Gender Roles and “The Yellow Wall-Paper”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman is noticeably sympathetic towards the oppressed housewife in “The Yellow Wall-Paper. ” We are shown the psychological breakdown of a woman through a first-person narrator, which serves well to the purpose of the story because we see the demise of the narrator firsthand. Through carefully placed details and character interpretation, Gilman shows the true nature of oppressive relationships. Throughout the story, Gilman feeds the reader carefully selected details in order to comment on gender conflicts within the institution of marriage.
As the story begins, two significant males in her life: her husband and brother, deem the narrator nervously depressed and hysterical. “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, 35) Additionally, something important to note from this quotation is that the narrator immediately feels helpless in the situation. This is why she is susceptible to the type of cruel treatment that she will undergo in the story.
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This sort of helplessness is a comment on societal norms at the time. This story was first published in 1892 when woman’s rights weren’t honored but it was the popular topic of conversation. Gilman capitalizes on form in this story in order to lend further insight into the nature of the oppression in this story. The end of the first ‘journal entry’ comes when the narrator explains that she must put her pen away because her husband, John, doesn’t allow her to write.
“There comes John, and I must put this away, – he hates to have me write a word. (Gilman, 37) This is a clear example of oppression as he prohibits the only attempt she makes for true self-expression. This can be taken at face value and also as a comment on what Gilman, the activist, is advocating for with the publication of this story: gender equality. John’s character is a voice of manipulation. He constantly has explanations for the horrible position he has his wife in. The narrator lies awake in her bed, unable to sleep and she gets up to examine the wallpaper, which is bothering her.
When she returns to the bed, John wakes up and tells her she shouldn’t get up at night because she’ll “get cold. ” (Gilman, 42) This is a blatant example of John’s controlling nature. Furthermore, she wants to leave the house and go back to their permanent residence because she feels that this temporary home is making her condition worse. John’s response however, is that he sees her getting better. “Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so? ” (Gilman, 42) As Susan S.
Lanser writes in her dissertation on feminist studies, “The narrator’s double-voiced discourse-the ironic understatements, asides, hedges, and negations through which she asserts herself against the power of John’s voice – came for some critics to represent “women’s language” or the language of the powerless. ” (Lasner, 418) The narrator is consistently defending herself to the reader for the obvious oppression being thrust on her. “It is an airy and comfortable room as anyone need wish, and, of course I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim. (Gilman, 38) She’s making excuses for the terrible actions her husband is putting her through. Gilman intentionally includes anecdotes that prove this narrator is being treated like a lesser person than her husband. “He said that after the wall-paper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on. ” (Gilman, 37) This is an basically an exact paraphrase of “everything is never enough” which would be reasonable to say if that were actually the case but in this context, John is simply trying to make her feel bad for requesting any sort of accommodation.
The description of the house they are temporarily living in also is a metaphor for the emotional incarceration this narrator is in. First, the narrator explains that there was some legal trouble regarding the house and therefore has been empty for quite some time. When the narrator first observes the room she’ll be staying in, she concludes that it must have been used for different reasons prior to her staying there. “It was a nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls. (Gilman, 36) To the reader, this room seems to be a sort of insane asylum or prison but the narrator is blind to that, much like women of the time who were willingly subservient to their husbands.
Furthermore, the narrator notices the wallpaper ripped by the head of the bed, which is also nailed down. That indicates to the reader that somebody was previously tied down to the bed and perhaps struggling to get out. “Then the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there, and this great heavy bed which is all we found in the room, looks as if it had been through the wars. (Gilman, 39) If we buy into the notion that this narrator is actually mad, it’s possible these scratches and signs of distress were created by her in previous, more gruesome methods of oppression that were omitted from this story. Gilman is capitalizing on the metaphor that this narrator is in a prison, literally, physically and also within her marriage. There is a clear turning point in the narrator’s mental state when she says, “I don’t know why I should write this. I don’t want to. I don’t feel able. (Gilman, 40) Gilman makes sure the reader is aware of this transition by separating those three sentences on three separate lines. This is the turning point in the narrator’s mental breakdown, which Gilman argues is inevitable in the current state of marriages. The writing style even begins to be a bit more abstract and poetic to show the change in mental state. “Just this nervous weakness I suppose. ” (Gilman, 41) The narrator begins to sleep during the day and remain awake during the night.
She is experiencing obvious consequences of her oppressive relationship which ultimately drives her insane in the eyes of her husband. Gilman indicates that the narrator is the girl trapped within the wallpaper. The smell of the wallpaper gets into her hair and she considers burning the house down to rid herself of that agonizing smell. Then she literally rips the wallpaper from the walls, which is a metaphor for breaking down the walls of her own cell. This is a call for women to assert themselves when faced with oppression.
If it wasn’t clear enough to the reader before, Gilman includes some fairly expository dialogue in the end. “I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did? ” (Gilman, 47) Finally, the oppressed narrator has a message for her husband once she has set herself free. “I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back! ” (Gilman, 48) Even though the narrator is quite delusional at this point in the story, I’d argue that the wife has finally gained her freedom.
There is quite a lot of irony in the fact that the narrator is being taken care of for hysteria, yet she becomes more and more hysterical the longer she is “resting” in her room. Gilman is emphasizing that women must think for themselves and subsiding to the control of a man is not a proper way to live their life. This story is quite effective because on the surface this is a story of a woman gone mad, but if the reader pays close attention to the details and actions, it’s clear that Gilman meant for this message to be heard and that she expected for a change in the nature of marital relationships.
Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” Introduction to Literature. Boston, MA, Pearson Learning Solutions, 2013. Lasner, Susan S. “Feminist Criticism, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies 15.3 (1989): 415-41. JSTOR. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.