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In 1892, feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman published her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” describing an intense summer vacation for a woman recovering from mental illness. The story takes the reader through the narrator’s erratic journal entries of a three month stay in a rented estate while she is under the microscopic care of her physician husband. In order to regain her health for the sake of their child, her husband John prescribes “tonics, air and exercise”, thus making his wife stay in an upstairs bedroom full of sunlight and plenty of space despite being covered in a disturbing yellow wallpaper with barred windows, much to the narrator’s dismay. Although John adamantly protests his wife’s desire to write during her illness, the narrator continues to express herself in secret. Naturally, this story hints at the traditional expectations of a woman’s demeanor and values under the forceful hand of a patriarchal society. Throughout the development of the story, the narrator’s journal entries increasingly become centered around this intense fascination of the bedroom, establishing an eerie and baffling tone. By constructing the story exclusively through a female perspective, Gilman provides a key insight into the sexist treatment of women’s mental health, and the mystery of the yellow wallpaper.
What are some of the major themes of the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”? To begin, the narrator frequently elaborates into how her husband perceives and treats her mental illness. Diagnosed as a “temporary nervous depression”, she rambles to the reader about how she is often doubted and misunderstood. The narrator seems exasperated by John’s micromanagement, especially with being forbidden to perform any kind of physical work including her beloved hobby of writing. This is one of the first examples of John’s supremacy a reader learns; her endless secrecy concerning the journal. Although Gilman made this conflict seem minuscule, with the other small nuances found throughout the story, it collectively represents how women’s internal expressions were subtly muted yet strongly discouraged.
The narrator especially emphasizes that she must say what she thinks and disobeys John because writing is “such a relief”. In a more similar interaction, the reader can see the narrator’s separate frustrations over John’s seemingly comforting but insensitive treatment for his wife’s abnormal mood swings that is expected with a mental illness. After conveying her irrepressible anger, John tells her she “neglects proper self-control”. Instead of medically addressing her emotions, he tends to reflect it as blame onto her faulty personality traits. This supports the hard limitations often set on femininity. Furthermore, readers pick up on John’s belittling dialogue with the narrator, despite being a loving husband and medical physician such as, “John knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him”. These first few expressive paragraphs stand as an early signal to readers about the main theme of Yellow Wallpaper Gilman has incorporated through John’s character and foreshadows his continuing attitude.
Another key character involved in this story is Jennie, the sister of John, who comes to the summer house to help take care of the narrator when John is at work. Readers do not know much about Jennie — she’s a relatively static character that is inserted by Gilman for another outside perspective. To be clear, Jennie mainly expresses her frets about the narrator’s health and stability in the story, displaying an “inexplicable look”. Becoming increasingly worried like her brother, Jennie also comes to believe writing caused the narrator’s sickness. This is a representation of a woman’s tarnished perspective on mothers’ and wives’ capabilities who are unable to care for their family and how easily influenced they are by men’s ideologies.
Although the summer stay was meant to benefit the narrator, she seems to become more distressed with increasing contact of the peculiar bedroom. John reasons that providing his wife with a bright, open bedroom will speed her recovery. However, the reader becomes wary of the terrifying torn yellow wallpaper and frightening barred windows. To provide more detail, the room is depicted as “big, airy…with sunshine galore” but later juxtaposed as “atrocious” with “horrid” wallpaper. When the narrator expresses to John she wants to leave, he negates her request by insisting it is only her wild imagination and simply not worth the effort. As nighttime falls, the narrator claims there is a movement within the pattern: “like a woman stooping down and creeping about…”. She is also described “taking hold of the bars and shaking them hard” in comparison to keeping still in the daytime. Thus, a reader can speculate if this is a nod to a traditional woman’s demeanor when a personal dilemma would arise; subdued in the daytime, distressed at night.
Similarly, other factors such as tone in this story could make a reader themselves even doubt the narrator’s sanity. For example, the author embodies her writing with the pessimistic and sometimes violently erratic journal entries. Statements such as, “It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight” tricks the reader to question her mental stability, similar to John. In a more extreme statement, as the narrator deciphers the curves of the wallpaper’s pattern, she describes them as “suddenly committing suicide – plunging off at outrageous angles”. As she progressively becomes enthralled by the woman in the yellow wallpaper, Gilman utilizes an intense, dark and descriptive vocabulary similar to personifying this mysterious woman as a demon “hanging over me”, even claiming it has a certain smell. These concerning comments can be likened to those with psychosis, further throwing the reader back and forth between what to believe. A reader could then speculate if this “woman” is just a figure of her hysterical imagination.
Towards the end of the story, the narrator’s infatuation with the mystery boils over and the climax occurs when the narrator locks herself in the bedroom, tearing at the wallpaper to free the woman figure. Completely possessed by her liberation, the narrator locks the bedroom door to be uninterrupted as John forces his way in. By this point, the narrator has embodied the woman figure, freed from the constraints of the wallpaper exclaiming, “I’ve got out at last in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”. Interestingly, there has never been a “Jane” character and the narrator was maintained as nameless. However, Gilman has suggested this figure and the narrator have become one, and perhaps has always been one, by speaking to John about their enslavement of mental illness through the third person. In a way, the narrator has been relating to the woman figure in the wallpaper all along.
Since “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was narrated exclusively in a female perspective, it provided the reader a firsthand account of the insensitive and sexist treatment of women’s mental health. This short story incorporated traditional feminist politics underneath a thought-provoking fictional façade. It also challenged the stereotypes for wives and mothers who are often swept under the rug to faithfully maintain the back bone of society.
Overall, the essay is informative and flows well. Unfortunately, there are some grammar issues that need to be addressed. Also, the evidence provided needs to be cited with the author’s last name and page number. Besides these, the essay would be more organized with section headings.
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