‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ written by Charlotte Gilman can be affectively analyzed from two schools of thought structuralism and feminist theory. Though structuralists’ deny the work of literature any connection to its author (it must be what it is, no underlying meaning) feminist theory must first and foremost be understood in its historical framework. By the turn of the century, journals, art galleries, and works of fiction were swamped with notions about how to be a proper woman in middle class society.
With industrialization, urbanization, declining birth rates, amplified divorce rates, the shift away from the home and the rise in the number of single men and women in the professional class, Americans dreaded that their families would disintegrate. Thus, one of the most important changes to American culture in the late 19th century was the change in the perception and illustration of gender roles. Besides the changes in social order, Americans experienced intense economic modifications. Large corporations replaced small family businesses and people were reliant on their employers.
The gap between the rich and the poor radically increased.
These changes resulted in an understanding of the home as the last refuge for traditional values for both men and women. Despite the new feminist activism inspired in part by women’s roles in the Abolitionist movement, as well as the Temperance and Suffrage movements, women were supposed to exemplify the conventional values represented by the home. In this way, women were associated with the home; both were emblems of the ethics Americans hoped to maintain.
The home turned out to be a female gendered domestic space in which women, as the custodians of customs and ethics, both attained and lost power.
Glorified as morally better members of society who would protect the family from the harms of business and modernity, women were expected to be chaste, benevolent, self-sacrificing, cultivated, cheerful, compassionate, well-read in the appropriate fields and economical. Most significantly, by relegating women to the conjugal sphere, many women were barred from the new economy and therefore were more and more reliant on their husbands for income. Without the establishment of the separate female gendered domestic sphere, the process of developing a male centered corporate culture would not have been probable.
During the 19th century, domesticity was romanticized in literature, mostly in literature by women. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, politicized the home by making it central to social action. By the turn of the century, women like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, produced novels that flouted conventional women’s roles in the home. In each text, the female character fantasizes about escape and freedom. Women are depicted as functioning “as a display of her husband’s wealth” as suggested in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics regarding the wife’s function which is “to dress and entertain, and order things.
Society and religious conviction, as forms of patriarchy, blind women to the limitations of their gendered individualities and encourage the “angel in the house” image of perfection as their happiest function; that of the “mother-woman”. The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman describes the conventional gender roles of the late 1800’s, through the viewpoint of male supremacy in marriage, with female existence coordinated to a more compliant, or passive position. This story also presents the social relationship between male dominance through accepted “norms” and female “imprisonment”, within the household.
The role of women in society is demonstrated distinctly in the depiction of John’s sister in The Yellow Wallpaper. The woman writes, “There comes John’s sister…I must not let her find me writing. She is a perfectionist and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which makes me sick! ” (Gilman). John’s sister is the exemplary woman; one who is pleased with her life, and wishes for no more. John’s wife, however, is revolting on her place in society by writing.
This is why she includes the statement “I verily believe …… makes me sick! ” (Gilman). The chief source of the narrator’s mental state is her dictatorial husband who suppresses her emotional and creative inclinations and compels her to focus on the objects that surround her. This apathy shoves her deeper into insanity. John confines her in a room that has no getaway with bars on the windows and fixed bed, which is “nailed down. ” Her developing insanity is a form of rebellion and a way to gain her own independence from marriage as well.
Her fight to set the woman in the wallpaper free denotes her battle for freedom. This paragraph is extremely important to the story, portraying not only how the woman feels about herself, but also what her husband’s therapy is doing to her. Her description of the paper being “dull enough to confuse the eye” and “constantly irritating and provoking study” is alluding to her sense of inferiority and burden. The “lame uncertain curves” she speaks of are likely to reference the ridiculous suggestions that he husband makes for her, and “suicide” being the fate that is destined to result if followed.
The “unheard of contradictions” express the faultiness of John’s methods. She describes him at one point: “He says no one but myself can help me out of it that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me” (165). The exclusivity of The Yellow Wallpaper caused early reviewers to greet it with resentment. People were not ready to wake up to the reality about feminine passion and autonomy. Charlotte Perkins Gilman saw no joyful end to the women’s urge for autonomy.
The narrator’s attainment of freedom brings them depression rather than achievement and bliss. The Yellow Wallpaper began a painful process of “bridging two centuries, two worlds, two visions of gender” (Ford, 116). The turn-of-the-century indeed brings alteration in the roles of women, starting the slow but sure decay of old roles and hopes. Throughout such a period, women experience perplexity and inconsistency. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ rightly portrays the female protagonist as a true turn-of-the-century woman, facing crises related to issues of independence, self-hood and gender roles.
Within Structuralism the author and text is not found to be important, however, there is a strong significance of the reader. This is seen as true due to the fact that “the text disappears in favor of looking at patterns, systems, and structures” (Parker). Structuralism is frequently belittled for its inability to prove something through usual hypothesis testing and validation methods. The value of structuralism in the literary world is to check out every aspect of that work of literature a way out the concepts of that said literary work into a system of binaries (hot vs. cold etc.
In the case of The Yellow Wallpaper one binary structure that could be used is sanity vs. insanity. For instance the husband appears to be sane, which gives him more control over his wife, allowing him to lock her up in the room. ” If you take each particular motif from the story, their structures and flip them, more motifs would develop which would enable for the origin of the systems (structures) inside the text(s) to become analyzable” (Parker). The next thing structuralist can process would be to flip the binary over making a critic examine “insanity over sanity” within the story.
Keeping in mind that binary structure, looking at the narrator of the story, insanity seems to be the superior of the two motives; for she is constantly displaying moments of insanity. At first, she is angry for being forced into imprisonment while she tries to cure herself of the insanity. However, as time goes on the author begins to get happier and happier as she starts embracing her insanity. For example she writes, “Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be” (Gilman).
Looking at such enthusiasm from accepting her insanity a structuralist would conclude that Charlotte Gilman is stating that insanity could be a good thing as long as the person is experiencing happiness. The structuralist may scrutinize the structure of “A mans role within the female role” or “energy over weakness. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” the systems (structures) and binaries inside the text indicate the foundation of the author’s own encounters while as being a patient throughout the Victorian times.
This understanding of Charlotte Gilman’s existence helps to evaluate much more structures without focusing mainly on text and its plot. Structuralism is used in literary theory in order to examine the bigger picture of a text. It does not just focus on the storyline or the author, but it examines the systems in which the story is formed. In reality, one can take any work of literature and apply a school of theory that would best suit their representation of the work, but what is trying to be brought here is two theories from different side of the spectrums.
With feminist theory one cannot overlook the history of the whole cultural movement behind it; as one would say ‘all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it’ on the other hand, structuralism sets out to find a more ‘scientific’ approach to the analysis of literature. Though both sides could argue, when should each theory be applied and how appropriate it would deem itself. But, each theory does serve itself a purpose, whether it is one of a cultural revolution or one of a scholarly look at a text without ‘author’s intentions’.