them and fail to act or stand up for themselves because of it. The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper is technically free to go; she isn’t technically locked into the “atrocious nursery”, and at the story’s end actually locks herself in and throws the key away, which could be construed symbolically. At one point, the narrator laments: I wish John would take me away from here. So although she wants to escape her situation she doesn’t feel capable of doing so on her own.

Another noteworthy aspect of The Yellow Wallpaper is the sense of self-denial that I caught onto in my first reading of the story. The “nursery” in which the narrator is staying seemed to me from the very first descriptions revealed to a reader like a prison cell rather than a children’s playroom. These observations innocently made by the narrator seemed very sinister to me: from the “barred windows” and “nailed down” bed to the “gate at the head of the stairs”. From the manner in which the narrator speaks of herself in relation to the room, it seemed to me as if she notices this prison-like aspect of it, yet chooses to deny it:

  • It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.
  • It is stripped off the paper – in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach
  • How those children did tear about here! This bedstead is fairly gnawed!

This final quote is especially ironic because shortly thereafter the narrator “bit off a little piece at one corner” of the bed. This denial, in combination with the narrator’s manifestation of her internalised sexist ideas through the John character, could be Gilman’s way of criticising the failure of women in her time to become aware of their oppressed and marginalised situation and work to change it. This aim of informing women was without doubt one of Gilman’s purposes through her work, also expressed through her publication of The Forerunner and her feminist novel Our Androcentric Culture.

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