An Analysis of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' from Structuralism and Feminist Theory Perspectives

Categories: The Yellow Wallpaper

'The Yellow Wallpaper,' authored by Charlotte Gilman, presents a compelling opportunity for analysis from two distinct schools of thought: structuralism and feminist theory. While structuralism tends to detach a work of literature from its author, emphasizing its inherent form and patterns, feminist theory necessitates a deep understanding within its historical context. At the turn of the 20th century, American society grappled with shifting gender roles, industrialization, urbanization, and economic transformations. These changes significantly influenced the perception and portrayal of gender roles, leading to a reevaluation of women's place in the home and society.

The Changing Landscape of Gender Roles

Industrialization, urbanization, declining birth rates, and increased divorce rates were among the factors that sparked concerns about family stability in America. As large corporations replaced small family businesses, individuals became increasingly reliant on their employers, leading to a significant wealth gap. In this evolving landscape, the home emerged as the final sanctuary for traditional values, and women were expected to embody these values.

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Women were idealized as the moral anchors of society, tasked with protecting families from the perceived dangers of modernity. Consequently, women became associated with the home, both representing the values Americans sought to preserve.

Women were expected to conform to a set of ideals that included chastity, benevolence, self-sacrifice, cultivation, cheerfulness, compassion, intellectual pursuits within certain bounds, and frugality. Importantly, by relegating women to the domestic sphere, many were excluded from the emerging economy and became increasingly dependent on their husbands for financial support. This gendered division of labor was essential for the development of a male-dominated corporate culture.

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Literary Portrayal of Domesticity

During the 19th century, literature, especially that authored by women, romanticized domesticity. Authors like Harriet Beecher Stowe, in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' elevated the home's role in social action. As the century turned, writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman began challenging traditional women's roles within the home. These literary works often featured female characters yearning for escape and freedom. Society and religious doctrines, as forms of patriarchy, perpetuated the "angel in the house" ideal of women as perfect mothers and homemakers. 'The Yellow Wallpaper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman offers a vivid portrayal of late 19th-century gender roles through the lens of male dominance within marriage, where women were expected to conform passively to their prescribed roles.

Depiction of Women's Roles

The story introduces John's sister as the embodiment of the ideal woman who finds contentment in her domestic duties. John's wife, on the other hand, rebels against societal expectations by pursuing her passion for writing. Her statement, "I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which makes me sick!" highlights her struggle against the confines of her gendered role. The story underscores the pivotal role of John, the narrator's husband, in shaping her mental state. His authoritarianism suppresses her emotions and creativity, pushing her further into insanity.

The narrator's confinement in a room with barred windows and a nailed-down bed symbolizes her entrapment within the domestic sphere. Her descent into madness becomes a form of rebellion and a quest for independence from the constraints of marriage. Her efforts to free the woman trapped within the yellow wallpaper represent her own struggle for liberation.

The narrator's description of the wallpaper as "dull enough to confuse the eye" and "constantly irritating and provoking study" reflects her sense of inferiority and burden. Her husband's paternalistic treatment, prescribing absurd remedies and suppressing her will, leads her closer to a metaphorical "suicide" of self. These "unheard of contradictions" expose the flaws in John's methods, highlighting the oppressive nature of the prevailing gender norms.

Challenging Societal Norms

'The Yellow Wallpaper' challenges conventional perceptions of women's roles and societal expectations. Early reviewers of the story resisted its message, as it forced them to confront uncomfortable truths about female agency and autonomy. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, however, did not envision a utopian conclusion for women's pursuit of independence. Instead, the protagonist's quest for freedom leads to depression rather than fulfillment. 'The Yellow Wallpaper' serves as a bridge between two centuries and two conflicting visions of gender.

The turn of the century brought about profound changes in women's roles, initiating a gradual dismantling of old societal expectations. Women during this period faced uncertainty and inconsistency as they navigated these transformations. 'The Yellow Wallpaper' aptly portrays the female protagonist as a quintessential turn-of-the-century woman grappling with issues of independence, self-identity, and shifting gender roles.

Structuralism and 'The Yellow Wallpaper'

Within the framework of structuralism, the author and the text itself take a backseat, while the reader assumes greater significance. Structuralism focuses on analyzing patterns, systems, and structures within a text, seeking to unveil underlying binaries and oppositions. One such binary structure in 'The Yellow Wallpaper' is sanity versus insanity. The husband, seemingly sane, exerts control over his wife, confining her to a room. A structuralist might reverse this binary, examining "insanity over sanity" within the story.

As the narrative unfolds, the protagonist's moments of insanity become increasingly prominent. Initially, she resents her forced confinement and strives to cure herself of madness. However, over time, she embraces her insanity and even finds excitement in it. Her statement, "Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be," suggests that insanity can bring happiness. A structuralist interpretation might conclude that Charlotte Gilman is suggesting the potential benefits of embracing insanity if it leads to personal contentment.

Structuralism delves into the systems and binaries present in a text, shedding light on the author's own experiences during the Victorian era. This approach helps uncover deeper structures without fixating solely on the text's plot or the author's intentions. It offers a more holistic view of literature, emphasizing patterns and structures that may not be immediately apparent.

Feminist Theory and 'The Yellow Wallpaper'

Feminist theory, on the other hand, cannot be divorced from the cultural movement that underpins it. It acknowledges the historical struggle for women's rights, recognizing the collective efforts that paved the way for greater gender equality. 'The Yellow Wallpaper' aligns with feminist theory by portraying the protagonist's rebellion against the confines of her gendered role. Her journey symbolizes the broader feminist quest for independence, agency, and self-expression.

While both structuralism and feminist theory offer valuable perspectives for analyzing literature, they serve different purposes. Structuralism provides a systematic framework for examining the underlying structures and binaries within a text, revealing deeper meanings. In contrast, feminist theory contextualizes a work within the historical struggle for women's rights, highlighting the broader societal implications of gender roles and women's agency.


In conclusion, 'The Yellow Wallpaper' by Charlotte Gilman invites multifaceted analysis from structuralism and feminist theory perspectives. It serves as a poignant representation of the changing landscape of gender roles in late 19th-century America and the complex struggles faced by women. Whether viewed through the lens of structuralism, with its emphasis on patterns and systems, or analyzed within the context of feminist theory and the historical fight for women's autonomy, the story offers profound insights into the human condition and the evolving perception of gender in society.

Updated: Nov 01, 2023
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An Analysis of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' from Structuralism and Feminist Theory Perspectives. (2016, Dec 28). Retrieved from

An Analysis of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' from Structuralism and Feminist Theory Perspectives essay
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