At a time where women had little say in how to live their own lives, increasingly more female novelists began to write about gender roles with a critical outlook on the patriarchal structure in society. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one example of a feminist social criticism from the late 1800’s. In this short story, the female protagonist is prohibited to do what she wants to do and instead is forced by her husband to rest alone in a room to cure her of her postnatal depression, thus ironically becoming more ill and hallucinative.
In The yellow wallpaper, the protagonist is introduced as a woman with seemingly a lot of literary potential from what we get to know about her passion for writing, enthusiastic and detailed observations of her surroundings and her vivid imagination. However, she is in an unfortunate situation where she is not allowed any mental activity, because it is believed by her husband and society to be the right treatment for women with a nervous condition.
As an example she is told by her husband John, a physician and man of “high standing”, that: […] with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. In other words, the protagonist is ordered by her husband to restrain herself, which can also be interpreted as a general portrait of the repression of women in society. On the other hand the protagonist speaks very fondly of John and expresses that he does everything in well meaning: Dear John!
He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. In this way, the portrayal of John and the male gender role is not antagonistic as such, which gives room to nuanced reflections about male and female gender roles in that period of time. Yet in spite of that, the protagonist still shows signs of conflicting feelings towards John’s treatment of her. She acknowledges that the treatment is not making her happier, in fact she still feels tired and lazy and cries when she is alone. Subsequently, the story takes a somewhat unexpected and uncanny turn. As the tory progressively starts to revolve around what the protagonist is sensing behind the wallpaper, it becomes clear that the story is aiming to provoke and frighten the reader.
At the same time, we see how the protagonist being able to use her imagination freely really does affect her mood. She claims to feel a lot better, which John and his sister have noticed, but what they do not know is that it is due to the wallpaper. In that way, the story has a fairly humoristic aspect given that the protagonist’s increasing hallucinative manner is making her feel better: John is so pleased to see me improve! …] I had no intention of telling him it was because of the wallpaper – he would make fun of me. This can be interpreted as the author’s perspective on how society views women who are “unbridled” and allow themselves to think and act as they please. Another passage where the author combines horror and humour is the ending, in which the protagonist is creeping around the room after having broken out from behind the wallpaper: You get the image of an insane woman who is creeping around on her knees and stepping on her fainted husband when she passes by him: Now why should that man [John] have fainted?
But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so I had to creep over him every time! This image is definitely meant to chock readers at that time. An interpretation could also be that the author wants to show how the roles have switched between the protagonist and John. It is a way of showing that the woman is now in charge and the man is completely subdued. The ironic aspect of it is that this image is both frightening and chocking, which might be the author’s point about the view on women having the power in society.
It can in that way be seen as a critique of how women at that time were not viewed as capable of leading or having the authority over men in general. Overall The Yellow Wallpaper shows many signs of being a product of the society of the late 1800’s, where feminist social criticism had been prospering and other successful female authors like Jane Austen had played a huge role in the debate on male and female gender roles and women’s rights. This is done effectively by Charlotte Perkins Gilman who in this case makes use of elements of the horror genre to provoke and educate her readers.