The Yellow Wallpaper: Women’s Rights in the Nineteenth Century
Nineteenth century society saw the concept of separate spheres being used in society as so to help women understand their place in society, the ideology rested balanced on the definition of the ‘natural’ characteristics of men and women. Men were seen to be the superior sex and women as inferior, both physically and mentally, it was seen to be unhealthy for women to partake in activities that could exert or strain themselves both physical and mentally. Which led to the belief that women were best suited to the domestic sphere, leading many women in that time to grown up believing that their sole purpose in life was to become a wife and mother. There were however women who challenged these beliefs, among these were courageous women were female writers who in turn faced multiple challenges and obstacles when they stepped out of their spheres to becoming professional writers like that of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin.
The nineteenth century men dominated the literature world with the general view of female writers was that they were thought to lack the certain characteristic that made a good writer as they were often categorized as either angelic or monstrous beings and did not possess the emotions of anger, ambition, honour and passion to adequately write a gripping and successful story. Many critics “did not believe that women could express more than half of life” (….) While the nineteenth century is referred to the age of the female novelist characterized by the great female writers of the time like that of Mary Shelley, Jane Austen and George Elliot they still faced many obstacles starting from their childhood, compared to their male counterparts young girls were restricted from reading various types of literature that would be seen as unhealthy for girls to read in fear that it would cause resentment and dissatisfaction in these young girls and later threaten society by them wanting to enter the public sphere. Something that was solely seen for men. Novels that were written for girls were stories that defended womens place in society and written in a way to help them realise the role they are supposed to follow. Known as didactic fiction, supporting the gender-roles of society, rather than impowering girls. Consequently, didactic fiction was “fuelled by the wish to control as far as possible, if not stifle, independent feminine desires” (….) This form of fiction caused great difficulties for female writes of the time who wanted to break free from the gender-role base fiction as they were limited to what would be considered socially acceptable and had to understand that that being a writer was to come second to being a woman and a mother as that must always be their main profession. Leading many women to often use a male pseudonym to escape the boundaries placed on their gender and be valued and ranked at the same level as men, like that of George Elliot and the Bronte sisters. However, as novels by women became more common this practice became less frequent and men had to acknowledge that there were women with a real talent for writing fiction.
Gillman’s haunting psychological thriller and feminist master piece highlighting both the social and political commentary was written at the beginning of the progressive era within America, The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story from Gillman’s own experience of mental health and a critique of the way society worked among the genders and the way in which the lives of women were controlled. Gillman believed “Women need to have opportunity to work, grow and make connections outside of the home” (….) Gillman used the form of a short story and a compelling tale psychological decline to convey what she believed to be the dire circumstances of the time for women in a male dominate society, as a prominent figure in the first -wave of feminism her work served as way to highlight the lack of independence in women’s live and how it undermined their mental and emotional well-being. Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour was written a year after the first U.S state granted women the right to vote and displays the idea of female’s independence and the obstacles in place to achieve it. Focusing on how women in the 19th century are meant to behave, especially in emotional circumstances, while Mrs Mallards character is described at the beginning of the story “…..” reinforcing the idea that women as a whole are physical weak and must abstain from becoming excited. Gillman claimed that women were the underdeveloped part of humanity and only when the dynamic of the patriarchy changed would women finally be free from the confines of domestic life towards an economically rewarding life. These views are evidently shown within the themes of The Yellow Wallpaper of conformity vs self-expression which can be seen through the narrator and her husband. John has decided that she must be inactive and remain in her room, abstaining from any physically and mentally straining activities, even that of tending to their new born child. Because John is not only her husband but also a doctor the narrator has no choice but to obey. As a woman and wife, she must conform to the norms of society. Her need for self-expression reveals itself through her private journal, the narrator’s sense that the act of writing, which she has been forbidden to do “….” is what she need to feel better suggests this is a stifled form of self-expression. Due to her being unable to communicate with her husband without judgement and misunderstanding the diary becomes an outlet for the thoughts that was would him to worry and become upset “…..” The depth of the conversations that are recorded within the diary reveal the extent in which her husband John misunderstands her inner life, our ability as the reader to see the miscommunication creates a dramatic irony, which shows when we learn more as to what is going on with the characters, seeing how dramatically her relationship changes with her husband and how blind he is to her growing distance the longer she stays in the yellow room. As the reader we can see this but being the reader, we are unable to do anything about it, coming to inhabit a similar position to that of the narrator and her growing isolation.
The Yellow Wallpaper is written in first person in the form of a journal by a nameless narrator, reading the series of entries within the diary that make up the short story we as the reader are privileged position to witness the narrator become fixated and her decent into madness, which is foreshadowed by her increasing paranoia and obsession with the figure hidden behind the wallpaper. As the narrator’s gradual mental breakdown is portrayed, we are offered an insight into the perception of mental illness and treatment available in the late 19th century. ‘The rest cure’ developed by Silas Weir Mitchell was a treatment often used to deal with hysteria, neurasthenia and over nervous illnesses. With isolation from friends and family, enforced bed rest and reducing the patients to the dependency of a child believing that the complete lack of any responsibility and exertion would help the patient get better by removing them from any toxic atmosphere at home. (Stiles, 2012) This treatment however was seen more to break a womens will to conform to a mans will, reinforcing the notion that women should submit without question to male authority. You could in a sense see the story as a form of propaganda critizing the ways in which mental illness was ‘cured’ as Gillman herself received a very similar treatment to that of the narrator by Silas Wier Mitchell who she names in her story.
The forced confinement of the narrator and her husband instructions to abstain from wiring or any other activities mirrors that of Gillman’s own experience. The narrator’s decline into madness is demonstrated through her feelings towards the wallpaper in the first few entries of the story we see her distain for the wallpaper “….” the small sinister details within the room foreshadow the rooms sinister past, the bars on the windows and stripped off wallpaper which could be the result of a previously ill occupant. Creating suspense and suggesting that the narrator’s experience is one shared with other women; the narrator is one of many women affected by societies treatment towards them. With the narrator’s obsession growing in her isolation, her relationship with the wallpaper changes and mirrors her declining mental condition, expressing that “….” and while her paranoia grows, she blames the wallpaper, the symbol of her sickness believing there is a woman or possible multiple women trapped behind bars within the wallpaper, the narrator is similarly trapped within her mental state, desperate to escape the grasp of her sickness and that of society that has forced her into this room with the confusing wallpaper and bars on the windows due the its views on women and mental illness a parallel to that of the woman in the wallpaper. The narrator later identifies as the woman in the wall as she descends into complete madness “….” Mirroring the actions of that of the woman trapped. The irony that the colour of the wallpaper, being the lightest hue on the spectrum is seen to be an uplifting colour, invoking hope, happiness and positivity and is often linked to infancy as a colour regularly used for children’s rooms is a powerful symbol for the rest cure and reducing its patients to the dependency of children.
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