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The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
In the 19th century, the ideal of the true woman was a virtuous, docile, homebound, and married female. If a woman had any ambitions outside her family, the society did not encourage it; on the contrary, the woman was led to believe that only domesticity had to be the sphere of her interests. Sometimes, the impossibility to apply their intellectual abilities was destructive for women, and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman showcased it in a vivid way. The story was wrongly interpreted merely as a case of slipping into madness (Horowitz 189). Thus, having overlooked the reasons for a nervous illness that laid in idleness of body and mind imposed on middle-class women in the 19th century America.
The industrial revolution brought changes into the lifestyle pattern for the American families of that time. Polly Wynn Allen explains that, from being a close-knit mercantile business involving all family members, a common house-hold broke down to individual workers laboring in separate places on different schedules (11, 12). In addition, the growing urban middle class developed a new model of social behavior: women ought to do the household chores while men earn living for the family (13). This new social and economic reality made a woman dependent on her husband with religious norms promoting and consolidating it. Allen writes, anxiety and guilt aroused by the cultures increasing preoccupation with material gain […] soothed the collective conscience by designating woman as the homebound representative of such traditional values as spirituality, interpersonal warmth, and home-centeredness (15). In times when money became the measure of anyones worth, women lost the economic value of their family roles (Allen 16). Now, their realm was limited by doing unpaid domestic chores and nurturing virtues. Barbara Welter mentions four major virtues attributed to True Womanhood: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness, with the latter being the most feminine virtue expected of women (158).
Charlotte Perkins Gilman drew on biographical material. Never holding marriage as a goal, rather a means, not an end (Horowitz 78), Gilman dreamt of helping people, doing good using her intellectual abilities (115), while Walter Stetson, Gilmans husband, saw a womans duty in serving a man and bearing his children and considered any desire for independence […] mere selfishness (79). It is little wonder that after getting married Gilman began to suffer from mood swings and nervousness (Gilman 114). Giving birth to a child had most definitely caused postpartum depression for Gilman. Although doctors of that time not being versed about female hormonal system, associated all nervous disorders with hysteria (Gilbert). Not being able to conquer illness on her own, Gilman sought for professional advice. She wrote to the famous physician specialized in curing neurasthenic women, Dr. Weir Mitchell, and partook his rest cure. Dr. Weir Mitchell disapproved of intellectual activity on the part of women and classified it as pathological, prescribed confinement to bed, not more than two hours intellectual life a day, and never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live (Allen 39). After several months of such a lifestyle, Gilman felt worse than before. She decided to follow her instincts and resumed social activity, returned to dairy keeping, and began taking care of her own life by divorcing and moving to California.
All the above mentioned factors provided the basis for Gilmans 1890 The Yellow Wallpaper. The short story demonstrates disparaging attitude of men toward women. Middle-class women were supposed to be timid, doubtful, and clingingly dependent; a perpetual childhood (Welter 160). The protagonists husband John keeps on belittling his wifes complaints by laughing at her for disliking the wallpaper or calling her a blessed little goose for wanting to go downstairs, thus palliating all her desires to repaper the room (Gilman 649). When the protagonist begins telling her husband about her ghostly feeling of the house, he refuses to accept her sense of the things saying that she felt a draught (Horowitz 180, Gilman 649). He thus reduces her interior life of feeling and imagination to physical phenomena and bodily reactions (Horowitz 180). John asks the narrator not to give way to fancy in the least (649), just like Charlotte herself was cautioned by her mother against having fancies (Horowitz 205). Men feared educated wives (Welter 167), and it was deemed better for a wife to submerge her talents to work for her husband (160). Therefore, even jotting down his wifes thoughts irritated the husband. The narrator says, he hates to have me write a word (Gilman 649). The protagonist makes entries in her diary, which could easily be Charlottes, saying how she tries to live up to her husbands expectations:
John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him. Of course it is only nervousness. It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way! I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already! (Gilman 649)
By leaving the heroine unnamed, Gilman underscored her dependence from husband while common names John and Jane for husband and sister-in-law render universality to these characters. John behaves like any man of his time patronizing and requiring the submission; the nursemaid Mary, alluding to the virgin mother, is good with the baby, and Jane is given a characteristic of an enthusiastic housekeeper who hopes for no better profession (Gilman 650).
In spite of the doctors prescriptions, the heroine thinks that a little bit of writing would relieve the press of ideas and rest her (Gilman 649). Likewise, she would not mind cousins providing her with the company, and the protagonist retells her husbands reaction to such an idea: he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now (Gilman 649). In the same manner, John assures the protagonist that she is getting better by gaining flesh and color and shrugs off her timid speculation about her getting better in body, but not in mind (Gilman 652). All the more, the resulting lunacy of his wife comes as a thunderbolt for John. Creative power of Gilmans imagination produced the unexpected and startling story that could open peoples eyes to the way how to save people from being driven crazy (Gilbert).
The Yellow Wallpaper was a response to contemporary treatment of women as childlike, submissive, and irrational creatures. The story showed how the thoughts unvented and isolated could drive a woman mad. Gilman lived through a similar situation in her first marriage when she tried to suppress her social activity for the sake of her husband and care for the daughter and appeared on the brink of the serious mental illness. After learning to rule her emotions and leading regular professional activity as a lecturer and writer, Gilman found a man who accepted her just as she was and married her on her terms (Horowitz 210). Gilmans answer to the problem of wrongly cast gender roles was independent action, work in the world, gaining a living and securing public recognition (207).
The Yellow Wallpaper is a symbolic representation of the Cult of True Womanhood that tethers women to home and makes them function one-sidedly. The womens goal was to get beyond the yellow wallpaper pattern the artificial confinements imposed by men and society. Social activists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman challenged principles of the patriarchal society calling for women to stop diminishing themselves and their role in the life of the family and the community, and to enter the public domain on conditions equal to men.