Charlotte Perkins Gilman\'s The Yellow Wallpaper is a commentary on the male oppression of women in a patriarchal society. However, the story itself presents an interesting look at one woman\'s struggle to deal with both physical and mental confinement. This theme is particularly thought-provoking when read in today\'s context where individual freedom is one of our most cherished rights. This analysis will focus on two primary issues: 1) the many vivid images Gilman uses to illustrate the physical and symbolic confinement the narrator endures during her illness; and 2) the overall effect of, and her reaction to, this confinement.
The Yellow Wallpaper begins with the narrator\'s description of the physically confining elements surrounding her. The story is cast in an isolated hereditary estate, set back from the road and located three miles from town. The property boasts protective hedges that surround the garden, walls that surround the estate, and locked gates which guarantee seclusion. Even the connecting garden represents confinement, with box-bordered paths and grape-covered arbors. This isolation motif continues within the mansion itself. Although she preferred the downstairs room with roses all over the windows that opened on the piazza, the narrator finds herself relegated to an out of the way dungeon-like nursery on the second floor, appropriately equipped with "rings and things" in the walls. Windows in each direction provide glimpses of the garden, arbors, bushes, and trees. The bay is visible, as is a private wharf that adjoins the estate. These views reinforce isolationism; they can be seen from the room, but not touched or experienced. There is a gate at the head of the stairs, presumably to keep the children contained in their play area. Additionally, the bed is immovable as it has been nailed to the floor. It is here that the narrator secretly describes her slow decent into madness.
Although the physical confinement drains the narrator\'s strength and will, the mental and emotional confinement symbolized in the story play an important role in her ultimate fall into dementia. By being forced to be her own company, she is confined within her mind. Likewise, part of the narrator\'s mental confinement stems from her recognition of her physical confinement. The depression the narrator has experienced associated with child bearing is mentally confining as well. Specifically, she cannot control her emotions or manage her guilt over her inability to care for her child. These structures of confinement contribute to the rapid degeneration of her faculties.
As the wife of a prominent physician in the late nineteenth century, the narrator\'s assumption of the typical female role illustrates one aspect of the symbolic confinement present within both the story and the society. She is subservient and deferential to her husband John who enjoys the power traditionally associated with his sex and additional authority afforded him by his status as a doctor. Jean Kennard notes, "By keeping her underemployed and isolated, John effectively ensures his wife\'s dependence on him" (81). John\'s control over his wife is typical of the control most men had over women in the late nineteenth century. He decides everything on her behalf, including what room she will stay in and who she will be allowed to see. He diagnoses her postpartum depression as a "temporary nervous depression--a slight hysterical tendency" and in doing so, diminishes her complaints and demeans her individuality. His prescribed treatment is worse than the disease; every hour is scheduled, she is forbidden to write, told what to think, and prohibited from acting as mother to her child.
John\'s behavior illustrates his covert efforts to control his wife as well. He looks to the narrator\'s brother, who is also a physician, to validate his diagnosis and prescribed cure, making it even more difficult for the narrator to challenge the prescription herself. He repeatedly diminishes her by laughing at her and not taking her grievances seriously. The narrator complains "John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him." John\'s contempt for his wife\'s ideas is blatant; he refers to her as a "little girl," and when she requests that she be moved to a different room downstairs, he "took [her] in his arms and called [her] a blessed little goose, and said he would