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Facing Oppression, Essay Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1896

Essay

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gillman is considered to be one of the early feminist works about mental illness. The story focuses on the eternal topic, which is gender discrimination, domination of men over women due to the women’s supposed weakness and incapability. Other aspect Gillman touches are the rights of the mentally ill people. This story is indeed about facing oppression due to the protagonist’s gender and health situation, the tale about a human being, whose life was ruined by her closest relatives. The tragedy is that the protagonist’s husband and other people, who surrounded her, wanted her to get better sincerely, but their over-confidence and a tendency to overlook the protagonist’s wishes and thoughts led to the tragic outcome. The Yellow Wallpaper was published in 1899, and it was descriptive of the problems and restrictions that females in general, and women with mental disorders in particular, faced at that period. Nevertheless, this story is still of current interest, as though many aspects of the situation have changed, the problems that disturbed the author, still touch upon contemporary women, and people with special needs.

The first point, where the protagonist faces oppression, is her marriage. The status of women in the 19th century society was remarkably different from the contemporary one. Deborah Thomas, who analyzed the story through the gender rights perspective, noted that at that period the doctrine existed – The Cult of True Womanhood. Thomas believes it legitimized the victimization of women, imprisoning them in private and family sphere, making them servants to the family. She also adds that The Cult of Domesticity and the Cult of Purity were the two main tenets of the Cult of True Womanhood (Thomas). In fact, at that period women had a right to have family, and a right to take care of it. In case she did not succeed in finding a husband, she could dream about having one. Meanwhile, she had to take care of the family she had. “She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession – the protagonist writes about her sister-in-law – “I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!” Such an approach was quite common for nineteenth century middle class women.

The power of the protagonists husband John over her is virtually unlimited. Gillman discovers this fact through the story: the first sign is “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage”. In other words, the protagonist expected her fears and her opinion would not be taken seriously in her marriage. The discovery of the inner essence of the protagonist’s relationship with her husband continues with her portrayal of John’s attitude towards her illness: “…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 …”

John insists there is nothing actually wrong, and that his wife should not think about her condition. He ignores the obvious symptoms of quite a serious condition the protagonists has. “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him” – the protagonist confesses, and her inner conviction is that she can not do anything in this situation. The protagonist repeats that he is her husband, her physician, that he loves her, and, therefore, he has the right to make decisions for her. The phrase that reveals the most about this relationship is “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction”. Indeed, the protagonist faces oppression, but, as it is seen from the text, she cannot resist it with “legal” methods.

Another aspect that reveals the real position of women in general and protagonist in particular is the prohibition to write. It comes clear from the text that she used to do it regularly, as Jennie, John’s sister, seems to believe this is what made the heroine sick. “I did write for a while in spite of them” – the protagonist confesses – but it does exhaust me a good deal — having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition”. In other words, illness grants John and other relatives the opportunity to rob the protagonist of her voice “legally”. She is “absolutely forbidden to work” until she is “well again”. It is important to notice that writing was not a routine occupation for most nineteenth century middle class women. It was likely seen as an extravagant way to kill time, a relatively harmless hobby for a woman, at least while she is healthy. Though, when her health becomes worse, she is deprived of that opportunity, as writing means using imagination. John warns her that she must not “give way to fancy in the least”, explaining that with the protagonist’s “imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness … is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies”.

The heroine’s imaginative power is indeed impressive. It is evident from her description of the house, and of the room. All of that “outrageous angles”, destroying themselves in “unheard of contradictions”, and “kindly wink” of the bureau knob reveal that the protagonist has vivid mind and creativity. It is likely that writing was what allowed her to express her feelings and ideas. Deprived of that option she developed a real serious mental problem.

Another sign of the absence of “voice” of the protagonist in her own family is the fact that her name is not mentioned through the story until the very end. Her husband’s name, and the name of her sister are revealed in the first pages, but the protagonist is called “my dear”, “darling” and even “a blessed little goose”. The absence of protagonist’s name is indicative of the fact that she does not have a voice, and the opportunity to make decisions about herself, her family and even her baby. The thing that “got out at last” in the last lines of the story is not Jane, as the women from the wallpaper has the voice, while Jane does not despite all that happened to her.

Therefore, though, on one hand, the heroine’s husband and brother, who are doctors, both believe that nothing seriously bad is going on with her, her rights are cut down even in comparison to that of the healthy women. The protagonist can not decide where to stay, what to eat, and how she should spend her pastime. John does not allow her to go to see their relatives, as she is “too weak”, and refuses to repaper the room for not to “to give way to such fancies”. These restrictions are put on the protagonist not because of gender. The real reason is her state of mental health. On one hand, she gets the above described restrictions, typical for the mentally ill person in the described historical period, but on the other, she does not get the right to be ill. Her condition is seen as “temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency”. In other words, – nothing serious, no reason to suffer. The protagonist mind adapts to the conditions she has to exist within. As a result, a woman, who was treated like a mentally ill person, developed psychosis.

As it was already mentioned, this story is sometimes seen one of the first feminist manifests. Nevertheless, Charlotte Gillman, in her article in The Forerunner, confessed that she had no intention to fight for women rights. According to Gillman, she wrote this story after experiencing a similar kind of treatment, with two hours of intellectual life a day, and a prohibition to touch pen, pencil or brush. She confessed that it had almost driven her mad. She recovered when she went to work again. After that Gillman wrote this story, and sent it to the therapist that recommended her the “no work” treatment strategy. She believed that after her story the doctor changed his approach towards treating nervous illnesses. “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked” – said Gillman about The Yellow Wallpaper (“Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper”).

Having experienced it by herself, Gillman brilliantly describes the feelings of the protagonist, who is, in fact, developing a psychosis. One of the main dangers the protagonist faces lie in this “resting cure” treatment. The absence of the desire to do things the person liked to do in the past, and the absence of action are among the most characteristic symptoms of depression. Contemporary doctors are aware about the importance of work therapy for the recovery of depression patients. Creating the situation where the patient does not have the opportunity to occupy oneself, and encouraging him to do nothing, is likely to make the patient feel much worse. This is especially true for people who have vivid mind and imagination.

This is the inability to express her ideas and feelings that led the protagonist to a pitiable condition described on the last pages. “I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me” – the protagonist says. She is deprived of this opportunity, and her mind finds another way out. “Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch” – the heroine notices a few pages later. The yellow wallpaper is the only object she can concentrate on, and it leads to unexpected and tragic results.

The hypothesis that the protagonist has developed a psychosis because she was treated like a mentally ill person, and was deprived of the opportunity to work is likely, but there is other viewpoint on this issue. The heroine’s hidden aggression against her husband is seen through the text, though she tries to suppress it as long as possible. Losing control over her mind seems like the only “legitimate” way to express this aggression, as “mad” people are not obliged to hide their feelings. Finally, the protagonist has found her personal way to struggle the oppression she faced for all of her life.

At a first glance, The Yellow Wallpaper may seem like a story about a rich and spoiled girl, who lost her mind as she had nothing to do, and to worry of. Nevertheless, the real meaning is much deeper. Gillman, and, respectively, her protagonist, were the products of their epoch. The kinds of pressure put on women in the nineteenth century and nowadays are different, though its levels are compatible. Nineteenth century woman had to be the ideal mother and spouse, and had to devote all of her time to the family. Contemporary women are expected to be perfect mothers, virtuous wives and successful professionals. The fact of the existence of pressure has not changed, and, still, developing mental condition becomes one of the ways to circumvent these expectations.

Works Cited

Gillman, C.P. The Yellow Wallpaper. College of Staten Island Library, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2010.

Gillman, C.P. “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper”. College of Staten Island Library, 8 June 1999. Web. 17 Nov. 2010.

Thomas, D. “The Changing Role of Womanhood: From True Woman to New Woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper””. Florida Gulf Coast University, 27 July 1998. Web. 18 Nov. 2010.

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