Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote the Yellow Wallpaper in 1892, the theme of which was feminism and individuality and how one woman dealt with the neurosis of her mind created largely by the expectations of society. The spiral to her breakdown began from her baby’s birth and in today’s time it would be seen as postpartum depression but at the time when the book was written the woman was seen as being highly strung. Gilman creates the plot around the yellow wallpaper in the protagonist’s room and how her obsessive mind personifies the wallpaper.
The deterioration of the woman’s mind is signified through the disintegration of the state of the wallpaper. The story was written at a time when the main role of the woman in society was creating a home for her family. Her sense of worth and her values were all gauged against the way her home functioned. In this strive for perfection of the home the women of the time usually lost their own sense of self and it is this struggle to maintain a sense of self that usually caused the most stress. This build-up of stress is what is signified in the book.
When the book begins, Gilman immediately makes it clear that the protagonist, as the woman, is inferior to her husband, John, the physician. When she feels ill the solution for John is telling her to stay in bad, not to use her imagination and stop writing. To him her writing anything is something useless and unnecessary. However, to her, writing is her one release. It is with her being able to write that she is able to let go of her pent up feelings. She writes, “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do? ” (160).
This last phrase underlines the state of mind and the actual state of mind of the women on the era. The woman is resigned to her inability to go against the societal norms no matter how unhappy it makes her. She has given birth to a baby and instead of feeling good she is feeling down. Her Husband and everyone around her thinks rest is the best answer and they confine her to her room. She knows that this confinement is not making her happy and she needs something to distract her, “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good” (1279), yet she is helpless to counteract her husband’s orders.
It is through this repression of her true self that her mind starts to break. The stress of hiding her true feelings and maintaining the semblance of normality, going against her true nature, while all the time believing that she was in the wrong in wanting more. The instances of this sort of conflict are shown throughout the book, “I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and her I am a comparative burden already” (162). The yellow wallpaper is the only thing she has to break the normality. Initially she dislikes it, “I’m really quite fond of this big room, all but the horrid paper” (1281).
But as time passes and the wallpaper is the only thing of interest in the room she starts looking at it with interest. What initially started as a game in seeing the different patterns of the wallpaper changes into a real psychosis, and her state of mind is defined through her thoughts, “There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down” (1281). The most integral part of the story comes from the fact that the identity of the woman is never revealed. It is as if her name has no value and she herself is of no consequence and it is the people around her that define her.
The story of the Yellow Wallpaper shows the role of woman in society in America in the past. It shows how a woman did not have control of her destiny and how a man could only see her as a possession not as an individual. The callous attitude of the husband who sees her state of mind as the weakness of women is the defining factor of the whole situation. By refusing to accept the woman’s mind as an individual and independent factor of her body and confining his wife to solitude, John the husband aggravates her situation.
Her need to talk and write is belittled, her need to expose her emotions repelled by everyone around her. This causes her to get depressed. She does not know how to control herself, she becomes hysterical and needs help but the only help comes from her husband, and comes in a condescending manner that does not help matters. Many critics have given their own point of view and Gilman(1898) wrote in Women and Economics, ‘[regarding women]the same human energies and human desires and ambitions within. But all that she may wish to have, all that she may wish to do, must come through a single channel and a single choice.
Wealth, power, social distinction, fame, -not only these, but home and happiness, reputation, ease and pleasure, her bread and butter,-all, must come to her through a small gold ring (Gilman, 57). The fact of the time was that men were considered the patriarchs and they were the ones in control. There was no concept of partnership. The woman in Gilman’s book seems to be conflicted in her concept of her role as a wife. she understands the expectations of societal norms but due to her own character she cannot in her mind accept them as norm.
As she writes, “John laughs at me, but one expects that in marriage” (Gilman, 1973 pp. 9). It is as if women have no value and are mere objects. The woman seems to accept that but unconsciously is rebelling to this “ridicule” of women. The objectification of women and the judgment passed upon by men causes the woman in Gilman’s book to be constantly projecting an image of herself that is not real. She is reacting to what people expect rather than being what she really is and this is creating a conflict in her own self that she is struggling to overcome and yet cannot.
I can feel myself under the gaze of someone whose eyes I do not even see, not even discern… From the moment this gaze exists, I am already something other, in that I feel myself becoming an object for the gaze of others. (Gilman 1973 pp. 215). The struggle to maintain her identity while keeping her ideas hidden and in lieu with the norms is something she is unable to maintain and the disintegration of her mind shows the pressures she is under. The final deterioration of her mind is shown through her referring to herself in as somebody else.
“‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane’”(Gilman, 436). Critics suggest the woman has created an alter ego where the conventional self, the “rational self,” and the second is “the raging and uncontrolled madwoman” (Owens 77). Greg Johnson says that when the anger gets out of control the patriarchal influence is triumphed over (522). Realizing that the suppression of self is creating a regression of the mind the narration ends with the woman sleeping and creeping around the nursery like an infant (King and Morris 30).
Victorian women did not have any control over themselves and it was this lack of control that is depicted in the Yellow Paper making it a distinctively feminist novel. Through the ripping of the wallpaper the woman destroys her conventional self and survives through the survival of her new identity or rather rebirth of her new self. References • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Feminist Press, 1973. • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.
Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution Small, Maynard & Co. , 1898 • O wens, E. Suzanne. “The Ghostly Double behind the Wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper. ’” • King, Jeannette and Pam Morris. “On Not Reading between the Lines: Models of Reading in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper. ’” Studies in Short Fiction 26. 1 (1989): 23-32. • Johnson, Greg. “Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper. ’” Studies in Short Fiction 26. 4 (1989):521-30.