The Yellow Wallpaper

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“The Yellow Wallpaper” is driven by the narrator’s sense that the wallpaper is a text she must interpret, that it symbolizes something that affects her directly. Accordingly, the wallpaper develops its symbolism throughout the story. At first it seems merely unpleasant: it is ripped, soiled, and an “unclean yellow.” The worst part is the ostensibly formless pattern, which fascinates the narrator as she attempts to figure out how it is organized. After staring at the paper for hours, she sees a ghostly sub-pattern behind the main pattern, visible only in certain light. Eventually, the sub-pattern comes into focus as a desperate woman, constantly crawling and stooping, looking for an escape from behind the main pattern, which has come to resemble the bars of a cage. The narrator sees this cage as festooned with the heads of many women, all of whom were strangled as they tried to escape. Clearly, the wallpaper represents the structure of family, medicine, and tradition in which the narrator finds herself trapped. Wallpaper is domestic and humble, and Gilman skillfully uses this nightmarish, hideous paper as a symbol of the domestic life that traps so many women. Almost every aspect of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is ironic in some way. Irony is a way of using words to convey multiple levels of meaning that contrast with or complicate one another. In verbal irony, words are frequently used to convey the exact opposite of their literal meaning, such as when one person responds to another’s mistake by saying “nice work.” (Sarcasm—which this example embodies—is a form of verbal irony.) In her journal, the narrator uses verbal irony often, especially in reference to her husband: “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.” Obviously, one expects no such thing, at least not in a healthy marriage. Later, she says, “I am glad my case is not serious,” at a point
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