Feminist Analysis of “The Yellow Wallpaper”

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a short story, written by a feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892. The story tells about a young couple who just moved to a new mansion so that the wife could have a rest after delivering a child. Gilman represents a woman’s life in the patriarchal society from the feminist perspective. Since the author was a feminist, she wanted to show her readers the influence of patriarchy on women and its negative consequences for the whole society. In the 19th century, women were perceived as housewives and appendixes to their husbands only, and they could not even make personal decisions about their health, rest, and duties. Gilman’s protagonist is one of such women, whose husband decides that she has to stay at home because she seems weak. The woman cannot even take care of her baby, and this thought makes her feel depressed. The story reveals women’s feelings and emotions while being caged. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman shows a husband and wife, who are imprisoned in their gender roles, revealing the themes of male domination, women repression, and fear of being controlled by the patriarchal world.

The narrator of the story is a young woman from an aristocratic family, whose life and fate are fully dependent on her husband, John. First, it seems that the narrator is grateful to John for his attention and caring, and she even enjoys living in this beautiful house. She says about the house, “The most beautiful place!”. However, the readers feel her loneliness because she is usually alone. John is a physician, who is often at work, and their small baby is with the nurse, Mary. The protagonist is suffering from depression, and her husband forbids her doing something active. Nevertheless, the woman does not agree and is sure that interesting work and some activities will help her. Thus, she begins to look for something interesting in the room and starts her journal. Since her husband John does not allow her to write in order to become healthy, the narrator manages to hide her journal and leave all her thoughts about the house there. Suddenly, she becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in her room and a “strange, provoking, formless sort of figure” on it. This figure on the wall is a woman in a cage, who symbolizes the narrator’s inner feelings about her condition in the house. Finally, the woman is so obsessed with the idea of seeing a sister on the wall that she becomes insane.

 
 

Feminist Analysis

From the very beginning of the story, the readers notice the theme of male domination. Thus, the narrator is constantly speaking about her husband and his ideas instead of focusing on her feelings. Elizabeth Carey writes, “Because John believes that he is supposed to function as the thinking partner in his marriage, he won’t let his wife think for herself”. The influence of patriarchal society is evident. Women were supposed to be only housewives; thus, their role was to do domestic chores and take care of their children. In the story, John even chooses treatment for his wife because he is a doctor, and he knows better what the woman needs when she is nervous. Besides, the woman’s brother supports John and advises the same things. The narrator says, “Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good”. Nevertheless, the men’s words are of high importance, and no one can deny the fact that men are always right. According to Carey, John believes that he is the more rational and more intelligent partner in the marriage, which means that he knows more about his wife’s condition. At the same time, the narrator is sure that John loves her and takes care of her. It means that the woman is so greatly influenced by a patriarchal society that she believes that her role as a woman is only to be a domesticated person without any other interests. For example, the protagonist writes, “He is very careful and loving and hardly lets me stir without special direction”. The accent, however, is on the words “special direction,” which shows John’s desire to take control over his spouse. One cannot say for sure whether he did it intentionally or not. Probably, he really loved his wife, and all his actions were aimed to take care of her. However, he should have noticed that the woman felt bad under his care. Therefore, his desire to dominate prevailed over his wife’s desires. Moreover, one can notice that John always dictates his woman what she has to do, and this control helps him improve his self-confidence and self-concept. The man is represented as an active first-class person since he has a job, leads an active lifestyle, and can do everything he wants. On the contrary, the woman is shown as a second-class citizen, who suffers from male domination and repression.

The protagonist of the story is repressed by her husband’s care and anxiety. The first sign of her oppression is the fact that she has no name. Almost all the characters of the story have their names, and even the nurse Mary is mentioned. However, the narrator is without any name, and it proves that she is underestimated and even suppressed in her family. Moreover, the depressed woman “has already been altered by her illness and is susceptible to more alterations”. The woman has just delivered a baby and is suffering from postnatal depression, and only activities and communication with other people might help her. However, her husband believes that only isolation and total rest could save her from her disease. Thus, the woman feels oppression and the absence of freedom in her family and the whole patriarchal society. Although John does not repress her openly, all his words and actions are aimed to hold her back. One can regard John’s figure as identification with the whole male community, reflecting the world in which men dominate. John considers that a wife should stay at home and take care of the children, and every disagreement is perceived negatively. After reading the short story, one can suppose that women have no right to express their opinions openly because of being repressed. Even though the narrator says, “he loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick,” one can feel her state of oppression. Interestingly, John treats his wife as a child, which is seen in the following phrase: “Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose”. Such attitude towards an adult woman as towards a child is also a sign of repression and a kind of discrimination because the woman’s words and actions are not perceived seriously. John speaks with his wife as if she is a little child who cannot understand some complicated words and phrases and is not able to define whether she is ill or not. Thus, Gilman demonstrates that all women were suppressed by the men in the period when the feminist wave was to begin. At the same time, not only oppression but also a fear of being controlled led to negative consequences for both men and women.

The protagonist of the story is afraid of being controlled by the patriarchal society and her husband particularly. Thus, Fanghui Wang writes, “Gilman wrote this gothic short story, in which a woman desperately dreamt to climb out of the nursery room” because of “a fear of being controlled and locked up by the patriarchal authority”. Probably, the narrator is sick because of this fear; however, she does not realize the reason of her illness, and her husband does not want to understand it either. Gilman represented the woman who strived for freedom and, without getting it, searched this freedom in her bedroom. As a result, she begins to see a woman, who is trapped in a cage behind the yellow wallpaper. This woman symbolizes the narrator herself, who is afraid of being trapped, but who is already imprisoned in her own house. The author reveals her personal fears in the short story. It is known that she was diagnosed with a similar disease as her character was, and one male doctor prescribed her similar treatment. Gilman had to have a rest and could not take a pen in her hand, and such treatment made her “nervous condition” even more nervous. Thus, the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” can be identified with the author. The protagonist of the story has a fear of not only being trapped in her room but also of being silenced in a patriarchal world. Women had no rights and liberties; they had to obey their husbands and do everything the men said them to do. Many women believed that it was right or, at least, they just did their duties silently. However, the narrator, as well as Charlotte Gilman herself, did not agree with them and preferred to express their thoughts freely. That is why the protagonist is depicted as a writer who conveys her hidden desires and feelings on the paper. Only writing can save her from fear of being judged and discussed by the men and other women. Since the narrator cannot avoid being controlled by her husband, she becomes mad eventually.

Two Different Sides of Women

In the story, Gilman represents a woman from two different perspectives, one of which is a submissive and oppressed woman, and the other is a feminist who wants to be free to express her thoughts and act in a way she wants. The first half of the story is focused on the conformist woman who feels that she has to be submissive to her man, thus, fulfilling all his desires and making him happy. When the narrator does not do something pleasant for John, she feels as if she is a burden for him. Moreover, she blames herself for complaining that she wants to change the wallpaper after John says no. She feels oppressed because she knows that a good wife should not complain but should serve her husband and listen to him carefully. However, the other side of a woman prevails since the narrator realizes that she does not want to be one of such housewives. Finally, the protagonist of the story frees herself, saying, “I’ve got out at last, […], in spite of you and Jane!”. She feels free and relaxed; however, her family members believe that she is mad and insane. For the first time, the woman acts for herself despite her husband’s resistance and other people’s judgments. Such behavior can be considered as a feminist protest against the patriarchal order. 

The narrator becomes an example of a negative influence of patriarchal society on women’s psyche and mental health. The creeping woman on the wallpaper is a symbol of all women who are trapped in their cages and cannot escape. Gilman wanted to demonstrate that not women are mad, but the whole system is maddening. The yellow wallpaper can be identified with this system, which keeps the women imprisoned. When the narrator and the creeping woman remove the wallpaper, they manage to escape from this system. John does not help them, which means that he is a part of patriarchy. At this particular moment, the narrator becomes a winner since she can be stronger than her husband is. John cannot resist her, and she achieves a triumph.   

Conclusions

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a feminist writer who wanted to reveal the negative outcomes of the oppressive society and show that women were oppressed by men in the 19th century. The story “the Yellow Wallpaper” is focused on three main themes – male domination, female repression, and fear of being controlled by men. Although John seems to be a kind and loving husband, his domination over his wife is evident since he does not allow her to make her personal decisions. Thus, the narrator is oppressed because she wants to write and spend her time actively, but John does not allow her. At the same time, the story symbolizes the fear of control. The protagonist is afraid of being trapped by her family and society; thus, she frees herself from this prison and becomes insane. To conclude, the story is a great example of a feminist approach to literature since it helps understand negative influence of patriarchal society on both men and women.

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