Reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” is like being drawn into the imaginary world of someone who is slowly leaving reality behind them. The short story is written as a kind of journal of the narrator as she becomes more and more detached from her family and her life. The reader sees only the narrator’s perspective, but her jumbled and paranoid thoughts are enough to make it clear that her viewpoint is far out of touch with the truth.A main theme of Gilman’s work seems to be that the role traditionally available to females is not fulfilling enough to keep a relatively normal woman sane. As evidenced by the outlook of the central male character in the story, the narrator’s husband John, a female is a sort of delicate adornment for the home – not a living, breathing person with dreams, struggles, and needs. The more the narrator conforms to this belief, the more she loses her grip on reality.From page one, Gilman’s narrator offers examples of her husband’s belittling attitude. She writes, “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that.” While certainly any loving, happy marriage will be filled with laughter, this is not friendly camaraderie: this is the kind of condescending laughter that says, “You are only a woman.” John treats the narrator like a child, even directly addressing her as “little girl” on several occasions. When discussing her illness, rather than supporting his wife through her difficulties, John “assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with [her] but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency.” John seems to view her as dimension-less, consisting only of a physical body. She writes, “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.” Her husband is confident that there is nothing medically wrong with her, and therefore ignores her deep emotional pain.One of the most visible ways John treats the narrator as a emotionless possession, rather than as an equal, is by forbidding her to write. John would rather “put fireworks in [her] pillowcase” than allow her too much stimulation in her condition. However, it is clear that this rule does the narrator more harm than good. At this point, she still views herself as more than an object. She ignores John’s rule, and he inadvertently causes her to exhaust herself further because now must work twice as hard to be sure she keeps her pastime hidden. She writes, “It does exhaust me a good deal – having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.” This prescription against writing negatively affects the narrator in another important way. She interrupts a train of thoughts about the wallpaper with, “There comes John, and I must put this away – he hates to have me write a word.” In a way, John is responsible for the thoughts that lead her deeper and deeper into lunacy. Perhaps if she were only able to sit and peacefully write about the wallpaper without interruption and fear, she would be able to better comprehend her feelings and avoid her spiral into insanity.In a very telling statement, the narrator writes, “I have a scheduled prescription for each hour in the day; [John] takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.” It is important to notice that she does not write that John “takes care of everything for me” or that John “handles everything for me.” She says rather that “he takes all care from me.” The implication is that she is not freely offering something to him; he takes “all care” (control) completely out of his wife’s hands and schedules an activity for her for each hour of the day. While John likely feels he is doing this because he loves her – for her own good – he is still forcing her to conform to his worldview and think of herself as under him. As the narrator’s illness worsens, John requires less and less of her: “Jennie sees to everything now.” Like the creeping woman in the wallpaper, the narrator is trying to escape from the world John has created for her. She is, essentially, bored to the point of having a complete breakdown. As she becomes what John wants – less a person and more an adornment – she drifts further and further into her delusions. However, in a way, her delusions are empowering, ultimately giving her the strength to stand up to John. She even refers to him as “young man,” returning his belittling address from earlier in the story.
Though contextually deviant from one another, the voices of “Professions for Women” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” both embrace the same themes: the potential creativity and splendor of the female mind, and the oppression a woman must overcome to realize this potential. While also detailing her personal struggle in the field of writing, Virginia Woolf addresses the obstacles a woman faces in her path to mental unity, namely the burden of men and the female inclination to succumb to it. Charlotte Gilman portrays this struggle as an actual situation, as the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” finds herself pitted directly against both her own mental affliction and the oppression of men, much as a Roman Gladiator would face the lions. Sadly, the narrator cannot overcome her personal “Angel of the House” as Woolf had; the obstacles decimate and devour her will and sanity. While Woolf slays her personal demons, the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” confronts her own, and loses. Viewed by Woolf as some sort of birth defect, the inhibiting factors of the female mind come standard with the birth of a woman. Woolf takes these factors, and balls them up into what she calls the “Angel of the House”: a semi-conscience, present in the mind of a woman as an entity itself, manipulating its host’s thoughts and actions based upon social expectations. Disclosing that the Angel of the House’s “purity was supposed to be her chief beauty-her blushes, her great grace,” Woolf depicts the Angel as a creation of the expectation of a woman, the beauty and grace and physical appearance expected of a perfect female. Finding that she needs to rid herself of this inhibition in order to write, Woolf finds the strength of mind and will power needed to destroy her ghosts. Conversely, Gilman’s narrator has her imagination and intellect stripped from her by her husband and cannot combat her illness through cleverness and strength of mind. These battles-Woolf against her “Angel of the House” and the Gilman’s narrator against her impediments-juxtapose physically different yet strikingly familiar enemies. Gilman’s narrator, in contrast to Woolf’s, possesses an illness of depression from the beginning, making her mind vulnerable to both her mental demons and her husband’s unwavering oppression. Providing the reason for John’s officiousness, as the narrator tells that “[John] says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of exited fancies,” she illustrates his inadvertent yet domineering nature, that he believes her own creativity and imagination present not only a hindrance to the alleviation of her condition but also a cause of her depression. Fettering her freedom of mind, John incubates the parasite, the demons, already within her mind, and leaves her defenseless. As Woolf tells us, “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality,” she notes that dispatching a mental opponent does not happen by simply adjusting reality, yet John heeds not this advice. By forcibly creating a place devoid of distraction for his wife to rest in, in essence the cell in which she lives, John creates a nest for her mental demons, allowing them to grow and fester in her head, gnawing and clawing at her mind until she loses control, becoming insane. In this scenario, the oppression of men that Woolf details aids and abets the “Angel of the House”, thus it generates an adamant, formidable opponent to the female mind. Though the narrator allows her afflictions to run rampant through her mind, Woolf provides some methods for overcoming her own obstacles, as well as those of other women. Indicting men as unable to “realize or… control the extreme severity with which the condemn such freedom in women,” she points to men as one of the inhibitors of women, yet does not hold them truly responsible for their actions. Just as women come with the “Angel of the House” programmed into heir minds, so to do men with their intrinsic need to assert themselves over the opposite sex. Because men cannot “realize… or control” this primordial sense of domination, women must not hold them in contempt, but take initiative and fix things for themselves. Gilman’s narrator cannot solve her own problems, as John has left her literally fettered, and the reader must witness with agony her descent into a state less than human. Woolf shows us that these problems will not be resolved via neglect, but rather from direct action on the part of the victim. “The Yellow Wallpaper” does not overtly provide advice as that seen in Woolf’s essay, but it does provide an example of the lessons therein. The story demonstrates the extent to which a woman’s mind can decay, if not properly cared for and attended to. Gilman also expounds upon the role of men in the state of the female spirit, as they can easily corrupt and condemn members of the opposite sex. However, both stories confer an underlying sense of optimism. Questioning the role John’s assertiveness played in his wife’s demise, the reader must take into account that John could have helped his wife when she clearly needed someone, instead of condemning her to the prison of a bedroom as he chooses to do. Similarly, Woolf shows how one woman, completely independent, can amend her own problematic situation. The female mind can exist at once splendidly, colorfully imaginative, and fragile, unstable, requiring constant attendance. It is worth fighting for.
Charlotte Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” focuses on the slow mental degeneration of a young woman forced to undergo the “rest cure,” examining both the causes and the nature of her madness. Shortly after moving into a new place of residence, the narrator of the story — who remains unnamed throughout — begins experiencing vivid fantasies and delusions focused on her surroundings, all extremely violent and disturbing in nature. Though such frightening visions may seem like undesirable indications of a severely disturbed mind, they are ultimately beneficial to the narrator. The violence depicted in her fantasies is a direct consequence of the violence that exists in her reality, as she projects the qualities of her husband, the dominant force in her life, into her environment. The delusions, which may appear harmful to most, are in fact a source of hope for the narrator as she moves through a painful existence. They serve as a way to help her escape the psychological violence inflicted upon her by her husband, literally providing her with a way out of the real world into an imagined world where she is, ultimately, the one in control. The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” leads such a stifling, unfulfilling existence that she eventually finds herself turning away from reality and into herself. A woman living at the turn of the century would have inevitably felt some degree of societal oppression, but the single most dominant force in the narrator’s life is her husband John. Although she describes him as “careful and loving” (5), his extreme attentiveness is a notable source of violence in the narrator’s life. Although John never inflicts physical pain upon his wife, his brutality is evident in the psychological pain to which he subjects her. He imprisons her in a nursery both literally, with barred windows, and figuratively, refusing to let her engage in any activity whatsoever, “hardly let[ting her] stir without special direction” (5). He seems determined to stifle her artistic ideas, cautioning her that “there is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours” (12). From his repeated orders for the narrator “not to give way to fancy in the least” it seems that the narrator’s creative instincts threaten John. The narrator possesses something of her own, something that John cannot touch, and he is determined to banish anything that competes with him for her full attention. He succeeds in doing so primarily by forcing the narrator to undergo the “rest cure,” a medically questionable method of healing the sick by confining them to their beds and permitting them no activity whatsoever. Gilman clearly opposes the rest cure, since John’s methods seem to be the most important factor in the degeneration of the narrator’s mind from reasonably coherent into utterly mad (as shown by the narrator’s increasingly disorganized syntax). John oppresses his wife both in mind, telling her “never for one instant to let that idea enter your mind!” (12), and in body, “hardly let[ting her] stir without special direction” (5), committing the most horrendous crime possible against his “little goose” (6) by literally stealing her life from her. Through his intense need to control not only the narrator’s body, but also her mind, John creates a woman so stifled by her surroundings that she must resort to violent, delusional fantasies in order to escape him.The narrator responds to the narrow life in which she finds herself trapped by beginning to utilize her delusions to escape the confines of her environment. Her surroundings, and most notably the wallpaper, provide her with a world far more diverting, and far less painful than the real world. She becomes so obsessed with the wallpaper, “watch[ing] it always” (13), that it seems her life would be empty without it. She spends hours attempting to decipher the swirls in the wallpapers pattern, and stares endlessly at “mysterious deep-shaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees” (7) which, when given such adjectives, take on fascinating new lives beyond the commonplace. Even though in reality her surroundings are lifeless and boring, the narrator can escape into the world of danger and intrigue that lives in her mind.The world that she creates in her imagination serves as a source of hope for the narrator, enabling her to create a reality that her husband cannot intrude upon. Though she is an invalid, entirely excluded from the lives of those around her, her fantasies provide her with something that is hers, and hers alone, something that nobody else in the house can see. “There are things in the wallpaper that nobody knows about but me, or ever will” (11). By creating her own private world, violent though it may be, the narrator is able to escape the psychological oppression that she experiences in her everyday life. She frees herself within her mind, creating a place where nobody can watch over her or control her, and thus takes the first step towards her eventual escape. The delusions, though often frighteningly violent, serve to help the narrator come to terms with the real violence in her life. She imagines that the wallpaper “slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you,” yet she seems almost excited by the idea of the wallpaper physically harming her. Although she does not state it directly, she becomes so entranced — obsessed, even — by the wallpaper that it seems to take on a certain allure for her. Perhaps she finds the idea of being hurt physically almost comforting, in contrast to the psychological damage being inflicted upon her by her husband. Although John does not literally slap her in the face or knock her down, he does, indeed, trample upon her identity and sense of self. The narrator’s attempts to overcome the violence in her imagined world are a way for her to regain the power that she has lost by becoming a victim in reality.The narrator creates numerous parallels between her delusional world and her real life, making her feel that by controlling her imagined world she also gains a degree of control over her reality. The narrator’s surroundings and the wallpaper in particular are infused with a number of John’s qualities. The wallpaper, “tiresome” and “perplexing” (14), moves and shifts to the point where the narrator can make no sense of it’s actions, and it demands from her all of her time and attention, yet gives little in return. Like John, the wallpaper dominates and controls the narrator’s mind. When she later envisions that the wallpaper has “become bars . . . and the woman behind it is as plain as can be” (13), she is projecting her own qualities into her delusions, with herself as the woman, and John as the wallpaper, trapping her inside. By transferring the disturbing aspects of her real life into her fantastical one, filling her delusions with aspects of the people she feels threatened by, the narrator turns her focus from a person who she feels is unconquerable to an inanimate object over which she can exercise control. In her fantasy world, it is not John who is the oppressor, it is the wallpaper, which she is determined to conquer. The narrator’s transference of her real life into her imagined one is what ultimately gives her the ability to escape. When the narrator begins to see women “creeping” about outside, she identifies with those women and longs to be like them, free from the bars. It is with this development that she at last begins what is to be her final rebellion against her husband. Eventually, she begins to imagine that she herself is “creep[ing] smoothly on the floor.” Although she has not yet, like the other women, escaped from behind the bars trapping her inside, she has become the aggressor. No longer is she being crept upon by John; now it is she who is creeping upon him. Through her fantasies, the narrator has found a way to escape, to reverse her role as a victim.Although her delusions are uniformly violent and frightening in nature, the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes deeply involved with them in order to escape from the stifling reality of her life. The narrator even admits she has become “really fond of the room . . . perhaps because of the wallpaper.” For her, the wallpaper offers a sense of purpose and a sense of hope. Not only does it give her creativity and imagination an outlet, it offers her a way to project the real world into an fantastical realm where she, and not her husband, is in control of what happens. The world that the narrator imagines around her, while violent, is quite beautiful in many respects, as it is a place where she can at last escape from behind the bars to creep with all the other women.
The Victorian rest cure, a diagnosis set forth to upper class, white, Victorian women who were believed to be suffering from “hysteria”, or “trauma related to an unsuccessful role adjustment” sought to instill in them a “childlike submission to masculine authority” (Ammons 35). Charlotte Perkins Gilman, herself a victim of the Victorian rest cure, utilizes within “The Yellow Wallpaper” her own experiences to exemplify the violence of achieving the Victorian ideal of femininity and the sacrifices necessary for a woman to avow her right to self-determination. Gilman’s narrator, violently forced into absolute solitude, silence, and submission, must face the quagmire before her — loyalty to her husband and societal perceptions of woman, or loyalty to her imagination, her intellect, and the piece of herself that she has objectified and projected into the wallpaper and that pleads for independence. Undoubtedly, loyalties lie to self. Thus, “The Yellow Wallpaper” depicts a woman affirming her right to her own authority while breaking free from the “violent process of feminization” (Ammons 35) that masculine authority has forced her to submit to.The rest cure that ravages Gilman’s narrator centers around the ‘compassionate’ care of a male specialist that forces his patient “to turn herself into a helpless, docile, overgrown infant — that is, a feminine adult” (Ammons 35). John, the narrator’s husband and physician plays the role of the ‘compassionate’ male expert. He hides his true purpose of molding his wife into the ideal of Victorian femininity beneath layers of care and kindliness — not allowing her “stir without special direction” (Gilman 647). His treatment of her is explicitly paternal, if not austerely dominating — he laughs when she questions him, he calls her “little girl” and “blessed little goose”, he doesn’t allow her a downstairs room as she requests, and joke-threatens to stick her in the cellar when she persists. The nursery that John confines the narrator to symbolizes her domination and at the same time her burgeoning authority over her own self.The nursery is “a big airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge, for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things on the walls” (Gilman 647). The room provides little or no privacy and serves more or less as a jail where the hooks in the walls, the bars in the windows, and the “great immovable bed” serve to enslave and bully the inmate to return to an infantile state of rationale. The nailed down bed becomes the literal source of the narrator’s domination. The bed dictates from the center of the room, it is the site where most of her time is spent and the “site for a woman not only of birthing, dying, and sleeping but also, and probably most important for this story, of sexual intercourse and therefore a potent reminder in late nineteenth-century America of male sexual privilege and dominance, including violence” (Ammons 37). The bed symbolizes the dominance over the narrator’s body and the attempt to dominate her mind, transforming her “into nothing but body, a mass of pure passive, ostensibly desexualized flesh without self-control” (Ammons 36). Despite the forces pulling at the already fragmented mind of Gilman’s narrator, she does retain some definition of herself and begins to establish her own authority when she continues to write despite the “heavy opposition” from John and her brother — both physicians or “the new priest, the new male authority, of a new scientific era” (Ammons 36). Writing is viewed as “a dangerous move because it threatens the system of control constructed to contain women” (Ammons 38). Helene Cixous stated that “Woman must put herself into the text — as into the world and into history — by her own movement” (Ammons 38). The narrator asserts herself into the text, the world, and history when she defies the containment of the room for the sake of her own imaginative power, which in turn becomes her own sexual and intellectual power as she ” ‘speaks’… by writing her body on the walls” (Ammons 35) that attempt to contain her.The room, therefore, not only enslaves the narrator to masculine thinking, it also, paradoxically, enlightens her to the wrongs she is enduring and introduces her to the idea of self-will. The wallpaper instigates this rebellion. She first regards it with disdain. The wallpaper is “dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide — plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (Gilman 647). The narrator’s search for an ordered pattern in the wallpaper denotes a juxtaposed irony against her search for an ordered pattern in her life — both are meaningless, both are grotesque. But as time passes the narrator discerns, in the moonlight ironically, the meaning that exists beneath the aesthetic horror and soon realizes the potential within the wallpaper and herself.Under the moon, the paper “becomes bars” and the distinct figure of a woman behind them becomes “as plain as can be” (Gilman 652). The narrator’s empathetic fascination with her fellow inmate creates a purpose for her otherwise hollow life. She now has “something to expect, to look forward to, to watch” (Gilman 653). The entrapped woman becomes a model for her fellow prisoner. At night the figure “crawls around fast” and “takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard” while “all the time trying to climb through” (Gilman 654). In the daytime she creeps “in that long shaded lane” and in “those dark grape arbors, creeping all around the garden” (Gilman 654). This “creeping” symbolizes a liberation from the requisite bed rest that John expects of his baby-wife and although the narrator locks the door when she creeps by daylight, she is still shaking the bars of her own prison and continuing to reintegrate and build upon her own personality which masculine totalitarianism had managed to fragment. The narrator’s empowerment swings the inward struggle of loyalties and she finds it easier to resist “the shifting but seemingly inescapable patriarchal definition of motherhood as prison, flesh as destiny, and voice as silence” (Ammons 42).A mutual understanding of the derision for confinement develops between the narrator and the figure. The narrator, having grown from the docile infant to the active toddler, schemes to help free the woman from her jail and consequently free herself from her own prison. The last day arrives and as night falls the woman ” began to crawl and shake the pattern” and the narrator immediately “got up and ran to help her. I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper” (Gilman 655). When the paper is no more, when the bars are no more, the narrator finally reaches sexual and textual authority. She has become a new woman in a new world. The woman behind the paper was the missing piece of the puzzle that would bring all the fragments together to form one individual claiming her right to self-determination. The narrator no longer objectifies this piece of herself that society, John, and the other fragments of her mind had forced behind the bars, but rather she embraces it, becomes it, wholly. She has defied male logic and dominance by reintegrating her fragmented mind and at the same time recording it in the written word. “She gets ‘in’ the paper, and its violence, formerly directed at her, becomes her articulated fury and agony” (Ammons 38). She will not be held down — when the bed will not move “I got so angry I bit off a little piece at one corner — but it hurt my teeth”, when she wants to be left alone she throws “the key down into the front path”, and when John demands an explanation for her actions she refers to him as “young man” and “that man”, establishing her dominance in the relationship (Gilman 656). The shock that consequentially comes from this shift in position causes John to faint and forces the narrator to “creep over him every time” (Gilman 657) she circles the room. The “little girl” has transformed into an independent thinker that moves wherever and whenever she desires and will not be held down by man — she will crawl over him if necessary.”The Yellow Wallpaper” depicts the violence and horror that Victorian women were subjected to in order to achieve ‘perfection’ (in the Victorian sense of the word). The foundation of this type of theory involves sacrificing all independent thinking and will and becoming only factories of reproduction. Charlotte Perkins Gilman defies this theory and the science that justifies the actions of it by presenting a woman with no choice in what she does, what she thinks, and seemingly what she feels and the effects that this dehumanization can do. In order to affirm her own authority and break free from this violent process the narrator must go mad. Mad in the sense of a revolt against reason (Victorian reason in this case) and mad in a sense of anger. She proves that all women facing the same situation as the narrator will submit to this madness “before they will submit to the lives of infantile dependence prescribed as ideal by Victorian America” (Ammons 39).
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of the most prominent feminists and social thinkers at the turn of the century. Her best fiction, The Yellow Wallpaper, is also her least typical. It is about a young wife and mother’s mental deterioration as recorded in journal by the main character. As read beside Gilman’s own breakdown, it is a terrifying portrayal. Originally, it was interpreted as a horror story, as seen in William Dean Howells’ essay in his 1920 anthology. Howell writes, “I shiver over it as much as I did when I first read it in manuscript, though I agree with the editor of The Atlantic of the time, that it was too terribly good to be printed”(pp. vii-xiv). It was this misinterpretation, which allowed The Yellow Wallpaper to be overlooked for almost fifty years, until it was rediscovered by the budding feminist movement. The movement found that The Yellow Wallpaper was one of the rare pieces of literature, which directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship. There are two symbolic aspects the Gilman uses to bring these sexual politic to light. The aspects are (1) the nursery and all its furnishings, and (2) the imaginary woman behind the pattern.The Yellow Wallpaper reads as a psychological horror story of madness in a young woman, but running as an undercurrent throughout the story, is a feminist document. It was this connection, between the insanity and sexual role of the victim, which slowly unfolds before the reader, and the domineering role of the male-husband takes on an almost evil aspect. One of the first male domineering traits seen in The Yellow Wallpaper is the husband’s treatment of his wife as a child. There is never any equality in their relationship; instead, our main character is treated as if she is unable to think rationally for herself. Gilman writes that the main character’s husband sees her as his “little girl”(pg. 732). So as a child he chooses a room that most fit her condition. Gilman describes the room as, “The nursery at the top of the stairs. It was a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls”(pg. 727). First, we are struck by the open, lighted space that the narrator tells of the room. This is Gilman’s comment on the lack of privacy afforded woman in society. There is no place to hide, no secrets left sacred to the woman. Next, we can see, this physical aspect of the room is symbolic for the three roles women held in society. In this male dominated time, women were thought of as child bearers (nursery), sex toys (playroom), and workhorses (gymnasium). Conrad Shumaker writes, “With the images of the barred windows, sinister bedspreads, rings on the floor, and domineering men, the story does indeed raise the issue of sex roles in a effective way, and anticipates later feminist literature”(pg. 590). It is these sexual roles that the narrator seems to be rebelling against as she writes her journal, but cannot change. The only overt action against her prison taken by the narrator is to ask her husband to change the wallpaper. Gilman describes it as, “One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicideplunge off at outrageous angels, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions”(pg. 727). The paper is symbolizes a woman’s situation as seen by men, and hence woman’s situation as seen by women, the one domineering the other. The wallpaper consists of “uncertain curves” that “commit suicidedestroy themselves.” It is these pointless patterns that represent the search for identity, some independent self that when almost found disappears. Gilman’s narrator wishes to change this situation, but her husband tells her not to give way to her “fancies”(pg. 728). Further, he claims that change would only lead to more change. “After the wallpaper was changed it would be the heavy bedspread, and then the barred windows, and then the gate at the head of the stairs”(pg. 728). We can easily see that the true change Gilman has the husband referring to the change in equality in women. The husband (man) says that any change will lead to the “gate at the head of the stairs,” or freedom for women from their sexual prisons. The next symbolic aspect that Gilman uses to show the domineering nature of man in society is the narrator’s delusion of a woman trapped in the wall.The woman in the wallpaper slowly takes shape, when the narrator’s husband refuses to leave the house or change the wallpaper. The narrator is trapped, and can find no solace in her situation. Elaine R. Hedges writes, “Inevitably, therefore, the narrator, imprisoned within the room, thinks she discerns the figure of a woman behind the paper. The paper is barred, and the woman is trapped behind the bars, trying to get free”(pg. 52). The narrator and the woman behind the bars of wallpaper are symbolic for the sexual repression of woman in a patriarchal society. They are trapped, and desperately attempting to define the world around them, but her insights are poor weapons against the male certainty of his superiority. The narrator’s mad-sane way is to see the situation for what it is. She has wanted to strangle the woman behind the wallpaper, for that way she might reject the imprisoned woman within herself. This is in some ways self-murder, because the woman in the wallpaper is a projection of herself and situation. The only alternative is madness. Hedges writes, “The heroine in The Yellow Wallpaper is destroyed. She has fought her best against husband, brother, doctor, and even against women friends (her husband’s sister, for example, is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession”).She has tried, in defiance of all the social and medical codes of her time, to retain her sanity and her individuality. But the odds are against her and she fails”(pg. 55). The codes of society are to binding, and engrained for the narrator (women) to survive the trial for freedom. Man once again has held his grip at the throat of his prey, and slowly drains the life breath from it. Gilman is tired of the iron wall that bars equality. Therefore, as in any hopeless situation there is only two alternatives, madness, or perseverance. Gilman’s narrator finds her freedom in madness, and as The Yellow Wallpaper concludes, her husband finds her creeping along the walls of the room. “I’ve got out at last,” she tells him triumphantly, “And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back”(pg. 737). Her husband faints, and she is obliged to step over him each time she circles the room. This ending is a contradiction of defeat and victory. The narrator finds her victory as she steps over her fainted husband, yet she is defeated by never escaping the prison of her room. Gilman, by ending The Yellow Wallpaper in this fashion, believed that though women may one day may find some loophole out of man’s dominance over them, they would always be trapped in the constrains formed by men. In this, she was right, for though woman have made many leaps in equality, a male dominated society still ultimately makes the rules and style by which women live.Charlotte Perkins Gilman outdoes herself as a feminist writer as she designs the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper. She is a unique, vivid character, who struggles with the perfect-shaped box that her male companion has forced her to live in, but the box itself (the nursery) is what really allows The Yellow Wallpaper to come alive for the reader. The narrator’s symbolic paper-house crumbles before our eyes, and Gilman’s true meaning is revealed in heart-stopping glory. The narrator is no longer a prisoner; her madness has given her wings.Work CitedHedges, Elaine R. “Afterwards” The Feminist Press 1973.Howells, William D. “A Reminiscent Introduction in The Great Modern American Stories” Boni and Liveright Inc. 1920Ed. Lauter, Paul. “The Heath Anthology of American Literature” Houghton Mifflin Company 1998Shumaker, Conrad. “‘Too Terribly Good To Be Printed’: Charlotte Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper'” American Literature Vol. 57 1985
“Personally, I disagree with their ideas.” One of the opening statements of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, this quote sums up the point of the text. Gilman becomes incensed at the way doctors and society view women. This short story is an up-close account of a woman who suffers from mental illness. It is written in a way that makes readers relate to the experience of slowly going crazy. An important element in the story is the cause of her worsening condition; the narrator attributes it to the way her husband and brother stifle her and prohibit her from writing and having stimulating friends visit. Through this female character, Gilman personally disagrees with the social expectations of the late 19th century. She asserts that women should not be viewed as physically or intellectually fragile, but instead should have the freedom to engage in active pleasures like writing, reading, and scholarly discussion.Though the narrator does become more and more mentally unstable throughout the story, her character is positively presented. The tone of the writing is light and playful. Many exclamation points are used to convey her excitement, and pleasant words constantly issue forth from her mouth like, “delicious garden,” “dear John,” and “blessed child” (48). Her narrative is directed at the reader, so that the reader feels as if she has been included in an intriguing secret. She confides to us “I think that woman gets out in the daytime! And I’ll tell you whyprivatelyI’ve seen her” (53). Her demeanor is so pleasant that it is charming even in the midst of her madness. Its light and inviting nature almost convince us that she is not really that demented. I believe Gilman portrays her like this to comment that she is really a normal, sane person who is suffering from an oppressive environment. The text suggests that if she were allowed to do the things that she wants to, like engage in “congenial work […] with excitement and change,” write with less opposition, and be allowed “more society and stimulus,” (42) her fits of illness would probably disappear. The amiable nature of the narrator’s personality is key in revealing Gilman’s desire to eradicate Nineteenth Century women of the responsibility for their illness by placing it on society’s repressive views of women.The source of the narrator’s suppression is her physician husband, which Gilman uses as a symbol of larger society. This is why she describes her husband (as well as physician brother) as men of “high standing.” These men are supposed to remind us of all men who are professionally educated and respected as authorities during this time. She recounts that she is advised to”take phosphates or phosphates, […] and tonics and air and exercise, and journeys, and am absolutely forbidden to work’ until I am well again” (42). The nature of this prescription for healing is docile and passive. Upon close analysis, it seems that her husband probably believes that her extracurricular activities, like writing and discussing challenging information, has caused her to become sick; this is based on his assumption that women are inherently weak and not able to withstand activities at the same level as men can. The narrator explains that her husband is a physician and “perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster” (41). In other words, she thinks if her husband would just let her be and allow her to try to stabilize her mind in the way she senses is best, she would recover better. Gilman correlates the narrator’s increasing delusion with her husband’s advice. When she asks for more stimulation, he says “the very worst thing [she] can do is to think about [her] condition” (42). Interestingly, this causes her to transition into her obsession with the yellow wallpaper. Her immediate response is: “So I will let it alone and talk about the house” (42). Obviously, her husband’s advice is not effective, yet here, we see that it causes much harm. Gilman takes care to construct the novel in this way to say that the way larger society views and treats women’s issues is wrong and very damaging. They should not hold the view that women are fragile and in need of delicate care. Most likely, she would be happy to see women engaging in public discussion forums, participating in recreational sports, and writing novels and short stories.One reason the husband has erroneous and destructive advice is that he refuses to listen to his wife’s thoughts and requests. On the other hand, he suppresses them. In the middle of the story, the narrator’s physical health begins to improve and her husband is happy at this progress. However, she alerts him that she is “Better in body perhaps–” But her husband condescends and rebukes her:My darling […] I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so? (50)This quote shows that Gilman believes that women will be healthier if their voices are permitted to speak and respected. She is warning society that their way of dealing with women is causing them to be sick, and their method to cure this sickness needs to be improved. She demands society to regard women as strong emotional and intellectual creatures who should be allowed the same freedoms as men. Thus, she warms society that it better listen to the requests of its women before it is too late.Gilman creates this fascinating tale of a woman who slowly grows crazy so that readers can track the influence that her husband’s advice plays in worsening her condition. She writes it in the first person so that readers can experience a piece of her situation and be drawn to care. All in all, “The Yellow Paper” is a story Gilman writes to disarm society’s faulty understanding that women are fragile and incapable of intellectual stimulation. She subtly demands society to find another approach in viewing women, which in her view is strong, capable creatures who are entitled to creative capacity through writing and stimulating discussion.
The literary element of mood portrays the atmosphere of the work through its words and descriptions in order to create an emotional response within the reader. This allows the reader to develop an emotional attachment and interest in the story, as well as to better understand the characters’ feelings or emotional situations and the work as a whole. Mood is one of the major literary elements which brings life and emotion to a story. There are several ways to portray the mood throughout the literary work – including the setting, tone, diction, and theme of the story. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” both use mood effectively.
One of the earliest ways for mood to be created in a story is through the setting. The setting can provide a background of the character or the events which take place. Since the reader will typically learn the setting early on, it provides one of the first key introductions to the story and overall mood. “The Yellow Wallpaper” starts out with a brief introduction to the setting; and later on in the story, the narrator describes their temporary home in greater detail. Through Gilman’s description of the upstairs bedroom and the wallpaper, the reader begins to get an understanding of the narrator’s unease and disgust with the wallpaper and a feel for its importance to the story. As the story progresses, the reader can sense an eerie and foreboding feeling of what will come. As in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the mood of “The Tell-Tale Heart” can also be expressed through the setting. The setting, although somewhat vague, plays a valuable role in the story’s plot and mood. Although the old man’s house is never described to the reader in detail, Poe uses descriptions such as “his room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness” so the reader can get an idea of the character’s surroundings to visualize the scene (284). Even though a minor description is given of the old man’s house in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, there is the common similarity of the setting between the two stories. Both narrators are at a house which isn’t theirs, and the role of the houses relate back to the character’s emotional state and apparent insanity. This occurrence could indicate one of the similarities between the two stories’ overall moods, as well as the feelings and actions of the characters.
Another method of creating the mood of a story is through the writer’s tone. The tone of a story and the attitude of the writer is what brings about the reader’s emotions and feelings throughout the work. The point of view of the writer can play a major role in how the reader relates to the story or characters. “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” are told through first person as the events of the stories are occurring, so everything is being viewed from the character’s perspective. Through the first person perspective, the reader is able to better understand the character’s feelings and emotions than if it were being told through a third entity. In the two stories, it doesn’t take long for the reader to figure out the mood of the story and understand the narrator’s current state through their descriptions. Poe and Gilman wrote “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” through the point of view of someone who comes across to the reader as insane (or one who is becoming insane). This sense of insanity and the overall writing style help add to the reader’s interest and emotional appeal to the story, along with fully developing the mood.
Mood can also be created through the use of diction. Diction is the writer’s word choice in order to convey characters’ emotions and depict places, events, and other characters. How the author chooses their word choice plays a large part in the reader’s feelings towards the character or event. In many of Poe’s works, he often uses repetition of words or phrases to portray the mood of the story and the character’s mental state. Similarly to how Poe often uses repetition of words and phrases in many of his stories, Gilman repeats numerous phrases expressing the narrator’s dislike towards the wallpaper. Both stories are written through first person, and both narrators sound more insane than sane. In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator constantly keeps insisting throughout the story that he is not mad and how he will calmly tell his story. Whereas in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Gilman’s word choice throughout the story consistently make the narrator sound as though she is frantic and on the verge of going insane in that bedroom (if not already insane). The descriptions Gilman gives in relation to the setting and the narrator’s feelings toward the wallpaper also add to the overall effect of her word choice. Critics suggest that – rather than Gilman simply stating the artistic failure of the wallpaper – the way the wallpaper is described as a grotesque figure “transforms her narrative into a disturbing, startling, and darkly ironic tale” (Hume 477). Gilman’s detailed description of the wallpaper leads readers to become captivated by it while also leaving an ominous feeling in the back of the mind. The diction of the story is what allows the reader to get put inside the character’s head in order to understand how they think and feel.
Another common way for mood to be created in a story is through the overall theme. Theme is considered to be the main idea or meaning behind a story. Often times, the theme can be left to be determined by the reader since it is not typically stated outright. The two stories portray a dark and ominous theme, and there are several examples throughout “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” of the common theme of insanity. Among many of Poe’s stories and poems, insanity is a frequent reoccurrence. According to one critic, Poe creates a theme in his works “where the lines between sanity and insanity blur in a nightmare atmosphere” (Witherington 472). “The Tell-Tale Heart” creates an insane and nightmare-like feeling in the reader, speaking to the reader as though they have now become an accomplice to the murder the narrator has committed. Similar to the atmosphere of “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Yellow Wallpaper” creates an atmosphere of fear and insanity which entertains its readers. This idea of insanity in both stories is a major theme since it would be considered a significant and repeated idea in both stories. The setting, tone, and diction of a story can all play a role in the reader interpreting the theme; and all of these literary methods help to create and determine the mood of a story.
Mood is one of the literary elements which has a major role in a story and the reader’s emotions and thoughts on the story. The mood ensures the reader’s interest and emotional attachment to the story, as well as their comprehension of any messages being conveyed from the writer. Similarities in the moods and ideas of two stories will allow the reader to make connections between the two, as in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Yellow Wallpaper”. A well-developed mood will add depth and value to the writer’s work. Both “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” are memorable and stir up similar thoughts and feelings in the reader due to the frequent similarities between their settings, tone, diction, and theme.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents readers with the theme of a woman restrained by her more powerful husband. When a woman being treated for hysteria by her domineering spouse is forced to stay in a room with maddening yellow wallpaper, she is eventually driven insane, imagining a woman is trapped inside the pattern. She herself is trapped in a world where women are not taken seriously and are dismissed as hysterical. Gilman’s choice of a first person point of view – more specifically one of a woman writing in a diary – helps to emphasize the frightening situation of the woman in the story. The unique point of view allows readers to see not only the internal feelings of a woman essentially imprisoned, but also the implications of writing such a diary and the moments when the woman is holding back (or being held back).
It must be admitted that there is a problem with having a first person narrator in a work of fiction. A certain degree of reliability is lost when readers only hear one side of the story, especially when it’s impossible to tell if that one side of the story is even true. Gilman certainly sets up the narrator of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” to be less than perfectly truthful. Soon after the story opens, the narrator says of her husband John, “You see he does not believe I am sick!” (Gilman 1670) Later she is described as a woman with an “imaginative power and habit of story-making” (1672). And by the end of the story when the narrator believes there is a woman inside the wallpaper, the reader knows she is not speaking from an objective point of view. However, Gilman actually uses this unreliability of the narrator to her advantage. A key part of this story is the fact that this woman is trapped in this situation because her husband won’t listen to her – she’s hysterical, and moreover, a woman in 1892. She begs him to move to a different room without the yellow wall-paper, but he tells her not to “give way to such fancies” (1672). Gilman takes this concept and turns it on its head, plunging the reader into a story told by someone who nobody listens to. The reader is forced to listen. Even as she descends into madness, the reader stays with her and listens to her internal thoughts. She might not be reliable, but she becomes relatable when the reader hears her point of view. Through her telling of things, the antagonist John becomes the more unreliable one in the story, the one who is feeding his wife lies, even though in the world the story takes place in, John is a “physician of high standing” (1670) and his word is the one that matters! But Gilman expertly causes readers to believe the hallucinating woman over her doctor husband, simply through point of view.
To fully understand the importance of perspective in this story, a reader must consider the medium through which it is being told: in a diary. Not only that, but a secret diary. There are implications to having such a diary, because the woman’s husband will not allow her to write. When he or his sister comes into the room, the narrator must hide it. This aspect of the point of view is important because what the narrator is telling the reader is something she cannot say aloud. “I would not say it to a living soul, of course,” she writes, “but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind” (Gilman 1670). These words are trapped within the pages of a diary – “dead paper” – just as the woman is trapped in the wallpaper, and just as the narrator is trapped in her marriage.This diary format also allows readers little glimpses into the way genders were viewed at this time, but from a woman’s perspective. There are subtleties in the things she writes that portray men as the dominant (and domineering) members of society. For example, the narrator observes that “The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it” (Gilman 1671). She says this because it is “stripped off in great patches” (1671) and looking tattered and abused. The narrator does not consciously realize she is doing so, but mentioning this offers readers insight into the way she views the opposite sex: as destructive. She sees something destroyed and automatically assumes boys did it – and by the end of the story, her mental health is destroyed because of the man in her life.
Another subtle clue into the gender roles in this story is in the fact that the woman’s name is never mentioned. Usually in a story, the more important characters are given names. Because it’s told from her point of view, hers is never discovered. Yet John’s name is mentioned 45 times in this short story. It is scattered everywhere, emphasizing his importance and his hold on her life. In fact, this constant talk of John contributes greatly to the voice of the speaker. Her train of thought is often interrupted with but John this and but John that. A perfect example of this follows: “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus – but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad” (Gilman 1670). This single sentence illustrates the relationship between the two. In the first part are the woman’s thoughts. But these thoughts are always subdued by her husband’s prescriptions and advice. Ultimately, in this father-knows-best society, they affect the way she perceives her own opinions. She values his above her own, and adopts them, thinking perhaps he is right, as shown in the final clause of that sentence.
In this story (at least in the beginning of it before she goes insane), the first person perspective shows the restraint of the woman, reflecting the way she is restrained by her husband. Going even further than all the but Johns in the narrative, the woman writes with a style that is reticent and self-conscious; she keeps herself in check and reflects on any “rebellion” she might feel, like when she says, “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition” (Gilman 1671). She dismisses her own thoughts as unimportant, making excuses for them, because in her life she has become accustomed to being dismissed. She thinks there is no way to justify her feelings other than blaming it on her illness. After all, that’s what her husband does. Another part that highlights this dismissiveness is when she says, “I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim” (1672), referring to wanting to move to a room that would make her less uncomfortable. John is constantly referred to as “dear,” while she is the “unreasonable” and “silly” one. “It is so hard to talk with John about my case,” she says, “because he is so wise, and because he loves me so” (1675). The reader can tell he is the antagonist in the story, but the irony is that she portrays him as the “good guy.” Later in the story, however, the perspective shows that the woman is becoming less restrained in her writing, having grown bold with insanity. She starts to portray John as the tyrant he is. She admits she is “a little afraid of [him]” (1677). And at the very end, she no longer thinks of him as the wise, dear husband at all. She even refers to him in a diminutive manner as she creeps around the room in the climax – “It is no use, young man, you can’t open it!” she declares (1680).
Had the story been told from a third person perspective, the reader would not be able to gain such insight into the subtleties of the woman’s view of her situation. Her restrained voice would not be apparent, and the story would lack the dramatic implications of the secret diary. Had it been told from the point of view of another character – John’s or his sister’s – the woman’s insanity would be the central theme, as opposed to her being subdued by her spouse. The first person point of view is crucial to developing this theme. In “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Gilman uses perspective to create an important feminist work that examines women’s issues from a woman’s point of view.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter Eighth Edition. Baym, Nina, et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013. 1669-1681. Print.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was characterized as a time of growing change for women in terms of rights and freedom. As evidenced in “Editor’s Note: Contexts of The Awakening,” women’s acceptance of traditional female roles began dissipating, and women sought to become vocal participants within society. However, many women continued to suffer under a highly patriarchal society, where the male was the dominant figurehead in the household. Women and men largely lived within separate spheres of society, with women expected to live their lives within the home, maintaining the well-being of their families. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” present similar stories of the plight of women in an oppressive and misogynistic society. In both literary works, the respective female protagonists feel suffocated by the stifling expectations of society and rebel both consciously and subconsciously against the restrictive conventions of societal norms through rejecting the conventions associated with womanhood. Ultimately, both characters tragically liberate themselves from the societal bounds imposed on them by departure from the conscious world, via suicide in The Awakening and insanity in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
During the time of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the limitations in role on many women prevented them from exploring their independence outside of the home. As seen in Louisiana, most married women were the legal property of their husbands, and “the Napoleonic code was still the basis of state law governing the marriage contract” (Editor’s Note 119). Justice Bradley further asserts in Bradwell vs. Illinois that “The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator” (WWL 77). His opinion is a direct testament to the universally accepted truth of the time- that women were to only take on roles within the domestic sphere of society. However, while societal expectations and conventions required a married woman to subvert her own needs to those of her husband and her children, protagonist Edna Pontellier is unwilling to suppress her personal desires for the benefit of her family, and instead chooses her own personal self-fulfillment and autonomy. As Edna begins “to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (Chopin 14), she defies the stereotypes of a subdued and devoted housewife, and rebels against the cultural demands of submissiveness that are expected of her. Her deviation from societal norms is evidenced in her choice to move out of the house she shares with her husband Leonce Pontellier into a smaller pigeon house of her choosing, as well as in her choice to openly pursue a sexual relationship with Alcee Arobin and a romantic relationship with Robert Lebrun. The culmination of Edna’s rebellion against society’s conventions occurs when she experiences her sexual awakening through Alcee Arobin. Edna’s initial interactions with Alcee bring her a sense of exhilaration and liberation, evidenced in her description of her kiss with Alcee as “a flaming torch that kindled desire” (Chopin 80) that left her with “an overwhelming feeling of irresponsibility” (Chopin 80). Later, by willingly choosing to continue pursuing Alcee’s sexual advances, Edna risks her reputation as a woman in society and is portrayed as a character with sexual desires, making her an equal counterpart to Alcee in their relationship. By having equal responsibility for the actions in her relationship with Alcee, Edna is no longer seen as the weaker and submissive gender, and thus defies the set of rules prescribed by society for how a woman should behave.
The conflict between Edna’s desires for independence financially, artistically, and socially and her lack of desire to meet the societal ideals that bind her to caring for her children is further exacerbated through the gender stereotypes imposed on her by the world she lives in. As Leonce Pontellier describes, “If it was not a mother’s place to look after children, whose on earth is it?” (Chopin 7). Her husband’s expectations of her, which run parallel to society’s expectations of her, directly contribute to Edna’s feelings of confinement and limitation. Edna is expected to place her family above all else and sacrifice herself to belong to her husband and her children, thus making her one who is meant to serve others. This notion is supported by Dorothea Dix, who proposes that “Chief and foremost among those [women’s] oppressors are children. In her desire to be a good mother, and to do everything possible for her child’s welfare, the average mother permits herself to be made a martyr before she realizes it” (WWL 149). Edna, however, is unwilling to make the sacrifices to her family that are expected of her, and instead chooses to pursue her own personal pleasures by moving into her own living quarters, taking up painting, and pursuing her own sexual relations. Regardless, the looming presence of societal pressures continue to haunt Edna. Despite experiencing joy and liberation following her interactions with Alcee, Edna is still faced with the fact that society forbids her from deriving true happiness from her sexual relations. As a married woman and a mother, Edna is first and foremost bound to her husband and children. Additionally, Edna soon recognizes that although her sexual encounters may bring her happiness in the moment, they are ultimately tied to the permanent reality of motherhood, a sense of enslavement to the family. Edna realizes that she is incapable of living up to society’s expectations of being a dutiful wife and mother due to their significantly constraining nature, and resolves that though her husband and her children were a part of her life, they “need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul” (Chopin 109), and decides that “she would never sacrifice herself for her children (Chopin 108). Tragically, the only way that Edna feels that she can reconcile her true desire for an existence as an individual is through suicide.
A similar sense of female oppression is seen in the context of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” where others, particularly the narrator’s husband, fail to treat the female narrator as an individual in the Victorian era. In a world where the male is the dominant gender, the narrator is exceedingly patronized by her husband John, and her individual identity is suppressed through his actions. The narrator’s passing remarks such as “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage” (Gilman 1598) and “he is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction” (Gilman 1599) detail the suffocating nature of the narrator’s relationship with her husband and reveal how the narrator blindly conforms to her husband’s wishes. She later reveals that despite her love for writing, “He hates to have me write a word” (Gilman 1599). Through this revelation, it is clear that the narrator is trapped in a marriage that does not allow her to have any freedom. The narrator’s inability to express herself in a meaningful way eventually leads her to associate herself with the woman she sees in the wallpaper of her room who looks to be, like her, behind bars or in a cage. John further represses the narrator by forcing her to accept that her own thoughts and opinions do not represent reality, and that the only opinions truly deemed as “correct” are the ones expressed by the men who care for her.
John’s use of words such as “little girl” (Gilman 1604) and “blessed little goose” (Gilman 1600) when referring to his wife evidence his condescending tone and attitude towards her. His use of infantile language when talking with the narrator further shows how he overrides the narrator’s judgment on what treatment is best for her mental illness and how he deems her thoughts to be inferior to his own. His skewed opinions are felt by the narrator when she confides that “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows that there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him” (Gilman 1599). In her confession, the narrator reveals how she feels that her emotions are utterly ignored and how she gets no say in any matters regardless of what she wants or how she feels. His unfair treatment leads the female protagonist to struggle to maintain her sanity and determine for herself what is real. She increasingly feels her powerlessness as she tries to repress her progressively troubling feelings, revealed through her growing certainty that there is something behind the wallpaper of the room she lives in. The narrator describes seeing a woman who is unable to climb through the pattern, a metaphor for her own life and the bindings that her husband has placed on her which are too strong for her to fight. By conforming to and never directly fighting against the male opinion, the female protagonist ultimately succumbs to her own helplessness and departs the conscious world through being driven to insanity.
In both Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” female protagonists struggle with living under an oppressive environment created by social expectations. The highly patriarchal society stifles both women, though to a varying degree. While protagonist Edna Pontellier in The Awakening voluntarily chooses to break herself free from the shackles of societal ideals through suicide, the female narrator in the “The Yellow Wallpaper” gradually succumbs to her debilitating mental condition unconsciously. Regardless of how the female protagonists choose to deal with their societal expectations, both ultimately end up resisting and freeing themselves from the chains of society through self-destruction. Through the actions of the female protagonists, both Chopin and Gilman demonstrate the tragic cost of patriarchy for women who cannot conform to the narrow, restrictive, and unrealistic conventions expected of them by the society they live in.
Although the feminist movement began to make a solid appearance in the United States in the mid 19th century, successful results did not show until the early 20th century. In the 1800s, women held little importance in society and had little to no voice. They had almost no power since they were not allowed to vote and were expected to be subordinate in marriage by always obliging to their husbands orders without any objection. The oppression of women in both marriage and society throughout the late 19th century is reflected in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In this story, the narrator was diagnosed with temporary nervous depression with a slight hysterical tendency by her physician husband and as a result they lived in a secluded colonial mansion for the summer as treatment. During their three months stay, the wife had very little interaction with the outside world, was forbidden from doing strenuous activities, and was not supposed to write. Due to her constant isolation and slim activity, she progressively hallucinated a woman who was trapped in the wallpaper of her room, and was trying to break free. The woman in the wallpaper was a reflection of the progressive woman in the United States during the late 19th century. Many readers would argue that the narrator was actually mentally ill from the beginning, however the “sickness” she experienced was a result of both her husband and society restricting her and every other woman’s actions and freedom.
For treatment to the narrator’s “illness” that was diagnosed by her husband, she underwent a less severe regimen of the rest cure for twelve weeks. The rest cure treatment was developed by Silas Weir Mitchell in the 1870s, the most prominent physician in the treatment of neurasthenia in the United States at the time, and was practiced widely throughout the U.S. and western Europe until the mid-1930s (Stiles). His therapy consisted of five elements: extreme bed rest, seclusion, dietary changes, massages, and electricity. The patients are removed from their home and family and are cared for by nurses. They also aren’t allowed to read or write or create a lot of neural stimulation. For at least five weeks, the patient is bedridden and can only leave to use the bathroom. Because of this, massages and electricity were used to prevent muscular atrophy. As for their diet, they mostly drank milk because of its high fat content. The treatment was used mostly on women that had severe nervous system issues which included hypochondria, hysteria, and temporary nervous depression (Poirier). Supposedly, many women actually benefitted from the treatment, however numerous patients developed negative psychological responses just like the ones the narrator experienced.
The effects the narrator experienced from the rest cure were anxiety, hallucinations, depression, and paranoia. Although Dr. Mitchell and other medical experts weren’t fully aware of the physiological effects during the 19th century, recent researchers were able to uncover the negative outcomes of bed rest and isolation. Multiple studies have shown that long periods of bedrest can cause a patient to show symptoms of depression, anxiety, forgetfulness, and confusion. The lack of personal control and freedom one feels during bedrest is a factor in the cause of these symptoms (Breslow). Since the narrator’s husband made almost all of her decisions and wanted her to stay in her bed most of the time with little brain stimulation, it comes as no surprise that the wife is experiencing the negative psychological effects. Studies investigating the psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement reveal that “hallucinations, insomnia, paranoia, uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear, and distortions of time and perception” can occur (Weir). Even though the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” did not experience the same severity of isolation as prisoners in solitary confinement, it is expected that her symptoms are similar considering she spent the three months powerless in a secluded mansion under her husband’s overpowering actions and patriarchal tendencies.
Although the rest cure technique was one factor into the narrator’s anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations that led her to “free” the trapped woman in the wallpaper at the end of the story, another cause of her actions were from the restraints put on her emotional and physical freedom by her husband and the patriarchal society in the 19th century. Just like almost every other woman during that time period, the narrator didn’t have a voice in her marriage or society— unable to make her own choices such as writing in her journal, picking the room she will stay in for three months, and deciding who visits her. When she was fixated on the details of the wallpaper, the narrator perceived part of the design as a woman who was stuck in the wall and unable to break free. She described the woman in the wallpaper as “” (). When she ripped the wallpaper at the end of the story and “freed” the woman, it represented the narrator’s escape from the patriarchal and sexist gender roles that prevented equality in the American 19th century.
By the mid-1800s, the fight for women’s suffrage became prevalent. In July 1848 Seneca Falls, New York, the first meeting dedicated to women’s rights took place and around 100 women attended with two-thirds of them being female. Smaller women’s rights conventions were also being convened across the United States which were prominently in the North. These groups were able to have the Married Women’s Property Act adopted in numerous states in 1882, which allowed married women control over their own property and income. Other regulations were also being enacted across America, such as the a New York Law created in 1860 that “gives women joint custody over their children and the right to sue and be sued” (Eisenberg et. al). The first state to grant women full voting was was Wyoming in 1869, and the other states that passed suffrage laws in the 19th century were Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), and Idaho (1896) (Crumrin et. al). These activists were not just fighting for the right to vote, but were striving for social, economic, and educational equality. Just like the rest of the women in the late 1800s, the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is struggling with the lack of freedom and civil rights apparent in society. The frustration and stress from the inferiority she feels while stranded alone in the house with her misogynistic and obstinate husband ultimately leads to her psychotic breakdown in hopes to break free from the oppression.