The theme of freedom and free will in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” pertains to the narrator and the woman in the yellow wallpaper. The captivity narrative focuses on the experiences of the narrator during her confinement in the nursery that has the yellow wallpaper. Through the first-person point of view, Gilman’s narrator embodies the theme of freedom and free will, including the oppression and limitation of freedom and free will. This feminist literary work paints a picture of women’s freedom and autonomy in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and relates to the reader’s experiences regarding this theme. Gilman presents characters that the reader can find in daily life. In this way, “The Yellow Wallpaper” transcends time and generational boundaries. This feminist short story remains relevant as long as themes like freedom and free will remain among the social issues that people experience in society.
With the thematic view of freedom and free will, “The Yellow Wallpaper” presents Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s experiences and perspective about freedom and free will, especially of women. This theme, analyzed though the quotes shown below, indicates the importance of respect and support for freedom, free will, and autonomy. The thematic perspective also associates “The Yellow Wallpaper” with other pieces of literature, such as William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” which also involves the theme of freedom and free will.
Lack of Choice in “The Yellow Wallpaper” (Quotes #1, #2, and #3)
The short story begins with the narrator’s perspective about her lack of freedom. Her husband, John, isolates her in the nursery that has the yellow wallpaper. She remains in the colonial mansion in confinement. This situation highlights the theme of freedom and freewill, as implied in the following quotes:
- “You see he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?” (Gilman 647).
- “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do? My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.” (648).
- “Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?” (648).
In the above quotes, Gilman establishes the narrator’s lack of freedom as a theme. The narrator is essentially imprisoned in the room with the yellow wallpaper. This lack of freedom is based on people’s belief in her. For example, in Quote #1, the narrator says that her husband does not believe that she is sick, even though she thinks otherwise. The theme is also expressed in how her brother views her condition, as in Quote #2. In Quote #3, the narrator disagrees with John and her brother. This disagreement illustrates her free will. However, Gilman shows that the narrator fails to use such free will to determine her treatment. She is confined within the bounds of the room with the yellow wallpaper. The theme is reinforced in all of the above quotes when the narrator says, “what can one do?” and “what is one to do?” and “what is one to do?” These questions show that “The Yellow Wallpaper” depicts the narrator’s lack freedom to exercise her free will.
Men’s Oppression of Woman’s Freedom and Free Will (Quotes #4, #5, and #6)
The plot of “The Yellow Wallpaper” reveals that men oppress woman’s freedom and free will. In this regard, the theme of freedom and free will is linked to the theme of sex discrimination against women. In this story, men oppress women’s freedom. This facet of the theme is illustrated in the following quotes:
- “John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious” (649).
- “At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be” (653).
- “I think that woman gets out in the daytime! And I’ll tell you why – privately I’ve seen her!” (654).
The quotations above illustrate that the theme of freedom and free will is linked to the men’s role in limiting the narrator’s freedom. For example, the female figure is free during the day (Quote #6) and trapped behind the yellow wallpaper’s front pattern during nighttime (Quote #5). Considering that John is typically away all day (Quote #4), his presence coincides with the imprisonment of the female figure in the yellow wallpaper. In using John’s character as a representative of men, Gilman highlights the theme by telling the reader that men contribute to the disabling of women’s exercise of freedom and free will. In this thematic view, “The Yellow Wallpaper” encourages the reader to examine the role of men in problems involving women’s freedom, free will, and autonomy.
The Achievement of Freedom and Exercise of Free Will (Quotes #7, #8, and #9)
Gilman refers to the theme of freedom and free will by pointing out the goal of achieving freedom and free will. For example, in the final scene of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator’s achievement of freedom and exercise of her free will is illustrated in the following quotes:
- “As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her” (655).
- “It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!” (656).
- “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!” (656).
The above text excerpts set the theme of freedom and free will in Gilman’s short story in terms of becoming free and able to exercise free will. For example, the female figure is initially imprisoned behind the yellow wallpaper’s pattern and the narrator recognizes this problematic situation and tries to help her (Quote #7). Quote #8 shows that the narrator assumes the female figure’s character and says that she (the narrator and/or the female figure) desires to be out of the wall and free from the bars of the yellow wallpaper. Ultimately, in Quote #9, John faints upon seeing his wife creeping along the walls of the room. When the narrator has pulled off most of the yellow wallpaper (Quote #9), Gilman indicates the target situation where women are free. The theme is further manifested in the end through the narrator’s repeated creeping over John’s unconscious body. The excerpts above pertain to the theme of freedom and free will in terms of the achievement of women’s freedom and their exercise of free will.
Explanation & Importance of the Theme of Freedom and Free Will in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”
The importance of the theme of freedom and free will in “The Yellow Wallpaper” rests on the narrator’s progress and its meaning. Charlotte Perkins Gilman starts the short story with the narrator’s confinement (or imprisonment), and ends the plot with the narrator’s/female figure’s freedom and free will. For example, in Quotes #1 through #6, the narrator is confined in the colonial mansion. These same quotes illustrate the figurative imprisonment of women in society. The female figure in the wall also represents women in society, and the yellow wallpaper’s bars or front pattern represents the oppression of women’s freedom and free will. In developing the theme, Gilman transforms the narrator from being limited by John’s prescriptions, toward being free and able to do what she pleases, such as creeping along the walls while John lies unconscious on the floor, as in Quotes #7 through #9.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” thematically shows physical and social freedom and free will. These aspects are interpreted based on the cited quotes. For example, in Quotes #1 through #6, the narrator is physically confined or imprisoned. The other characters’ support for the narrator’s rest cure treatment represents the social means of oppressing her freedom and free will. Quotes #7 through #9 reinforce these physical and social means pertinent to the theme.
Works Cited and References
- Betjemann, Peter. Charlotte Perkins Gilman and a Woman’s Place in America. University of Alabama Press, 2017.
- Davison, Carol Margaret. “Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Women’s Studies 33.1 (2004): 47-75.
- Downey, Dara. “‘Handled with a Chain’: Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ and the Dangers of the Arabesque.” American Women’s Ghost Stories in the Gilded Age. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2014. 39-63.
- Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (Stetson, Charlotte Perkins). “The Yellow Wallpaper.” New England Magazine, Jan. 1892, pp. 647-657.
- Schöpp-Schilling, Beate. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Rediscovered ‘Realistic’ Story.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 (1975): 284-286.
- Showalter, Elaine. “Killing the angel in the house: The autonomy of women writers.” The Antioch Review 50.1/2 (1992): 207-220.
- Shumaker, Conrad. “Realism, Reform, and the Audience: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Unreadable Wallpaper.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 47.1 (1991): 81-93.
- Siegel, Jennifer Semple. “Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: Fiction ‘with a Purpose’ and the Need to Know the Real Story.” CEA Critic 59.3 (1997): 44-57.
- Treichler, Paula A. “The Wall Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: Response to Carol Neely and Karen Ford.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 4.2 (1985): 323-330.