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Feminist Essay On The Yellow Wallpaper

This paper shows my skills in looking at a text from a particular point of view, feminism, and finding evidence in the text that supports that point of view.

 

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is the story of an unnamed female narrator and her slide into psychosis. The narrator and her physician husband have rented a house for a summer in order for her to rest and recover from an episode of depression. The narrator is ordered by her husband to avoid any kind of strenuous activity or overstimulation as it will only exacerbate her condition. Her husband’s cure calls for her to remain confined to her bedroom, which she leaves only on a rare occasion. The bedroom walls are coved with a paper the narrator describes as having “one of those sprawling flamboyant patters committing every artistic sin” with a color that is a repellent, almost revolting…unclean yellow”( Gilman 793). As she is confined to the room and deprived any stimulation the narrator’s depression worsens and begins to transform into psychosis. She begins to see a woman trapped in the yellow wallpaper. The story ends with the woman, now completely immersed in her mental illness, circling the room removing the paper stepping over the unconscious body of her husband who has fainted upon seeing the degree to which his wife’s condition has deteriorated.

Using feminist literary criticism I plan to look at “The Yellow Wallpaper” to see how, as Tyson suggests, the piece “critique[s] patriarchal ideology, specifically as it manifested itself in nineteenth-century marriage and medical practices” (130). Gilman’s critique of the patriarchal ideology of the time that dominated the medical filed can easily be seen in the detrimental effects the indented cure has on the narrator. While those in the marriage practices prevent the narrator from having control over her own actions or what happens to her. These patriarchal ideas even prevent her from being to express her thoughts and emotions to her husband without fear of ridicule or dismissal. Perhaps the ultimate critique of these patriarchal ideals is the fact that they ultimately lead to the narrator’s complete break with reality.

Tyson introduces the idea of what she calls the patriarchal woman, “a woman who has internalized the norms and values of patriarchy” (Tyson 85). One such patriarchal norm is that “men [are] naturally superior to women: for example, more intelligent, more logical” (Tyson 86). In “The Yellow Wallpaper” there are several instances where it is evident that the narrator is one such patriarchal woman. The narrator has her own opinions about what is wrong with her and what she believes to be the best ways to improve her conditions, but as a patriarchal woman, she ignores her own ideas in favor of the ideas of her husband and brother. As King and Morris explain her husbands “opinions are placed beyond question by a discourse which valorizes them as “objective” (27). As she is a woman the narrator’s ideas are not valued at all, while those of her husband are taken as absolute fact. When she tries to speak to her husband he “laughs at [her] of course, but one expects that in marriage” (Gillman 792). Here we can see that the narrator’s ideas are not only ridiculed, but as a patriarchal woman she has come to accept and expect that her husband will treat her this way. Although she disagrees with her husband, as a woman she has no recourse, asking the question “what is one to do?” (Gilman 792).

Several times in the story when the narrator does speak to her husband she belittled and her ideas simply dismissed. Her husband treats her like a child referring to her as “little girl” and saying ting like “bless her little heart” (798). As the narrator says that one must expect these things in marriage, it can been understood that this is how Gilman viewed marriage. As an institution in which women were belittled and their ideas ignored or dismissed. Not only is this a critique in itself but Gilman underlines the point by showing that the ideas of a woman and wife are important and in fact are just as valid as those of a man. Evidence for this in the story is seen in the fact that if the narrator had followed her own intuition and ignored the ideas of her husband, which are based on patriarchal ideas of marriage and medicine, then she would have likely improved rather than succumbing completely to her illness despite the fact that her husband’s ideas are wrong and in fact harm her, the patriarchal ideologies, on which her marriage is based, leave her completely powerless against her husband.

Gillman’s critiques of the medical practices of the day are seen clearly throughout the story. The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been diagnosed with a “temporary nervous depression- a slight hysterical tendency” by her husband, a diagnosis seconded by her brother who is also a physician (Gilman 792). Tyson explains that hysteria “refers to psychological disorders deemed peculiar to women and characterized by overemotional, extremely irrational behavior” (86). Gillman, herself, was treated for the disorder with a therapy known as the “rest cure”, which was developed by S. Weir Mitchell. The “cure” called for the “withdrawal from domestic and social responsibilities”, women were to have “time alone, without interruption by children, other family members or friends” and to “rest, live quietly [and]…avoid strenuous mental effort” (University of Virginia 2009).  She later referred to the Mitchell as “the physician who so mealy drove me mad” (Gilman 804). In the story the intended cure only serves to drive the narrator deeper and deeper into her mental illness. Upon first seeing the room she is merely put-off by the yellow wallpaper, but after spending months isolated and surrounded by the paper she has a totally consumed by her psychosis.

The narrator’s physician husband has deiced that the best course of treatment is for her to stay in bed and avoid any kind of stimulation. This treatment was devolved by a male doctor, S. Weir Mitchell, to deal with what was viewed as a female problem of hysteria. The narrator believes that “excitement and change, would do [her] good”, but the patriarchal ideals dominating the medical practices of the time dictate that her male physician knows what is best for her (Gilman 792). While some of the piece’s critiques of the medical practices are subtle, Gilman specifically mentions Mitchell, when the narrator explains that her husband has threatened to send her to him if she does not improve. She absolutely does not want to be put under the care of Mitchell as a friend who was a previous patient of his told her he “is just like John and my brother, only more so!” (796). By specially naming Mitchell in connection with the kind of treatment that leads to such disastrous results,  Gilman shows her negative opinion of sexist medical treatments of the day.

Such a critique is understandable given Gilman’s own experience as a patient of Mitchell. Years after the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper” she wrote a piece explaining her reasons for writing the story. In that piece Gilman explained that she once suffered from a condition similar to that of the narrator and was directed by Mitchell as part of treatment to never write again in her life (Gilman 804). After three months of strictly following Mitchell’s advice Gilman said she “came so near the border line of utter mental ruin that [she] could see over” (804). She went back to work and later wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” to “save people from being driven crazy” (804). Many times in the story the narrator says that she believes that writing you be good for her, but just like Gilman, she has been told not do so. Unlike Gilman the narrator is unable to pull herself back from the edge and crosses the line into “utter mental ruin”. Through Gilman’s own experience and that of the narrator we can see how she was commenting on the patriarchal medical practices of the day.

Gilman also uses the imagery and symbolism in the story to express her ideas concerning the patriarchal ideals of the time. After many days in the room the narrator comes to believe that the pattern on the paper is moving. As her mental state declines further she comes to think that there is “a woman stooping down and creeping about behind the pattern “(Gilman 797). Just as the narrator feels trapped in her marriage she later begins to see that the woman is trapped in the paper and “is all the time trying to climb through” (801). She eventually sees herself and the woman as one in the same and explains that she came out of the paper (803). As the narrator falls deeper in her illness she is able to escape the confines of her marriage and medical treatments, just as the woman is finally able to free herself form the patter in the paper. I believe this is Gilman showing that woman really has no way to free herself form the patriarchal ideals of the time and that insanity may be such an escape. She continues this idea with the culmination of the story. Coming home to discover his wife circling the room removing the wallpaper, John faints at the sight of his clearly insane wife. It is interesting that Gilman has John faint, a stereotypical “female” behavior. As John’s unconscious body lay on the floor the narrator is forced “to creep over him every time” (803). She is quite literally stepping over John and all his patriarchal ideals; as a woman she has finally freed herself.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wall-Paper”. The Norton Anthology of American

            Literature Volume C. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.

792- 803. Print.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote “The Yellow Wall-paper?”. The Norton Anthology

            Of American Literature Volume C. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton

& Company, 2012. 804. Print.

King, Jeanette, and Pam Morris. “On Not Reading Between The Lines: Modes of Reading

In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Studies in Short Fiction 26:1 (Winter 1989)

22-32. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 March 2012.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Print.

University of Virginia. “Reflections on Heath in Society & Culture Cures for Women:

Com, Quiet and Retreat from Society.” University of Virginia, 2009. Web.

15 March 2012. <http://www.hsl.virginia.edu/historical/reflections/fall2008/cures_women.html&gt;.

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“The Yellow Wallpaper” Charlotte Perkins Gilman

(Full name Charlotte Anna Perkins Stetson Gilman) American short story writer, essayist, novelist, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Gilman's short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892).

The short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by nineteenth-century feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was first published in 1892 in New England Magazine. Gilman's story, based upon her own experience with a “rest cure” for mental illness, was written as a critique of the medical treatment prescribed to women suffering from a condition then known as “neurasthenia.” The significance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a feminist text, however, was not acknowledged until the critically acclaimed 1973 reissue of the story by the Feminist Press. Henceforth, “The Yellow Wallpaper” made its way into the canon of feminist literature, becoming a staple of university women's studies courses. Since 1973, “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been reissued by several publishers in various volumes edited by literary critics. It was also adapted to film in a 1992 made-for-television production by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Plot and Major Characters

While in her twenties, Gilman was diagnosed with a mental disorder called neurasthenia or “nervous prostration.” She was treated by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the leading authority on this illness. Mitchell's rest cure, prescribed primarily to women, consisted of committing the patient to bed for a period of months, during which time the patient was fed only mild foods and deprived of all mental, physical, and social activity—reading, writing, and painting were explicitly prohibited. Gilman once stated that the rest cure itself nearly drove her insane.

The parallels between Gilman's experience and that of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” are evident in the story. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is structured as a series of secret diary entries by an unnamed woman, a young wife and new mother whose debilitating mental condition has prevented her from caring for her infant. She and her husband John, who is a doctor, have rented a house in the country, in which she is to take a rest cure. The narrator is confined to an upstairs room that was once a child's nursery but has been stripped of all furnishings and decor, except for a bed that is nailed to the floor, bars over the windows, and a garish yellow wallpaper. She describes the color and pattern of the wallpaper in an assortment of distasteful ways. The narrator becomes more obsessed with the wallpaper and begins to imagine that a woman is trapped behind it. The story's finale finds the narrator creeping around the edges of the room and tearing the wallpaper in ragged sheets from the walls in an attempt to free the woman she believes to be trapped behind it. When her husband unlocks the door and finds his wife and the room in these conditions, he is appalled. “I've got out at last,” she explains, “And I've pulled off most of the paper so you can't put me back!” He faints, and she continues to creep around the room, crawling over her husband as he lies unconscious on the floor.

Major Themes

Several major themes emerge from the narrative of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman's story expresses a general concern with the role of women in nineteenth-century society, particularly within the realms of marriage, maternity, and domesticity. The narrator's confinement to her home and her feelings of being dominated and victimized by those around her, particularly her husband, is an indication of the many domestic limitations that society places upon women. The yellow wallpaper itself becomes a symbol of this oppression to a woman who feels trapped in her roles as wife and mother. Gilman's story further expresses a concern for the ways in which society discourages women of creative self-expression. The narrator's urge to express herself through writing is stifled by the rest cure. Yet, the creative impulse is so strong that she assumes the risk of secretly writing in a diary, which she hides from her husband. Finally, “The Yellow Wallpaper” addresses issues of mental illness and the medical treatment of women. While the narrator is clearly suffering from some kind of psychological distress at the beginning of the story, her mental state is worsened by her husband's medical opinion that she confine herself to the house. The inadequacy of the patriarchial medical profession in treating women's mental health is further indicated by the narrator's fear of being sent to the famous Dr. Weir, proponent of the rest cure treatment.

Critical Reception

At the time of its initial publication in 1892, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was regarded primarily as a supernatural tale of horror and insanity in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe. In 1920, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was reprinted in the volume Great Modern American Short Stories, edited by William Dean Howells, who described it as a story to “freeze our … blood.” Elaine R. Hedges, author of the afterword to the 1973 version, praised the work as “one of the rare pieces of literature we have by a nineteenth-century woman who directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship.” Since that time, Gilman's story has been discussed by literary critics from a broad range of perspectives—biographical, historical, psychological, feminist, semiotic, and socio-cultural. Nearly all of these critics acknowledge the story as a feminist text written in protest of the negligent treatment of women by a patriarchal society. Furthermore, the story has sparked lively critical discussion and ongoing debate over the symbolic meaning of the wallpaper, the extent to which the story represents an effective feminist statement, and the implications of the story's ending. Critics continue to debate the question of whether Gilman provides a feminist solution to the patriarchal oppression that is exposed in the story, while acknowledging the enduring significance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as both a feminist document and a literary text for contemporary readers.

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