The narrator begins to discern within the patterns of the wallpaper not only the image of her captivity (jail bars) but an image of her liberation: “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. ” (Gilman) The reader will realize that the “woman behind it” is, in fact, the narrator herself, a projection of herself as a complete and liberated person.
The image of the woman in the wallpaper is as dynamic as it is arresting: “I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman. By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour. ” (Gilman) It is worth mentioning that Gilman continues to wield her ironic mode of narration throughout the story — in order to more passionately demonstrate not only the oppression of the narrator, but her liberation as well.
One notable irony is that is only by method of reason left to the “insane” in a state of “nervous anxiety” that allows for the discovery of the individuated self — the liberated self. It is also through isolation, imposed on her from the outside that the narrator is able to penetrate the meaningless patterns of the yellow wallpaper to glimpse the nature of her captivity and liberation — in symbolic, though psychically effective terms.
The narrator’s understanding of the “meaning” of the yellow wallpaper allows her to understand its socially adhesive function: “I have watched John when he did not know I was looking, and come into the room suddenly on the most innocent excuses, and I’ve caught him several times looking at the paper! And Jennie too. I caught Jennie with her hand on it once. ” (Gilman) The wallpaper involves everyone in society, at all levels.
It is at once a symbol for social oppression and mechanisms of normalcy (thin, decayed, without meaning or design) and also a symbol for self-liberation, as the narrator is quickly able to intuit exactly what course of action to take given the wall paper’s intuitively aesthetic repercussions and meanings. The dynamicism of the wallpaper-as-symbol is broad enough to accommodate oppression and liberation, just as society itself is able to contain both possibilities.
Because the reader has been initiated into the “otherness” of the narrator’s mode of non-linear, symbolically associative reasoning, the next progression of the image is easy to understand, and explicitely indicates that, despite the intricate social machinery of the patriarchal society which entraps the narrator, her latent individuated self will prove more than a match for its ultimately “paper thin” basis of power: “I really have discovered something at last.
Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out. The front pattern does move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! ” (Gilman) Having followed through on her isolation and alienation from “ordinary” life with a strong will toward self-liberation, the narrator is able to correctly deduce the “logical” next-step in her symbolically active relationship with the yellow wallpaper. She begins to tear it up, to release the woman within.
Readers apt to cheer at her actions, will also realize that to “normal” minds (remembering Gilman’s steady ironic inversion throughout the story) the narrator’s actions will seem insane. However, the consistency of the story’s symbolism and the intensity of reader-identification with the story’s protagonist allow Gilman to bring her readers to a climax which is both surprising and — in retrospect — logically inevitable.
When the narrator finally rips down the wallpaper, her husband does in fact consider her actions insane. But his reaction — fainting_ indicates with a final biting irony an additional resonance for the symbolism of the wallpaper. In addition to representing oppression, social disorganization and injustice and the foul-odored practices of gender oppression and discrimination — the wallpaper also stands for fear — the fear the oppressor feels when confronted by his victim’s liberation.
In a final thematic thrust, Gilman seems to assert that is fear of women, of their intuitive power and intellectual creativity — the same capacities that allowed the narrator to embrace her alienation and discover her own liberation – that drives the instruments of social oppression. The narrator exclaims: “I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back! ” Her husband’s response is to faint at which the narrator remarks: “Now why should that man have fainted?
But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time! ” (Gilman) The narrator’s progression from victim to “conquerer” is clear in this image: her husband sprawled unconscious at her feet. Gilman’s deftly executed symbolism, along with her verisimilar characterization and story-development allow for “The Yellow Wallpaper” to elucidate important themes of gender discrimination and social prejudice by way of a narrative which involves readers deeply enough to make these issues personal.