Charlotte Perkins Gilman The Yellow Wallpaper Essays

Charlotte Perkins Gilman used her personal bout with postpartum depression to create a powerful fictional narrative which has broad implications for women. When the narrator recognizes that there is more than one trapped, creeping woman, Gilman indicates that the meaning of her story extends beyond an isolated, individual situation. Gilman’s main purpose in writing The Yellow Wallpaper is to condemn not only a specific medical treatment but also the misogynistic principles and resulting sexual politics that make such a treatment possible.

The unequal relationship between the narrator and John is a microcosm of the larger gender inequity in society. Gilman makes it clear that much of John’s condescending and paternal behavior toward his wife has little to do with her illness. He dismisses her well-thought-out opinions and her “flights of fancy” with equal disdain, while he belittles her creative impulses. He speaks of her as he would a child, calling her his “little girl” and saying of her, “Bless her little heart.” He overrides her judgments on the best course of treatment for herself as he would on any issue, making her live in a house she does not like, in a room she detests, and in an isolated environment which makes her unhappy and lonely. John’s solicitous “care” shows that he believes the prevailing scientific theories which claim that women’s innate inferiority leaves them, childlike, in a state of infantile dependence.

Gilman makes John the window through which readers can view the negative images of women in her society. In Gilman’s lifetime, women’s right to become full citizens and to vote became one of the primary issues debated in the home, the media, and the political arena. As women’s reform movements gained the strength that would eventually win the vote in 1920, the backlash became more vicious and dangerous. Noted psychologists detailed theories that “proved” women’s developmental immaturity, low cognitive skills, and emotional instability. Physicians, who actually had little knowledge of the inner workings of the female body, presented complex theories arguing that the womb created hysteria and madness, that it was the source of women’s inferiority. Ministers urged women to fulfill their duty to God and their husbands with equal submission and piety. In indicting John’s patronizing treatment of his wife, Gilman indicts the system as a whole, in which many women were trapped behind damaging social definitions of the female.

One can see the negative effects of John’s (and society’s) treatment of the narrator in her response to the rest cure. At first, she tries to fight against the growing lethargy that controls her. She even challenges John’s treatment of her. Yet, while one part of her may believe John wrong, another part that has internalized the negative definitions of womanhood believes that since he is the man, the doctor, and therefore the authority, then he may be right. Because they hold unequal power positions in the relationship and in society, she lacks the courage and self-esteem to assert her will over his even though she knows that his “treatment” is harming her. Deprived of any meaningful activity, purpose, and self-definition, the narrator’s mind becomes confused and, predictably, childlike in its fascination with the shadows in the wallpaper.

In the end, the narrator triumphs over John—she literally crawls over him—but escapes from him only into madness. As a leading feminist lecturer and writer, Gilman found other options than madness to end her confinement in traditional definitions of womanhood. Eventually, Gilman divorced her husband, who married her best friend, and her husband and her best friend reared her child. The public, friends, and family so sharply censured Gilman for her actions that she knew many women would stay in unhealthy situations rather than risk such condemnation. By having the story end with the narrator’s descent into insanity, Gilman laments the reality that few viable options exist for creative, intellectual women to escape the damaging social definitions of womanhood represented by John. In her horrifying depiction of a housewife gone mad, Gilman attempts to warn her readership that denying women full humanity is dangerous to women, family, and society as a whole.

An Essay on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Women have always struggled for equal rights with men. The feminist movement commenced several centuries ago and lasts till our days. With the course of time women managed to prove that can be as good as men almost in all spheres of life. Due to all the efforts and social activity women altered the preconceive opinion towards themselves and achieved significant results. However, it was just several centuries ago that women were in absolutely different situation. In the nineteenth century women were considered to be born only for marriage but they did not have any choice even in that sphere. Most marriages were contracted regarding financial perspectives of the future family. Sometimes marriages were just a good bargain of two heads of family, and if men had the opportunity to choose, women had to be mute. Besides, they were deprived of any rights, they had to submit to men and if they dared to resist, it was considered inconceivable.

In her book, “The yellow wallpaper”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman showed the woman that was a typical representative of female society in that time. The author presents great and vital problems of human relationship, particularly between a husband and a wife, by the example of a woman who lives under the whole control of her husband. The main character, the narrator, wants to be free in her desires. However, she is always oppressed by her husband John. She should be passive and unemotional, because for her husband it is very convenient when only his decisions are taken into account. Being the woman’s doctor, it is easier for John to control his wife. Rest cure and no active work seems the best treatment for her. Still, it depresses the narrator. She begins to hide her thoughts from her husband. She starts writing a secret journal to express her inner world, as no one around her is actually interested in it. The woman realizes her position and the fact that she can do nothing. “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?” (Gilman, 6)

However, the journal does not help the woman to get rid of oppressive thoughts about her unhappy life and indifferent husband. Therefore, her condition becomes worse, now she is more passive, more reserved, but the husband takes her passivity as the due effect of treatment. The former child nursery, where his wife spends her time, becomes a prison for her. Yellow wallpaper and bars on windows aggravate the situation. It is the wallpaper that becomes the object of her insanity, yellow wallpaper that surrounds the narrator becomes a part of her life. The reader watches how the woman gradually goes mad; it makes a strong and painful impression. When the narrator starts to see another woman in the wallpaper, readers realize that this woman is now absolutely insane. “There are things in that paper which nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern.”(Gilman, 10)

With time the narrator becomes more and more obsessed with the pattern of the wallpaper, she sleeps less and her only thought is the woman in the wallpaper. Then the author of the story shows the horror of the whole woman’s life by bitter irony that is heard in the narrator’s words: “Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be.” (Gilman, 21) The fact that now, being insane, poor woman feels happier, strikes and terrifies.

In the end of the story, the narrator decides to free the woman in the wallpaper and peels it off. In such a way she tries to free herself and to escape from her prison. Having torn off the wallpaper, she identifies herself with the woman in the wallpaper and at the same time sees other trapped women outside, creeping around. “I don’t like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?” (Gilman, 25)

Thus, the author highlights that such case of madness is not the only one. All women, being under the overall control of their husbands, unable to change the situation, suffer silently and undergo depression. The impossibility of self-development for women is the main theme of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s work. It is necessary to note that the main character does not have a name, as it is a general image of all oppressed by the society women. Meanwhile the story is told from the first person, therefore we can better feel the sufferings of the woman and besides read the thoughts of the author herself, that is of Charlotte Gilman. The message of the story is the necessity to change the status of women in that epoch and as the author said “it was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy”.(Golden, 108)

Works Cited

  • Gilman Perkins Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper”. BookSurge Classics. 2002.
  • Golden C. The Yellow Wallpaper: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition. 1 edition. Routledge. 2004. 95 – 156.

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