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Feminist Theories of Oppression, Essay Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1194

Essay

After a close reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” first published in 1892 when Gilman’s marriage had literally fallen apart, it is clear that the unknown narrator, considered by many literary critics as being Jane who is mentioned near the conclusion of the story, is trapped in a world run by men, often referred to as a patriarchal system. The main source for this trapped scenario is the narrator’s husband John who symbolizes and reinforces female oppression, due to living at a time in America when husbands were viewed as heads of the household and as the primary wage earners. According to modern feminist theories, Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” contains many examples of patriarchal oppression. Three of the most prominent includes women like the narrator “being used, controlled, subjugated, and oppressed by men;” having to cope on a daily basis with a male-dominated power structure; and gender oppression (Keel, “Contemporary Feminist Theories”).

The first example of male oppression occurs in the opening paragraphs when the narrator (or Jane) admits that her husband John laughs at her when she complains of feeling ill and depressed. “But one expects that in a marriage,” she says, then adds that John does not believe she is sick. As a physician, John seems to be convinced that his wife’s ailment is a simple case of “temporary nervous depression” for which he has prescribed “phosphates” or tonics and has forbidden her to work until she feels well again (Gilman, 313). Obviously, John is attempting to control and subjugate his wife by ordering her not to work or to exert herself out of a fear that physical activity will prove harmful instead of acting as a remedy. After all, John is the dominant male member of Jane’s household and whatever he says must be followed to the letter, much like a master telling his slaves how to live and when to go to bed. In essence, patriarchy as the “first and most pervasive system” in nineteenth century America provided men with the ability or right to control their wives and insisted that women like Jane must learn to be submissive or subordinate to their husbands (Keel, “Contemporary Feminist Theory”).

Furthermore, John as the patriarchal oppressor and physician tells his wife repeatedly that her “nervous condition” will make it difficult to maintain self-control, thus forcing Jane to “take pains” or struggle to control herself. Jane also notes that John hardly allows her to “stir without special direction” (Gilman, 314), an indication that John is much like Jane’s overseer who also wishes to control her writing. “He hates to have me write a word” she admits, due to believing that writing will worsen her condition. Clearly, Jane’s oppression has deeply affected her, for she considers herself as a “comparative burden” who cannot do her duty as a married woman (Gilman, 314).

Secondly, Jane is trapped within a male-dominated power structure with her husband John as the main patriarch in her unstable life as a married woman. This structure or hierarchy was most dominant in America during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries when men wielded all of the power, both socially and economically, and women occupied the position as secondary citizens without rights or the choice to express themselves as human beings. Jane is just such a person, for as a writer, she finds pleasure and contentment in her craft while John sees it as a nuisance and as the scribbling of a sick woman. This is made perfectly clear by the following passage–

“John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency.”(Gilman, 315).

Unfortunately, Gilman does not provide a definition for Jane’s “fancies,” but they could be related to her desire to escape from the oppressive atmosphere of the house in which she lives with the dreaded yellow wallpaper and the oppressive behavior of her husband. There is also John’s sister Jennie who appears to be trapped in a similar oppressive environment. “She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper,” relates Jane, “and hopes for no better profession” (Gilman, 315). Jennie’s label as a “housekeeper” indicates that her husband dominates the household with his wife as cook, laundress, and keeper of the children. Jennie also does not wish to expand her own horizons as a human being, for she is content with being a simple housekeeper, a position which most American married women in the 1950’s could easily relate to. Thus, this male-dominated power structure or system reinforces patriarchy with the man or husband as the “father” and the wives as “perfect and enthusiastic” secondaries.

Lastly, gender oppression runs deep in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and in the life of Jane which shares many similarities with the real-life Charlotte Perkins Gilman who also suffered from a “nervous condition” or as it is called today clinical depression. Of course, gender is quite different from sex or sexual orientation, for it denotes feminism as opposed to masculinity. Biologically, the so-called “female identity” or person as in the character of Jane is institutionalized but not because of her mental condition; rather, for simply being a feminine creature with feminine desires and needs that her husband attempts to fulfill but often fails. She is simply a feminine being whose role in society is that of a secondary player often living on the margins of a culturally and gender-biased system (Keel, “Contemporary Feminist Theories”).

For Jane, she is institutionalized in her own home which she refers to as a “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate,” a “haunted house” (Gilman, 313) which brings to mind an ancient manor house in Europe during the Medieval period with the manor house owner as Lord and Master and his servants as serfs. Jane mentions that she tried to have a “real earnest reasonable talk” (Gilman, 316) with her husband over her presumed illness, but because Jane is the feminine object in her husband’s life, he views her opinions as of little importance, especially when during the talk, Jane breaks down crying, a sign of her feminine weaknesses.

As previously mentioned, the main source of Jane’s dilemma in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is her husband John who clearly symbolizes the patriarchal system and its oppression of women through control and subjugation and by maintaining a society that fosters male-dominated power and the view that women are poor, defenseless creatures.

In many ways, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an indictment of male oppression as seen through the eyes of Gilman herself, a sort of autobiographical account of an ordinary gender-oppressed “housekeeper” driven to madness who in the end conquers her oppression by crawling over the source of it, namely John, passed out on the floor amid the remnants of the “repellent, almost revolting” yellow wallpaper (Gilman, 314).

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 313-319. Print.

Keel, Robert. “Contemporary Feminist Theories.” 2012. Web. Accessed 24 October 2012. http://www.umsl.edu/~keelr/3210/3210_lectures/feminism.html

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