Since the course of the institution of marriage, women have been set upon to play out certain roles in society. Oftentimes they are stereotyped to be docile, timid and weak, only to be contrasted by a strong, dominant male figure. While modern women’s rights help decrease such inaccurate personas, social ideals in 19th century America drastically differed to the present day culture. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, she illustrates this different ideology in her character’s trial through certain characteristics and surrounding plot setting.
Ultimately, Gilman’s story demonstrates how in an oppressive male dominated society, gender roles in marriages can often lead to a lack of identity for women.
Gilman’s story is introduced in a late 1890s setting, involving a young couple. Due to her husband’s discovery of her “nervous depression with hysterical tendency”, the woman is forced by her husband reside in an abandoned room, in hopes of a recovery (Gilman).
She is required to stay in a surrounding that is coincidentally covered in yellow, scraped wallpaper. Throughout the days, the women’s sanity deteriorates as she is not allowed any mental stimulation or activity, where she has only a journal to narrate. Ultimately, the wife hallucinates a woman stuck in between the walls and starts to develop ideas to release the women she sees in the wallpaper. When she does, she tears the wallpaper down, terrifying her husband in the process. In the end, she finds herself liberated though in the process becoming insane herself.
Although the plot describes a fantasied circumstance of a young wife, the plot is founded on the experiences of multiple young wives in the 1900s. Most men at the time had complete over their partner both socially and domestically. A woman’s body, health and activity eventually became an amusement for their husband due to their lesser status in the marriage. Not only that, women were not allowed governmental representation and the right to their own body, as they were once viewed with the same intelligence as a child. Gilman herself experienced such treatment when she developed postpartum depression, which is where a young mother experiences a lack of mental wellbeing after giving birth. Rather than giving voice to her needs, her male doctors advised complete mental rest alone in secluded room. The long hours per day with no social interaction significantly changed Gilman, even threatening insanity.
Her lack of voice in her own treatment helped her identify the social status women had at the time even in the terms of their own treatment. Such circumstances are described in the Yellow Wallpaper with the intent to distinguish the hidden sexism in society and disadvantages women face in their relationships. The main chcarcter of the story has an important characterization Gilman purposefully indicates in the story. Despite her disapproval of her husband’s opinionated treatment, the narrator continues to obey and even fears that she is demanding “too much of fate or [her husband] John”. It was only until later in the story that she decides to disobey by secretly having a journal to write in. In these mental notes, the character discusses her day to day activities describing boredom to frustration. This boredom transforms her interest in the yellow wallpaper she is engulfed in. Vivid details including the folds, unique patterns and smell all corresponds to how the character perceived the world around and her eventually understanding of what the wallpaper does.
Eventually, her obedience to the treatment decreases as she begins to hallucinate her liberation, symbolized by the tearing of the wallpaper. Such deterioration in control is seen through her perspective as her own mental notes become unreliable. The wallpaper is seen as prison gates entrapping the imaginary women she sees and herself in the room. The character’s tearing of the yellow wallpaper to a large extent symbolizes her “new self-identity through…her transformation into the women” on the wall (Suess 201).This transition from calm and timid sanity to overwhelmed insanity becomes a defining trait in the narrator in the story. Gilman’s usage of first person point of view further signifies the message behind her characters’ experiences. The effects of the room being a physical restraint become obvious to readers once the narrator starts to change in terms of speech and diction.
As the wife’s narration becomes unrealistic and confusing, Gilman shows the audience the mental strain such treatments have on women especially at this state. On the other hand, the personality of John, the husband is more distinguishable. Throughout the story, John is seen as stubborn, arrogant yet concerned for his wife’s well-being. His profession as a doctor allows him the ability to both diagnose and control his wife’s life for the time being. However, once his wife loses her mental stability to a large extent, he too becomes overwhelmed by its significance. His wife’s breakdown by tearing the wallpaper in the room eventually causes him to faint on sight. This transition from collective arrogance to shocked uncertainty has a major importance in Gillman’ story.
In a culture where women exhibit little to no influential power, it is no surprise on why Gilman proceeded to comment on its damages to its inhabitant. Gilman’s story specifically focuses on the “restrictions of Victorian discourses” especially to young wives such as herself (ARNAUTOVIĆ 5). Various components of mental illness and depression were ignored, completely abandoning the emotional state of wives in a marriage. Certain roles of a dominant husband and submissive wife further elongate such mental side effects as portrayed by Gilman’s characters’ struggles.