The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, attempts to become an epic lead by breaking out of the bonds of society, as represented by her husband, John, to achieve a crafty expression of difference. She rejects the gender role foisted upon her, by imagining herself out of it; she projects a rebellious version of herself into the wallpaper, eventually breaking out of it to overcome the limitations placed upon her and to overpower her husband.
John is established as a legitimate authority in numerous ways. As a scientist, he occupies the role of an oppressor and owns the power to undermine the narrator's actions, emotions, and rights of self-determination. Their marriage is formed as a power dynamic, wherein John is the authority and she is the subject of that authority. He utilizes his leverage to limit her, denying her any outlet for her frustrations as well as any means to express herself. The narrator refuses to be wholly subsumed and consumed by society, however, and stubbornly seeks the one means of escape that she can find. She creatively seeks an epic experience through her imagination. Her baby steps in this process frighten her; she is frightened by the shadow of her own will. Yet she overcomes these initial fears to crawl wholly into the wallpaper and to break out of it as an entity that is not contained within the realm of scientific possibility let alone by the limitations of society. Her victory is marginal, however, and comes at a great personal cost.
As previously stated, John occupies the role of an oppressor. Throughout the novel, the narrator's husband's comments, opinions, and actions influence her emotions, actions, and sense of self. Most of his comments undermine her legitimacy as a self-determined and independent person. He invalidates her emotions while himself appearing legitimate. The narrator is cast in a passive feminized role: she feels that she must not assert herself or be productive in front of John and his sister. She is wholly limited by the assertions of the patriarchy; her relationship with her husband John suppresses every means by which she can attempt to reach personal power let alone epic status. Through invalidating the narrator, John denies her of any semblance of the domestic, personal, and civic power, which any person should be able to access. This complete denial of power forces the narrator into a corner of existence from which she is particularly anxious to escape into an epic experience.
John is established as a legitimate authority in numerous ways. John's actions and opinions, as representative of restrictive society, are cast as credible and authoritative. The text forms various references to John, which paint him as a formidable, respected, established opinion. This stands in contrast to the way that she is portrayed, and it establishes him as dominant in relation to her. As a scientist he owns the power to undermine the legitimacy of the narrator.
John is cast as practical and pragmatic in direct contrast to the narrator's constant frame of mind. While she imagines symbols and images to exist in what is called reality, John is a mathematical and scientific authority. He converses in and utilizes socially acceptable magic.
John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.12
John is also a medical doctor; while the narrator lays claim to illness, he is established as the sort of authority who can declare the validity or invalidity of her claim. He asserts that her illness is more of an emotional than a physical state. He implies that she is simply temporarily distracted from what he has determined will be her destiny. He authoritatively knows that she will inevitably come around once again to embody the figure of a sensible wife. He needs her to fill this role as his accoutrement, in order to fulfill his dreams of married life and professional success.
Therefore the narrator's illness is threatening to John, and he does everything he can to undermine her convictions in regards to her illness. John doesn't believe that she is sick. The implication that her illness is emotional is underlined by her brother's agreement with her husband on the subject. The two male medical authorities in conjunction wholly invalidate her claim and, therefore, her emotional state. John, as a scientific authority, utilizes his leverage to make her his patient; she becomes the subject of his authority in this argument over illness, just as he is an authority in every other aspect of their relationship.
John asserts that hers is a temporary hysterical condition. His use of the term hysterical is more than loaded. The Freudian term has often been criticized as undermining the legitimacy of women in highly emotional states.
Gilman found that her story not only represented her own restriction but the repression that women faced in all fields, including work, education, and marriage. Deborah Thomas asserts that Gilman felt it necessary to point out the medical profession’s God-like attitude toward mentally ill female patients. Gilman illustrates this attitude in her narrator’s husband’s manners. 13
John does various other things, which also undermine her legitimacy. The way in which John reacts to her, the directions that he gives her, and the opinions that he states all actively undermine her status.
He does not allow her to manage her intake of medications - it seems as if she is not even aware of what sorts of medications he is giving her, or of the effect that they have on her. John also threatens to send her to an asylum, again exhibiting his control over her body. His control over her passive body is again exhibited where he gathers, carries, and lays her down.
John utilizes his authority to deny the narrator of any outlet for her frustrations as well as any means to express herself. Unable to care for anyone or do anything except rest, the narrator is passive. She has no one to appeal to for help and she is left to her own support. The narrator is under the control of external influences, is in a subservient position, and is anything but an epic lead. John and Jane deny her of any outlet for her imagination; they demand that she not work, that is that she not write. Her writing represents a possible epic quest yet she is wholly denied this outlet and opportunity to seek epic status. John tells her not to write, in what seems a completely arbitrary abuse of his authority, but is a deliberate attempt to control her means of resistance. She also doesn't want John's sister to find her in the process of writing, as if such employment would be an embarrassment to everyone.
Gilman wrote about the significance of writing as self-employment in an article, "Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper'?",
Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and went to work again -- work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite -- ultimately recovering some measure of power.14
Gillman's comments about why she wrote the Yellow Wallpaper are visible in the narrator's desire to work. Like the noted specialist to whom Gillman refers, John and Jane expect that the narrator not work, raising a prohibition against work. Having been denied writing as a means to self-expression, resistance, and heroism, the narrator turns to her one remaining ability, reading.
The narrator reads, and reads into, the wallpaper. She extricates herself from her subservient position through reading and imagining herself into the wallpaper in her room. She begins to resist societal limitations by actively seeking heroism in the wallpaper.
According to Elaine R. Hedges in her critical essay, "Out at Last"? "The Yellow Wallpaper" after Two Decades of Feminist Criticism,
... the narrator in the story is crucially engaged both in writing — she tries to record her experience in her journal — and in reading — she tries to decipher the patterns in the paper. However, whose text she was reading — whether her own or her husband's — and how she read it, soon became as problematical as the degree of her success or failure. ... In 1985 Paula Treichler approached the story as a struggle over woman's right to author her own sentences, in opposition to her doctor-husband's medical "sentencing" of her, and found that the narrator did so, at least temporarily, through an "impertinent" language that defied male control, and through her relation to the wallpaper, which Treichler saw as a metaphor for women's discourse, "thick with life, expression, and suffering."15
The narrator refuses to be wholly subsumed and consumed by society, stubbornly seeking the one means of escape that is available to her. She creatively seeks an epic experience through the act of reading, which symbolically represents the power of imagination. She attempts to achieve independence and epic status through imagining herself into the wallpaper. She does so almost subconsciously, seemingly unaware that she is grasping at an epic escape.
At first, the wallpaper annoys her, and to avoid looking at it, she looks out of the two windows in her room. This is an act of looking away just as it is an expression of her desire to move freely. She sees similar hints of shadows of madness in the paths and arbors. She sees the environment outside of the window and she imagines people moving in the paths. The shadows that move freely do so in her place. Unsurprisingly, this form of resistance runs contrary to John's desire for her to be a passive subject. What he views as an indulgence in various imaginative exploits represents her only weapon in fighting back against the patriarchy. As a reader of the most unlikely document, the yellow wallpaper, the narrator imagines herself towards heroism.
In looking at the wallpaper initially, she sees a repulsively colored, chaotic pattern, "One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin."16 John laughs at her and tells her that she is letting the wallpaper undermining even her first attempts to read herself into the unlikely text. The wallpaper infuriates her; she is angry at "the impertinence of it."17 She states that she grows fonder of the room in spite of the wallpaper, and perhaps because of the wallpaper. Slowly she becomes obsessed with bold and daring pattern and is fascinated to read it over and over, parsing out its various components with her eyes. She imagines herself into the wallpaper, seeing the image of a woman creeping through the pattern. It is the image of a stooping crone, a frightening, ghoulish version of herself.
These first steps in the process of seeking an epic experience through imagination frighten her. She is frightened by the shadow of her own will. She begins to fear the woman in the wallpaper, who is a projection of a version of herself, and she turns again to John's strength hoping that he will move her physically and take her away from herself.
And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don't like it a bit. I wonder--I begin to think--I wish John would take me away from here!18
This is a self-inflicted denial of an epic quest. She is afraid to evolve into something different, something outside of the confines placed upon her. The image of the madwoman - the crone - this shadow of a ghoulish version of herself, in all of its terrifying power, makes her want to return to the comfort of passivity: she yearns for John to control her body, to save her from her imagination.
Yet she overcomes these initial fears to crawl wholly into the wallpaper and to break out of it as an entity that is not contained within the realm of scientific possibility let alone by the limitations of society. She continues her heroic journey in this most unlikely place. She becomes an active participant in her own destiny by tearing at the wallpaper: she approaches epic status by fighting back and taking an aggressive stance. This act of ripping at the wallpaper brings her within a hair's breadth of epic status.
Once she gets the paper off, she breaks out of the wallpaper as a terrifying crone, turning the tables on her husband. This act makes him resemble a weak female: he faints, and he is now the nameless one, because she doesn't recognize him - "that man"19 - nor why he faints.
She escapes John's and Jane's demands and expectations. She has become the madwoman in the attic, a terrifying ghoulish entity, which cannot be contained within societal demands nor within the gender expectations that had been foisted upon her. She evolves into a different gender state; she is a crone. In reaction to her evolution, John becomes both nameless and feminine. This concluding moment represents a significant victory over the patriarchy.
Her victory is marginal however, and comes at a great personal cost. The form that she assumes in breaking out of the wallpaper - stooping over - is not epic; rather she becomes a grotesque and terrifying crone. She is no longer trapped. The door to the room is open and she can leave, however, she can only leave as a mad woman, a character in a fairy tale. She is no longer a person. She has evolved into a creature of the imagination and therefore has no practical power in the sense of civil rights in her world.
The narrator approaches epic status through rejecting the moral codes and limitations heaved upon her by society and through rejecting any form of societal approval. She achieves negative recognition and it is powerful; John is terrified at what she has become. Through evolving into something terrifying to John and Jane, she wins a minor victory over patriarchal authority. She approaches epic status, finally, because she is no longer contained by the demands of the patriarchy, as represented by John and Jane.
The Yellow Wallpaper is an example of a story in which the main character cannot become an epic lead. She fights against the many invalidating influences of the patriarchy, but it is too strong for her. Having taken away all of her weapons for self-expression, self-determination and the expression of her will, the patriarchy keeps her in a subordinate position despite her rebellion. She achieves a victory against the patriarchy, but at a high price. She is creeping freely; she has gone mad. While it is some success to have stepped outside of the bounds of society, she can no longer become an epic lead as we have defined it. It is no longer possible for her to achieve a significant social status that is recognized by the community. Moreover, the form that she evolves into is one that can in some way still be contained by the patriarchy; indeed, it is a symbol of the darker side of the repercussions of patriarchal culture. She has overcome the accusation that hers is merely a temporary hysterical state, but she has become , the anti-hero of outdated (even for 1892) sexist children's stories, rather than an empowered woman or an epic lead.