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The Yellow Wallpaper, Term Paper Example

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Term Paper

Introduction

It was Charlotte Gilman who wrote the short story entitled “The Yellow Wallpaper”, first published in 1892.  Gilman was an American feminist residing in New England and had literary works that reviewed and discussed the physical and mental health conditions of women during this time.  The inspiration for the story came from Gilman’s own personal experience as a patient at that time and having a near mental breakdown. She was particularly critical of her physician Dr. S. Weir Mitchell whom she consulted after suffering from acute bouts of depression. The Doctor prescribed a rest cure and limited her mental stimulation to only a few hours of work during the day. She returned to work and believed the mental stimulation aided her recovery, as opposed to the vegetative state of rest cures.

The story tells of how the narrator was confined owing to the state of her mental health condition and how as a result she lapsed into psychosis. As such she became obsessive about the pattern of the yellow wallpaper in her room. It made her think of all the foul and horrible things that were yellow, as opposed to beautiful yellow objects like buttercups.  She also associated sensory smells with the yellow wallpaper and hence the foul odor became a ‘yellow smell’. She starts to experience hallucinations where she becomes entangled in the patterns of the wallpaper. The short story’s protagonist is a woman who is treated by her husband, who considers that what she needs is complete inactivity and endless hours of rest in the confinement of her room. As such, the story can be perceived as a critical portrayal of the treatment of female patients who suffered by mental disorders at the end of the 19th century. From a feminist perspective, the narrator’s fall into mental illness represents liberation from the burden of domestic womanhood demanded by the society at the point in which the short story was written.

The struggle for women’s rights in America began in the 1820s, with the writings of Fanny Wright.  Wright also advocated for the abolition of slavery.  Her views had little support at the time, and it was not until 1848 that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretius Mott held a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls that the matters surfaced again.  Alice Paul became a political activist that saw her arrested on three different occasions. Later in 1913 she was instrumental in the formation of the congressional Union for Women’s suffrage and attempted to introduce more militant practices, successfully carried out by the women’s Council and political Union in England.  In the context of so many changes, however, the ideal of the domestic woman did not disappear.

In this time of change, women were rising in power as the spiritual and moral leaders of their homes. Further women were pushing beyond the basics of domesticity and demanding more active roles in both public and political life.  Gilman represented a strong advocate for women’s rights and more recognition for their place and roles in society. She was a strong believer in the financial independence of women and should not be subjugated by men. Edsitement noted that “Gilman advocated revised roles for women, whom, Gilman believed, should be on much more equal economic, social, and political footing with men”. Also, according to the same source, the author believed that women should work outside the domestic sphere. It may be argued that the treatment prescribed by the male physician was viewed as being another example of male dominance and as such a reason to resist his prescription of ‘rest cure’ as derogatory.  (Edsitement).

The 19th century America was therefore a place and a time when gender roles were for the first time questioned. Traditional views of womanhood held that women should remain within the domestic sphere and play the role of a “house angel”, by being cheerful, gentle and always ready to satisfy the husband’s needs. According to Rula Quawas, there were four main ideas encompassing the ideal of femininity in those times. The first was a very clear distinction between home and the economic environment which according to the author “paralleled a sharp contrast between female and male nature” (35).  The second was the designation of the home as a safe and comfortable environment for women while the third was the idea that women were morally superior and should remain this way. Finally, it was the idealization of the woman’s role as a mother and as a wife (Quawas 36).

However, more and more American women started to yearn or a life that offered them a different kind of fulfillment that came from accomplishing something beyond the domestic realm. Gilman was one of the women who started to question the women’s place in the society and to promote women’s rights in her works. She was determined to struggle in order to gain her freedom, as a woman and her rights, as an intellectual, in a world in which women were discouraged from pursuing any form of activity and particularly, activities which involved women achieving academic performance Quawas notes in this regard that:

“As woman and as an author, she perceptively analyzed the most basic conditions under which women live out their lives and developed her seminal ideas: the crucial necessity or women to have careers outside the home; the ironclad oppression of the patriarchal culture; the stultifying effects of the nineteenth century doctrine of the “women’s sphere”; the impossible double-bind experience of the woman artist, and the depression and emotional breakdown that often result (37).

These ideas propelled Gilman among the most important feminist thinkers that would dominate the early twentieth century. Gilman’s own life experience as a ‘new woman’ struggling to redefine her own status in the society was often used in her writings.

Gilman’s struggle with mental illness influenced her life by regaining her independence and freedom and provided her with the self-confidence to resume her work. This experience was used in creating “The Yellow Wallpaper”, as shown in the introduction. According to Susan Lanser, “discussions of the text so frequently end by distinguishing the doomed and “mad” narrator, who could not write her way out of the patriarchal prison house, from the sane survivor Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who could”(419). The writer thus tries to create not only a reflection of herself, but also an alternative outcome of her mental illness, which did not come true, but could have, that is, the fall into complete and irrecoverable mental illness.  The difference between the writer and the narrator however is in the purpose and the nature of the writing. The author makes a living out of writing and her writing is purposeful and meaningful, whereas the narrator writes to document her own evolution and with no imaginative intention.

Modern feminists’ perspectives on Gilman’s story are reflected in the fact that the narrator in her story feels trapped in her marriage. The story is imagined as a series of journal entries which document the narrator’s evolution of her mental illness. She also writes about staying at a summer house with her physician husband. Despite her feeling ill he assures her that she is well. In front of her concerns regarding her own health, John declares, “you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know”(Gilman 5). It also indicates the perception of men viewing that women have limitations and are only capable of accomplishing limited tasks. This may be seen as criticism both of the way that society treats women, as if they were so fragile that could not bear the hardship of intellectual effort and of the way that mental treatments for women were prescribed.

The patriarchal relationship between the narrator and John, who is not only her husband, but also a doctor inspirred by the author’s own therapeut, Dr. Mitchel, has a double negative effect on the narrator, first, because the narrator is reduced to the role of a little girl, unable to take care of herself. This is obvious in  many of John’s lines, as he calls her “little girl”(Gilman 5), or “blessed little goose (Gilman 2) and even, she is not allowed to sleep in the bedroom she likes downstares but rather, she is confined in the old nursery (Quawas 44).

Second, the husband as a phisician has a negative impact because he treats her after the well-established norm of the century, preserving the traditional viewes of women’s weaknesses and limited mental capacity, prescribing her complete mental repause which equals with a brainwash. The narrator is forbidden to use her imagination or to write anything. From this perspective, the story may be seen streightorward as an account of what happens to most women when they are forced to follow the rest cure, thus being deprived of the very thing that could save them, namely the company of others and benefits of work.   So many times was the narrator told that writing and using her imagination to create fictive stories is dangerous to her mental state that she has no doubt about it. The narrator for example states in one instance that  “this paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!”(Gilman 3). The narrator thus is the complete opposite of the author who does not allow her phisician to  apply his gendered treatment and  continues to write, an activity which will finally restore her health. From this perspective, the story’s meaning is that the narrator “goes mad because she recognizes that he had lost herself among the socially prescribed false selves whih she has assumed”(Quawas 48).

However, a different reading of the story is possible, following Hochman’s interpretation, acording to which the narrator’s act of progressive understanding of the wallpaper and indentification with the woman behind the pattern is rather the cure to her illness than the progressive advancement of the disease.  In an article about Gilman’s “The Yellow wallpaper”, Barbara Hochman explains that “it can be seen as a kind of cautionary tale about ninteenthcentury-reading-especially, but not exclusively, women’s reading”(91). This is because, in Hochman’s view, the narrator of the story ‘reads’ the wallpaper as it were a ficitonal book. In light of this interpretation,  it an be argued that the wallpaper itself is the story of the women of the then-contemporary society, who are emprisoned and held backby the patriarchal world in which they live (Hochman 91).

From the same perpective, “the illness” is the state of submissiveness itself, which makes the woman unable to function properly in the society. Due to her extreme submissiveness to her husband, her acceptance of his treating her like a child and her own assimilation of the culturally prescribed role of women in the society, she is unable to undertake responsabilites both as an artist, and as a mother and as a wife.  As such, she does not take care of her baby, claiming, “and yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous”(Gilman 2). Also, she caanot assume the role of a wie, wishing that her husband would take another room. Finally, she is not able to accept her artistic sel because that would mean transgressing from her assigned role.  The wallpaper may thereorebe interpreted as a story of all the women who were ever trapped in the same patriarchal prison.

There is no wonder than that, when looking at the yellow wallpaper she sees visions of other women trapped and incarcerated behind bars. “Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over”(Gilman 10). According to this interpretation, the narrator, who had ignored the oppression under which she lived, comes to realize it in the end, after having read the pattern entirerly, ad after having found out the truth, namely, that she is one of the women the pattern talsk about. She is part of the pattern herslef. The pattern represents the ideal woman of late nineteenth century and breaking the pattern, or breaking the paper down means destroying this ideology that holds women prisoners. The narrator thus come to realise that she could no longer live her life in this sort of way. Towards the end of the story Gilman’s husband lays on the floor in an unconscious state and she is seen to crawl over him. The symbolism here is that she rises above him, and that the so-called “insanity” is in fact, the rebelion of the feminists who refuse to “play” according to rules any longer.

The paper tried to interpret the text using a feminist framework, looking at the text both in a straightforward fashion, as the author’s manifesto concerning the popular rest-cure that harmed women more than it cured them. The paper however  also tried to address the work in a more symbolic manner, seeing it as an allegory of the condition of the ninteenth century woman, with illness being interpreted as the state of submissiveness of the woman and the fall into madness. According to the same interpretation, the final madness is the final act of  rebellion against the prescribed order while the process from mere disfuctionality to madness is the narrator’s journey of self-discovery. These opposite understandings are boh parallel and complementary and create a complete work of a feminist activist who was also a very talented and complex writer.

Works Cited

Edsitement. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper”—Writing Women. Web. 2.12.2012.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Biography.com. 2012. Web. 25 7 2012.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. 1899. Web. 25.7.2012.

Hochman, Barbara. The Reading Habit and “The Yellow wallpaper”. American Literature.74.5, (2002):89-110.

Lanser, Susan. “The Yellow wallpper” and the Politics of Color in America. Feminist Studies. 15.3, (1989):415-441.

Quawas, Rula. A new Woman’s Journey into Insanity:Descent and Return in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Modern Language Association. 105, (2006):35-53, 147-148.

Steel, Flora and Gardiner. Grace. The complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook. New York: Heinemann, 1902.Print.

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