Women were slaves in the early twentieth century, slaves to social conventions and a male dominated business world. Very few women were able to escape the specific roles assigned to them by their gender and social status. Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” wrote specifically about the female problem from the perspective of what happens when a woman finds herself unable to conform to the norms set by her society. By examining how she wrote about the theme of female subjugation behind a male-dominated conception, Charlotte Perkins Gilman demonstrated how the non-conforming female character has no choice but to fail.
The woman protagonist, who never provides her name, is instructed to remain isolated in an upper room of a remote country house, which she does although reluctantly. As she confides to the reader, she actually felt that another room might be better for her, but this idea was overruled by her solicitous and educated husband and doctor as he continues to put his own desires first. “I wanted one downstairs that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings! but John would not hear of it. He said there was only one window and not room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another.” The room she is placed in is thought to have originally been a nursery, with bars on the windows and old faded yellow wallpaper attached to the walls. This association only serves to highlight her helpless position within the house, particularly as she mentions, even very early in the story, “He [John] is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction. I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me.” Through the course of the story, the woman transforms from an individual who adores the outside and green growing things expressing thoughts and feelings of her own to the horrifying and creeping artificial creation of man as he has shaped her.
The yellow wallpaper itself also plays a large role in the progression of the woman’s degeneration into a mindless creeping thing as she begins to see women creeping around inside the pattern. She understands that these ghosts of women are trying to escape the oppression they, too, have experienced. “Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern – it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.” Because she, too, cannot escape from the confining room in which she has been housed, the woman becomes completely insane, peeling the wallpaper off as high as she can reach in an effort to set the women, and herself free, and then creeping around the walls herself when she discovers that the oppressing, strangling pattern is not the pattern of the wallpaper, but the pattern of male oppression that has held sway for so long.
The story stands as a statement against the male oppression of women experienced throughout much of history, but particularly as it was still experienced in the late 19th century when this story was written. Regardless of what the female protagonist knows of herself instinctively, her opinion has absolutely no bearing upon what will happen to her as the men in her life determine what she will do and where she will stay. As she says herself, she is hardly allowed to move without having first gained special permission to do so from her husband. Because this thinking woman, fond of beauty and the natural world, is forced into such an unnatural, mindless and grotesque position, she becomes exactly what the men have made of her, a shifting, creeping, colorless and dusty creature shuffling in mindless activity around the perimeters of her confinement space.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. (1899). The Yellow Wallpaper. Boston: Small & Maynard.