The Yellow Wallpaper and Feminism

1315 words | 5 page(s)

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a text that reveals a tremendous amount about the nature of the human mind. It is the story of a woman locked away in a room, and the subsequent mental trauma contributes heavily to psychosis. One reading the work from a mental health professional’s perspective might find a number of different stressors and causes of a host of different mental illnesses. The book is perhaps more important, though, in the way in which it deals with women. Written by a female, the book offers keen insights into the lives of women during its time, and it offers the read a perspective on how those women were treated. As such, this is an inherently feminist text that reveals, through a host of literary devices, how established social norms utilized in the nineteenth century could have devastating effects on the women of that time.

As a theory and in practice, feminism posits that women have the same rights as men, and because of that, they should have equivalent opportunities as men in terms of their political expression, their career choices, and their capacity to participate in social interactions. Feminism is less concerned with the ideas of individual people and more concerned with the structures in society, and more importantly, how those structures reflect the value of women. In the nineteenth century, social norms and other societal institutions were male-dominated, and as a result, females were highly objectified.

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The story tells the tale of a woman who struggles with the norms of her society, where male-centric ideals dominate all aspects of her life. Even if one did not know anything about the author and her political stance, it would still be quite clear to the reader that the main character in the text is treated poorly. Because the text is so short, the name of that main character is never revealed, but the reader does get to take a journey deep into her mind. The story is interesting in a way, because it presents the picture of an oppressive, potentially well-meaning man. While some feminist stories feature a male character who is easily hate-able for the audience, one might assume that John in the The Yellow Wallpaper is not that bad. This is important, too, because the book is designed to show that no matter how nice people seem and no matter how pure their intentions might be, when the social norms and other institutions in society are designed in a way that they neglect the female perspective, they tend to have devastating effects on women.

On the surface, the work provides a number of insights into the effects of patriarchal society on the women of that time. Gilman’s main character struggles to deal with difficult words, and though this is a subtle point, it shows that women of that time were not often afforded educational opportunities at the same rate as men. She says in the story, “So I take phosphates or phosphites – whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again” (Gilman, 1). This quote is important for two reasons. First, it shows the struggle that she had with technical words, and second, the language that she is “forbidden” to work is an illustration of the level of control that her husband had over her. Likewise, the author’s text reveals attitudes among men that women were to worry about the less important things. Leave science to the men because men were only capable of comprehending the difficult things. Gilman develops her main character as being the classic woman of her time. She is attentive to the needs of her husband, and she lives of a simple life. She keeps a garden, and in doing so, she performs quite well. The woman takes instructions from her husband, and she does not too many questions or question his authority. Likewise, when she does grow frustrated, she blames herself. She does not even have control over her own physical health, as she takes instructions from her husband and her doctors, ignoring her own feelings that perhaps she should chart a different course with the problems she faced with her nervous system.

When one digs deeper into the story, one sees that it is packed with symbolism that can help to provide the reader with more of an understanding of how women during this era were treated by the men in control. The wallpaper itself, which earned a place in the story’s title, becomes an important device once the main character is jailed within her own house. Her main character is annoyed by the wallpaper that she is forced to continually look at. Over time, it becomes clear that the wallpaper is really just symbolic of the male domination faced by women during that time. The wallpaper looks different ways in different lights, and only a person with a trained eye can see the wallpaper’s different aspects. Of this, the main character says, “This wall-paper has a kind of sub-pattern in a, different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then” (Gilman, 7). This, too, is similar to the oppression faced by women in this society. It is sometimes difficult to see unless one knows where to look, but once a person understands what they are looking for, it is easy to see how the dominant male norms of this time can impact the lives of women.

One of the central messages that Gilman imparts in this story is that male domination is not a benign issue. It has serious consequences for women who are forced to live under it. This is an inherent feminist concept, as the study of feminism views male-dominated social norms as being more than just a theoretical issue. Rather, those norms weigh on women and force them into situations that are often unpleasant. For the main character, the consequence is a mind lost. Rather than being treated for a medical condition, she is handled by those around her, forced into non-voluntary exile. She is trapped in more than just a room. She is trapped within her role as a woman, as well. This is perhaps why she begins to rip down the wallpaper, as she is trying to free her own soul and spirit from the chains of bondage that the patriarchal social norms have heaped upon her. Eventually, the story ends with her having gone a little bit crazy. Her slight nervous system disorder devolves into full on psychosis, and though the author offers no explanation for how the story will play itself out in the end, it becomes apparent that the woman has paid a dreadful price because of the treatment she has endured.

The treatment endured by the main character, and in fact, the entirety of the story reveal important things about what it was like being a woman during this particular time. Women in this age were not given many rights, and it was up to the men in the society to determine what women would be allowed to do. The author makes no bones about this, and instead, seeks to expose this with a combination of symbolism and subtlety. Her main character possesses all of the human qualities that should entitle a person to full participation in society. Her senses are sharp, and ultimately, her institution is shown to be correct in a situation where her decision-making capacity was overwhelmed by the men around her. This text, though, highlights the inherently feminist concept that when women are disregarded by the contours of society and its institutions, women who are forced to live under that oppressive reality can often be the people who pay the highest price.

  • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The yellow wallpaper. Real ROI, 1999.

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