Gender Role Effects in "The Yellow Wallpaper"
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a feminist writer who wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the 1890’s. During this time period the woman were expected to keep the house clean, care for their children, and listen to their husbands. The men were expected to work a job and be the head of a household. The story narrates a woman’s severe depression which she thinks is linked to the yellow wallpaper. Charlotte Gilman experienced depression in her life and it inspired her to write “The Yellow Wallpaper.
” The short story is based on a woman, not given a name in the text, who is very dependent on her husband. The narrator plays a gender role that is degraded by her successful husband, who is a doctor, because she is a female. John ignores his wife’s accusations with the wallpaper and looks down on the fact that she cannot fulfill her duty as a woman, mother, or wife by treating and calling her childish names.
Throughout the whole story the narrator is trying to tell her husband that she gets a weird vibe from the house and that the yellow wallpaper is driving her insane in the bedroom she stays in. The narrator states, “That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid, but I don’t care- there is something strange about the house- I can feel it” (677). John ignores this and it angers her. Critic Davison writes, “With regard to her case, the narrator confides, “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him” (56). John tells her that she has a temporary nervous depression and a slight hysterical tendency.
He says that she just needs rest, and she will be fine. She feels she cannot do anything about it because he is not only a doctor but her husband, so she just goes on with the days living in the mansion. As a female she is supposed to respect the man of the house and have little say so. Gilman writes, “My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing” (677). With two of her family members telling her this she feels like an unsuccessful woman. She feels as if John is turning her whole family against her and her emotions. John never listens to anything his wife has to say to him. This is an example of how women feel their opinion or voice never mattered in the 1890’s.
The wife goes into great detail describing the wallpaper as if someone was really seeing it in their mind as they read the story. The paint and paper look as if a boy’s school had used it. It is stripped off- the paper- in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life. 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 suicide- plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions. The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others (678).
This description of the wallpaper obviously shows that there is something wrong with her mentally. It also shows the reader how she really feels about it and how it is affecting her, making her go insane. The narrator states, “It is stripped off- the paper- in great patches all around the head of my bed” (678). This can imply how she feels about her husband and family. They are always telling her nothing is wrong and ignore any thoughts she may have. Maybe she is tired of getting stripped down in a negative way from them such as; being ignored, treated like a child, and being locked up in the bedroom. She states, “The paper is dull enough to confuse the eye” (678). This description could imply that no one sees the paper the way she does. John might not see the crawling women because he does not have to stare at it all day every day.
The description shows the emotions and describes the way the wife really feels about her condition. She uses language such as constantly irritates and provokes study, the uncertain curves commit suicide, it plunges off at outrageous angles, and destroys themselves in unheard- of contradictions suggests that she has dark thoughts of suicide or death (678). The wife’s description of the wallpaper and room which it is in makes it seem like she lives the life of a prisoner unable to escape the yellow wallpaper. The criticism of Wang states, “The narrator lives a life like a prisoner who is being gazed and observed all the time” (53). The observers of the narrator are her husband and her nurse. This quote implies that she is literally locked up all day in one room suffering from more depression as the days move forward.
Another way John puts his wife down as a female is calling her names and acting like she is a baby. John states, “What is it, little girl?” (682). It is significant that he would call her that because she is his wife and they have a little child together. Gilman writes, “Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain” (679). He acts as if he is controlling of her being her father in a way instead of a husband.
He read to her until she got tired and that is what a father would do for his child. The adjective little also adds power to the quote because it suggests that she has no say- so as if she was his child. These words John calls her makes her refer back to her childhood. She was frightened from her childhood and this could add more agitation to her mental sickness. This is ironic because Gilman writes, “It was a 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” (678). All these things imply that she is stuck in a childhood state that she cannot escape to be the wife and mother she wishes to be.
The narrator is not mentally able to fulfill the duties a mother was expected to do in the 1890’s. She is unable to watch and take care of her child as a mother. The wife states, “It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby…Such a dear baby!” (678). Mary is a housekeeper/nurse who watches her and takes care of her child. The narrator states, “And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous” (678). This makes her feel as if she failed her role as a female because she was not able to perform the most common trait known to a woman. She is also not able to clean, cook, and keep the house up as a woman is supposed to do. She has to get Mary to do all of this for her. This could be another reason that makes her think something is really wrong with her. She is John’s wife but the things he calls her implies that she is not completing the role of a wife; therefore John treats her like a child.
“They Yellow Wallpaper” is a confusing story with a horror vibe to it. Being a female, the wife feels that she is unable to escape the name calling, the portrayal of a child, and her husband. Her biggest problem is not being able to get away from the wallpaper that causes her great depression. John claims there is nothing wrong with her throughout the whole story because she has no symptoms of any sickness. Her family members even tell her that nothing is wrong and she feels that she cannot do anything for herself. The Yellow Wallpaper is an object the narrator does not escape causing her to go insane, be depressed, and fail at the role of a female during the 1890’s. Charlotte Gilman definitely leaves the reader stumped in the interpretation of the story.
Davison, Carol M. “Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Women’s Studies 33.1 (2004): 47-75. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=3b761a93-ab69-4cb3-9112-2a84a30f9e2f%40sessionmgr4&vid=4&hid=21 Gilman, Charlotte P. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Exploring Literature. Ed. Frank Madden. New York: Pearson, 2009. 676-87. Print. Wang, Lin-lin. “Freed Or Destroyed:–A Study On ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ From The Perspective Of Foucauldian Panopticism.” US-China Foreign Language 5.3 (2007): 52-57. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&hid=21&sid=3b761a93-ab69-4cb3-9112-2a84a30f9e2f%40sessionmgr4
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