Hypothesis: Gillman uses the yellow wallpaper to expose oppression against women living in patriarchal society in the 19th Century.
After studying and interpreting Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, I am able to make the hypothesis that Gillman uses the yellow wallpaper to expose oppression against women living in patriarchal society in the 19th Century. The short story is written based on Gillman’s own life when she underwent “nervous prostration” after the birth of her daughter. Gillman allows her readers to understand the perspective of a female in the 19th century and how her role in society resulted in insanity. Feminist literacy critics Ed. Janet Witalec “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1) and Rena Korb, “An overview of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper'” (2) both support my hypothesis. They analyze the behaviour and environment of the narrator in relation to this period of time. This woman who is suffering from nervous depression narrates “The Yellow Wallpaper”.
She is married to a doctor, who controls her life. Through patronising and bombarding her with ideas that she must feel, her husband demands that she must not write. He claims her creative activities will only make her more “nervous” and “crazy”, although the narrator found great joy in writing. She keeps a secret journal of which she describes the yellow wallpaper and the environment that she lives in. Her journal gives the readers an insight to her perspective on life as an oppressed woman in the 19th Century. Witalec and Korb use a feminist lens to express their opinions on the short story, which support my hypothesis.
Ed. Janet Witalec discusses the patriarchal pressures on women in the 19th Century, which caused obstacles for the entire female gender. Witalec states that in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ “critics acknowledge the story as a feminist text written in protest of the negligent treatment of women by a patriarchal society” (1) Witalec supports the hypothesis that the yellow wallpaper exposed oppression against women who lived in the 19th Century society. She acknowledges that males were the most dominant in society and therefore created boundaries and rules for females, even those who were of the higher class. Witalec explains that the confinement of the narrator in the room resembles the narrator’s position in society during the 19th Century in reference to gender inequality.
She states, “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.” (1) This supports my hypothesis from a different perspective. Witalec explains that not only the wallpaper resembles the oppression against women but also her husband controls her both physically and mentally, instructing her with how she should feel. Her husband located her in the room upstairs surrounded by the “revolting”, “smouldering” yellow wallpaper, when the narrator complains about the paper her husband (John) says “this place is doing you good”. The narrator was majorly impacted by the patriarchal pressures of the 19th Century, which resulted in her having no freedom. She was constantly told what to do, how to feel and what was best for her without her making any decisions for herself.
I agree with the statement Witalec makes, as it is evidential in the primary text when the narrator explains “John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.” “he said I wasn’t able to go”, “I am a doctor dear, I know”, “you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!”. We observe that the narrator is restrained and trapped amongst her husband’s demands; she is powerless in comparison to him. Witalec states “her (the narrator’s) mental state is worsened by her husband’s medical opinion that she confine herself to the house.”(1) I agree with Witalec’s statement, as although John is a qualified doctor and therefore believes he is right, it strongly appears that his medical opinion is threatening his wife’s sanity. Their marriage is a representation of 19th Century inequality and shows the readers their “ordinary” relationship was plagued by control of mind and body through a dominant male attitude.
Witalec also explains, “The yellow wallpaper itself becomes a symbol of this oppression to a woman who feels trapped in her roles as wife and mother” (1) Witalec is referring to the distress that the wallpaper has caused the narrator’s mind. The narrator says “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!” by describing the wallpaper, we can relate her thoughts to the society she lives in as the people in the 19th Century know that the inequality present is vicious and unfair yet everyday it still impacted women’s lives on a negative basis. I agree with what Witalec is stating, it is obvious that the narrator is unhappy with her position in society and feels dominated and trapped. I believe that the yellow wallpaper is unquestionably used to expose the oppression against women in the 19th Century society, as well as the contribution from the marriage that the narrator is involved in. It is clear that there was a vast difference between the value of male and female opinions and decisions.
The narrator is imprisoned in the patriarchal society and uses the yellow wallpaper to express her emotions towards the society she is trapped in. Women nowadays are more powerful in society due to ways in which they have changed their roles. Such as not being viewed as someone’s wife and mother. Whose functions are to cook, clean and nurture their family. Today women in the 21st century are educated therefore they themselves have become confident in their own choices without the male voice. I am glad to live in this century, as it would have been dreadful to feel powerless and vindicated just because of my gender.
Rena Korb believes that ‘The Yellow Wallpaper” ‘touches on many issues relevant to women of the nineteenth century, most particularly that of the roles they are allowed to play.” (2) I partially agree with Korb’s statement as the story does discuss the roles that women were ‘allowed’ to play in the 19th Century. I also believe that a major purpose of the story was to show women who are dominated by the male gender, that there is successful ways of taking control of life as an individual (i.e.- self expression). This is symbolically shown in the story when the narrator tears the wallpaper down- becoming free. Korb explains that the narrator develops a relationship with the yellow wallpaper, this is because “the narrator has no physical or spiritual escape from her husband, she must seek relief elsewhere: in the yellow wallpaper” (2).
This outlines the lack of love in their marriage; nowadays women desire the companionship of another person- male or female. When the narrator first views the wallpaper she instantly despises of it- “I never saw a worse paper in my life”. As her time in the room progresses she becomes fonder of the wallpaper and takes extended amount of time to analyse the patterns “I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before,”. Korb discusses “her (the narrator’s) initial discomfort decreases as she sees mirrored in the wallpaper her own existence” (2) I agree with Korb’s statement as when the narrator thoroughly examines the shapes and designs within the wallpaper she discovers there are two domineering patterns. The front pattern is concealed with bars resembling an imprisonment sense, and in the back pattern there is a female figure trying to escape, this is evident from the primary text- “The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out”.
This quote allows the readers to identify that the female figure in the wallpaper reflects the narrator and her position in the 19th Century society, as the oppression against women caused females of the generation to be trapped amongst males’ beliefs and requirements. The narrator strives to escape from the ‘norm’ and “shake” free from the patriarchal structures of the 19th Century society. This idea is very similar to the female in the wallpaper who shakes the bars she is imprisoned behind, in attempt to escape. This concept completely supports my hypothesis, and shows directly that the yellow wallpaper exposes the oppression against women in the 19th Century.
Korb explains that although the narrator despises her lack of freedom, she still intentionally remains oblivious when her husband makes every decision for her. Korb states, “This habit of the narrator of deliberately misreading her surroundings is apparent throughout the story. For instance when John refuses to give in to her fancies about changing the wallpaper” (2) I agree with the statement that Korb makes because in the primary text when the narrator confronts John about her dislike towards the wallpaper. John says “I (the narrator) was letting it get the better of me” and “He said that after the wallpaper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead next, and then the barred windows, and then the gate at the head of the stairs and so on.”
These quotes highlight the power that John has against his wife, and allow the reader to understand that in the 19th Century the male’s opinion always overruled the women’s opinion. This can relate to my hypothesis as the narrator was faced against the wallpaper everyday and if she got her way once then the rest of the furniture arrangements would follow, much like if women were not oppressed anymore, other circumstances would change too. The wallpaper is a symbol of the oppression against women in the 19th Century. Korb poses very significant questions in relation to John’s response to the wallpaper change; she says, “Is he reminding her of her confinement? Does she recognize this subtle way of controlling her? Rather than confronting such a possibility she instead, outwardly, relies on John’s advice.” (2) These questions that Korb poses are tremendously relevant to the quote stated previously as John references to the environment that the narrator is designated in; “heavy bedstead”, “barred windows”, “gate at the top of the stairs”, John emphasises the confinement that her surroundings present.
He blatantly names all fragments in her room that trap her from the wider world, as though it gives him a sense of pleasure and satisfaction. The narrator may not approve of the control and dominance that is set upon her but is left with no choice, as it was the ‘norm’ in the 19th Century living in a patriarchal society, therefore to John she acts unaware of the controlling situation that she is in. This concept may be seen as a weak and cowardly quality of the narrator, although she strengths as the story progresses and rips the wallpaper off the wall in order to feel free and repel John demands. She goes against John’s dominance and uses the wallpaper to express her emotions and what she wants. Women nowadays have a voice of their own, and their opinions and judgements are not overruled by the male gender. In general nowadays if a women spoke to their husband about changing the wallpaper due to them disliking it, it would be negotiated on a fair basis, the women’s opinion would be taken into account. Being a New Zealand citizen I am proud too know that we were the first country in the World to give women a voice, and that gradually provided hope and change for women across the World.
After analysing these two critics opinions relating to the oppression against women living in a patriarchal society it is clear that both critics support my hypothesis discussing slightly different perspectives. The yellow wallpaper describes how the narrator was trapped and dominated cruelly by the male gender. Interestingly references to patterns within the wallpaper conflict with the narrators mental state. However we learn her relationship with the wallpaper develops into something deeper which seems to reflect her feeling of confinement. By using a feminist lens to convey my hypothesis one can only imagine the total frustration at never being consulted on matters of importance to her such as the simplest of things- changing the wallpaper. The narrator’s inner turmoil through being oppressed is finally released by tearing off the yellow wallpaper she has escaped. I am glad to be a part of the 21st century where women are accepted for who they are and not oppressed by the male gender.
“The Yellow Wallpaper.” Short Story Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 62. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 May 2014.
Korb, Rena. “An overview of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Gale Online Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale, 2011. Literature Resource Center. Web. 16 Feb. 2011.