ocietyThe of the waydungeon-like nursery on the second
ocietyThe Yellow Wallpaper: Male Opression of Women in SocietyCharlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a commentary on themale oppression of women in a patriarchal society.
However, the story itselfpresents an interesting look at one woman’s struggle to deal with both physicaland mental confinement. This theme is particularly thought-provoking when readin today’s context where individual freedom is one of our most cherished rights.This analysis will focus on two primary issues: 1) the many vivid images Gilmanuses to illustrate the physical and symbolic confinement the narrator enduresduring her illness; and 2) the overall effect of, and her reaction to, thisconfinement.The Yellow Wallpaper begins with the narrator’s description of thephysically confining elements surrounding her. The story is cast in an isolatedhereditary estate, set back from the road and located three miles from town.The property boasts protective hedges that surround the garden, walls thatsurround the estate, and locked gates which guarantee seclusion. Even theconnecting garden represents confinement, with box-bordered paths and grape-covered arbors.
This isolation motif continues within the mansion itself.Although she preferred the downstairs room with roses all over the windows thatopened on the piazza, the narrator finds herself relegated to an out of the waydungeon-like nursery on the second floor, appropriately equipped with “rings andthings” 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 thatadjoins the estate. These views reinforce isolationism; they can be seen fromthe room, but not touched or experienced. There is a gate at the head of thestairs, presumably to keep the children contained in their play area.Additionally, the bed is immovable as it has been nailed to the floor.
It ishere 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 importantrole 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 mentalconfinement stems from her recognition of her physical confinement. Thedepression the narrator has experienced associated with child bearing ismentally confining as well.
Specifically, she cannot control her emotions ormanage her guilt over her inability to care for her child. These structures ofconfinement contribute to the rapid degeneration of her faculties.As the wife of a prominent physician in the late nineteenth century, thenarrator’s assumption of the typical female role illustrates one aspect of thesymbolic confinement present within both the story and the society. She issubservient and deferential to her husband John who enjoys the powertraditionally associated with his sex and additional authority afforded him byhis status as a doctor. Jean Kennard notes, “By keeping her underemployed andisolated, John effectively ensures his wife’s dependence on him” (81).
John’scontrol over his wife is typical of the control most men had over women in thelate nineteenth century. He decides everything on her behalf, including whatroom she will stay in and who she will be allowed to see. He diagnoses herpostpartum depression as a “temporary nervous depression–a slight hystericaltendency” and in doing so, diminishes her complaints and demeans herindividuality. His prescribed treatment is worse than the disease; every houris scheduled, she is forbidden to write, told what to think, and prohibited fromacting as mother to her child.John’s behavior illustrates his covert efforts to control his wife aswell. He looks to the narrator’s brother, who is also a physician, to validatehis diagnosis and prescribed cure, making it even more difficult for thenarrator to challenge the prescription herself. He repeatedly diminishes her bylaughing 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 tosuffer, and that satisfies him.” John’s contempt for his wife’s ideas isblatant; he refers to her as a “little girl,” and when she requests that she bemoved to a different room downstairs, he “took her in his arms and calledher a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if shewished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain.” That he is only willing tomove her into the basement, instead of allowing her a room of her choice,epitomizes his domineering personality.
As the woman descends into madness, she notices that the pattern in thewallpaper “becomes bars” in the moonlight and that “the woman behind it is asplain as can be.” Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar assert that the woman behindthe wallpaper is the narrator’s doppelg nger (10). This woman is symbolic of thenarrator’s own confinement by the patriarchal society she lives in. Moreover,we see that the wallpaper is a metaphor of her fractured mental state. Shedescribes the chaotic pattern that will follow “.
. . the lame uncertain curvesfor a little distance.
. . suddenly committing suicide–plunging off atoutrageous angles, destroying themselves in unheard of contradictions,” alludingto her own, and society’s, eventual destruction in the absence of enlightenedchange. Furthermore, the narrator acknowledges that she is representative ofmost women of her time with the statement “I think there are a great many womenbehind the paper.”The effect of John’s oppression on the narrator is severe.
At theclimax of her insanity she writes that she can see the woman from behind thewallpaper 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 donot creep by daylight. I see her on that long road under the trees, creepingalong, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines. I don’tblame 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 andshake the wallpaper in an effort to break free from it, just as she would liketo break free from the confines and restrictions imposed on her by society andher husband John. In her diary she describes helping the woman tear down thepaper: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled . .
. .” Most of thepaper was removed the next day while the narrator watched many women creepingaround 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 ofthe paper, so you can’t put me back!”Although the reader might pity the narrator’s inability to challengeJohn’s authority, one must view the events of the story within the context ofthe 1860’s. At this time, socitey would not tolerate such assertiveness fromwomen. Moreover, the tragic story ends with a paradox. By definition, one whois mentally ill is not healthy. However, the narrator finds freedom, andapparently health, by rejecting an insane society and loosing her identity tothe wallpaper.
In contrast, the reader concludes the narrator is now confinedby her insanity, and cannot be free.Works CitedGilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” English 2307.
Comp. JaneBell. n.p.
,c.1996. 3-7.Kennard, Jean.
“Convention Coverage or How to Read Your Own Life.”Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work. Ed. Sheryl Meyering.Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989.
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