Trapped in a room for months with bars on the windows, furniture nailed down, and maddeningly disgusting wallpaper. Who would do that to someone? Especially when the only explanation that can be provided is ‘ because I love you’. Jane the protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper” exemplifies the oppression and misunderstanding displayed towards both women and the mentally ill during the 19th century.
Much like most women of her time Jane was constantly being held back by the men in her life due to the patriarchal society they lived in. This is very evident from the beginning when Jane is talking about how her husband and brother, who are both physicians, had been the ones to evaluate her health and decide upon her treatment plan despite it generally being against regulation for a doctor to treat friends and family members. When describing how her husband had dismissed her as not being ill Jane says “And what can one do?” (Gilman 307) and later on uses a similar phrasing when talking of her brothers treatment plan of basically forbidding her from doing anything saying, “But what is one to do?” (Gilman 308). The repetition of this phrase shows how at this point in her life has somewhat resigned to having decisions in her life dictated, but also as it was posed in a question displays how Jane internally resents the lack of control over her life.
Jane’s resentment is particularly obvious by the end of the story once Jane’s husband had fainted and she got upset talking about how it was unreasonable for him to have fainted, as he done so in a way that she had to go over him every time she wanted to pass by (Gilman 320). Jane talking about this significantly exhibits how Jane has felt about her constant oppression from the beginning. Her husband and herself symbolising all men and women at the time; the men basically ruling over the women and even when they aren’t consciously controlling women tend to block them from achieving their goals. This constant feeling of, as well as, literal entrapment is what initially leads to her becoming infatuated with the wallpaper and the deterioration of her mental health in general throughout the story.
While oppression played a large part in the difficulties Jane was facing it was fairly obvious that the illness Jane refers to herself having in the beginning of the story is some sort of mental illness. There were many things throughout the story that point to Jane having a pre-existing mental condition. One of them was her obsession over the wallpaper in her room from the moment they got the summer home. This is strange considering most people try to ignore things that bother them if they can’t do anything to change it. Yet Jane’s constantly thinking about the wallpaper and how it she finds it to be disgusting, even more so her views on it seem to evolve throughout the story. Which even if one was extremely bothered by something like wallpaper and couldn’t stop thinking about it, one probably wouldn’t look far past the fact that maybe the color or design wasn’t very nice. Another thing that pointed to Jane clearly having a mental illness was her delusional beliefs of their being women trapped in the wallpaper that she had to free. Also, how these beliefs eventually evolved into Jane hallucinating women
actually being in the confines of the wallpaper that she despised. Even Jane locking herself into the room at the end of the story and throwing the key outside shows an unhealthy level of paranoia that her husband or someone else might try to stop her from acting on her delusions to rip down the wallpaper.
The fact mental illness in the 19th century was misunderstood and even dismissed definitely didn’t help matters for Jane either. For example, how her husband and brother as physicians had chalked off all of Jane’s complaints of feeling ill as a simple case of hysteria due to the fact she was a woman; even going as far to laugh at her. Also, there is the brother’s orders that Jane was “absolutely forbidden to “work” until [she was] well again” (Gilman 308) insinuating that due to her ailment he assumed she was incapable of anything. This notion that she was completely incompetent is shown by her husband when he tells Jane, “You exercise depends on your strength, my dear.” “and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time.”(Gilman 309). This insinuates that her husband is under the impression that breathing it the only thing Jane can do on her own without his “special direction” (Gilman 309).
Therefore throughout “The Yellow Wallpaper” the protagonist, Jane, is immensely oppressed due to the patriarchal society she was living in at the time. The oppression and lack of understanding exhibited towards her are what ultimately led to Jane’s sharp decline in mental health over the three months she spent in both a mental and physical prison.