Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a commentary on the male oppression of women in a patriarchal society. However, the story itself presents an interesting look at one woman’s struggle to deal with both physical and mental confinement. This theme is particularly thought-provoking when read in today’s context where individual freedom is one of our most cherished rights.
Gen Caruso states “The Yellow Wallpaper was based on Gilman’s personal experience with postpartum depression and treatment received by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, pioneer of the Rest Cure. ” (4) The Yellow Wallpaper begins with the narrator’s description of the physically confining elements surrounding her. The story is cast in an isolated estate, set back from the road and located three miles from town. The property boasts protective hedges that surround the garden, walls that surround the estate, and locked gates which guarantee seclusion.
Even the connecting garden represents confinement, with box-bordered paths and grape-covered arbors. This isolation continues within the mansion itself.Although she preferred the downstairs room with roses all over the windows that opened on the piazza, the narrator finds herself relegated to an out of the way dungeon-like nursery on the second floor, appropriately equipped with “rings and things” in the walls. Windows in each direction provide glimpses of the garden, arbors, bushes, and trees. The bay is visible, as is a private wharf that adjoins the estate.
These views reinforce isolationism; they can be seen from the room, but not touched or experienced. There is a gate at the head of the stairs, presumably to keep the children contained in their play area.Additionally, the bed is immovable as it has been nailed to the floor. It is here that the narrator secretly describes her slow decent into madness. Although the physical confinement drains the narrator’s strength and will, the mental and emotional confinement symbolized in the story play an important role in her ultimate fall into dementia. By being forced to be her own company, she is confined within her mind. Likewise, part of the narrator’s mental confinement stems from her recognition of her physical confinement.
The depression the narrator has experienced associated with child bearing is mentally confining as well.Specifically, she cannot control her emotions or manage her guilt over her inability to care for her child. These structures of confinement contribute to the rapid degeneration of her faculties. As the wife of a prominent physician in the late nineteenth century, the narrator’s assumption of the typical female role illustrates one aspect of the symbolic confinement present within both the story and the society.
She is subservient and deferential to her husband John who enjoys the power traditionally associated with his sex and additional authority afforded him by his status as a doctor.By keeping her underemployed and isolated, John effectively ensures his wife’s dependence on him. John’s control over his wife is typical of the control most men had over women in the late nineteenth century. . John, the narrator’s husband, is a prominent doctor and both his and his wife’s words and actions reflect the aforementioned stereotype: “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage,” (9). This statement illustrates the blatant sexism of society at the time.
John does not believe that his wife is sick, while she is really suffering from post-partum depression.He neglects to listen to his wife in regard to her thoughts, feelings, and health through this thought pattern. According to him, there is not anything wrong with his wife except for temporary nerve issues, which should not be serious. By closing her off from the rest of the world, he is taking her away from things that important to her mental state; such as her ability to read, write and her need for human interaction.
He doesn’t even allow her to make her own decisions. He decides everything on her behalf, including what room she will stay in and who she will be allowed to see.He diagnoses her postpartum depression as a “temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency” and in doing so, diminishes her complaints and demeans her individuality. His prescribed treatment is worse than the disease; every hour is scheduled, she is forbidden to write, told what to think, and prohibited from acting as mother to her child.
John’s behavior illustrates his covert efforts to control his wife as well. He looks to the narrator’s brother, who is also a physician, to validate his diagnosis and prescribed cure, making it even more difficult for the narrator to challenge the prescription herself.The narrator’s husband, brother, and their colleagues all feel that isolation and bed rest is the best way to fix her problem, which is practically nonexistent in their eyes. Throughout the beginning of the story, the narrator tends to buy into the idea that the man is always right and makes excuses for her feelings and his actions and words: “It is so hard to talk to John about my case, because he is so wise and because he loves me so,” (23). In a good relationship, each partner should be able to express one’s own thoughts and feelings. Honesty in one of the most important characteristics a relationship should have.In this case, the narrator feels that she cannot tell him how she feels so as not to upset him and make him mad. When the narrator does attempt to have a discussion with John, she ends up crying and not being able to express herself.
John treats her like a child as men believed that crying is just something that women do and is something that shows weakness. Eventually she begins to become frightened of John and as she goes bad, his normalcy is seen as queer in her eyes. He repeatedly diminishes her by laughing at her and not taking her grievances seriously.The narrator complains “John does not know how much I really suffer.
He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him. ” John’s contempt for his wife’s ideas is blatant; he refers to her as a “little girl,” and when she requests that she be moved to a different room downstairs, he “took her in his arms and called her a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if she wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain. ” That he is only willing to move her into the basement, instead of allowing her a room of her choice, epitomizes his domineering personality.The woman represents the narrator as well as women in general and the movement for women’s rights. The narrator also can represent any woman and the struggle that woman went through to get closer to achieving equality. John’s sister, Jennie, comes to help take care of the narrator.
Jennie is the epitome of a woman who falls into the conventional female role: “She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession,” (18). The narrator attempts to keep her writing a secret from Jennie, so that her one outlet will not be taken away.At some times, it seems as though the narrator pities Jennie and feels sorry for Jennie’s pathetic views.
As the narrator descends into madness, her views on society change and become more modern. She is emancipating herself from the docile role that a woman should play. Gilman uses the narrator and the symbolism in The Yellow Wall-Paper, to show society’s views on women. The narrator eventually goes against common culture and becomes a feminist.
Men thought the feminist movement was weak and useless, while comparatively, men like John thought their wives were weak and useless outside the home.At the story’s conclusion, the narrator was directing her own footsteps and in reality, women are doing the same. As the woman descends into madness, she notices that the pattern in the wallpaper “become bars” in the moonlight and that “the woman behind it is as plain as can be. ” Many believe that the woman inside the wallpaper is the women herself. This woman is symbolic of the narrator’s own confinement by the patriarchal society she lives in.
Moreover, we see that the wallpaper is a metaphor of her fractured mental state. She describes the chaotic pattern that will follow “. . . he lame uncertain curves for a little distance.
. . suddenly committing suicide–plunging off at outrageous angles, destroying themselves in unheard of contradictions,” alluding to her own, and society’s, eventual destruction in the absence of enlightened change.
Furthermore, the narrator acknowledges that she is representative of most women of her time with the statement “I think there are a great many women [behind the paper]. “The effect of John’s oppression on the narrator is severe. At the climax of her insanity she writes that she can see the woman from behind the wallpaper pattern “out of every one of my windows! The narrator continues: “It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight. I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines. I don’t blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight! That evening the narrator noticed the woman in the pattern begin to crawl and shake the wallpaper in an effort to break free from it, just as she would like to break free from the confines and restrictions imposed on her by society and her husband John.In her diary she describes helping the woman tear down the paper: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled . .
. .” Most of the paper was removed the next day while the narrator watched many women creeping around in the street. At the end of the story the narrator has surprised John, who has come home from work to find her creeping around the room.
She proclaims “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back! Although the reader might pity the narrator’s inability to challenge John’s authority, one must view the events of the story within the context of the 1860’s. At this time, society would not tolerate such assertiveness from women.
Moreover, the tragic story ends with a paradox. By definition, one who is mentally ill is not healthy. However, the narrator finds freedom, and apparently health, by rejecting an insane society and losing her identity to the wallpaper. In contrast, the reader concludes the narrator is now confined by her insanity, and cannot be free.