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“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a short story published in 1892, about a woman who is unable to deal with her depression. Her husband and doctor take over and decide a treatment based upon male dominance and lock her in a room with yellow wallpaper that becomes increasingly terrifying to her as she loses her grip on reality along with her freedom. The arguments posed by Jennifer Siegel, Ann Oakley, and Paula Treichler in their support the idea that “Yellow Wallpaper” is not just a story about a doctor taking care of his wife, but about postpartum depression, mental health issues, male dominance, and how gendered societal roles affected the protagonist and her freedom. By deepening the reader’s understanding of the context in which this story was written, one can ascertain the underlying subtext indicating themes of addressing mental health and gender inequality.
Siegel writes regarding the author’s own experience with postpartum depression, a period of time that informed both her depth of understanding about the female protagonist’s plight as well as the contempt she feels for her doctor throughout the story. Writing as a form of self-healing is not an unheard-of practice, and this author examines the ways in which Gilman may have been processing her own struggles with mental health within the context of a patriarchal society. “In a sense, then, Gilman’s purpose in writing “The Yellow Wallpaper” seems to run much deeper than just sending a “message” … By exorcising the doctor and his male colleagues, Gilman may have also been sending the same message to ordinary women- and men- of her generation”.
Understanding her own maternal journey through the experience of a fictional character, Gilman may have been able to simultaneously gain insight into her own being as well as, as Siegel argues, educate and empathize with her contemporaries. Many of Siegel’s discussion points in her article are informed by primary source material- letters, journal entries of Gilman’s, etc. Thus, there can be no true argument about the fact of her using her nameless character to make a statement; whether to herself or her doctors is uncertain. What is left up for examination in this argument, however, is what can primarily be argued in many feminist criticisms of any text.
It could be argued that both Gilman and Siegel, and any female writer and academic for that matter, are so influenced by their life experiences as women that they fail to bridge the disconnect between emotional and factual realities. Their vision of the truth, of science, of literature is informed so heavily by their being women, that their writing loses its validity, its adherence to truth. This argument, however, is rooted in the arcane concept of white maleness as the center of human experience and as such, the only perspective that must be considered. Understanding the journey from 19th century feminism to modern day feminist interpretations of those women belonging to the former group is imperative to properly reading and examining the writings and literature belonging to them. Siegel works from a perspective of Gilman’s lived experience and activism through literature.
Continuing the thread of thought from 19th century feminism as it relates to the story “The Yellow Wallpaper” what this author, Oakley is examining is Gilman’s characters lack of fulfillment of maternal and marital roles. The character in the story is portrayed as unwell to a degree that she is isolated and treated almost as a leper for reasons we understand as a natural, but unfortunate occurrence following childbirth. “The impact of industrial economic development, although commonly seen in terms of the work-home division, also had this other effect: that personal relationships were equated with ‘the family,’ and women were seen as responsible for them. ‘The family’ – increasingly the nuclear family of parents and children, with it incorporates division of labour – became. The paradigm for all female-male relationships, for the division of all labor”.
The time in which the story takes place and in which Gilman came to understand her parameters as a woman is outlined in the above quote. The character in the story is lacking in her ability to fulfill her obligations and as such is treated as a pariah, as someone outside the norm. Reading through the lens of contemporary understanding about mental illness and postpartum depression, as well as in an era of increased equality among men and women gives modern readers additional insight into the cruelty and punishment faced by the nameless woman in the novella. The role of “caregiver” in the story is subverted. And the duties of the position are given to both the protagonist’s husband and male doctor. Their failure to operate successfully in these role accents the division of labor that Oakely discusses as a primary driving force behind the dynamics between characters. The nameless protagonist appears to exist in relation to these two men, rather than as an independent character.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” may appear to be imaginable, as it seems as one can interpret the wallpaper to be the representation of women that become possible only after women obtain the right to speak. This short story allows the audience to see women begin to realize their social roles, but also how they begin to challenge them as well. The yellow wallpaper stands for a new vision of women, one that is very different from typical view in the 19th century. This story is partially about the clash between two modes of disclosure: one powerful and dominant, and the other the visionary. The overall outcome of the story displays visionary feminist approach to material reality. “A feminist reading emphasizes the social and economic conditions which drive the narrator – and potentially all women – to madness. In these readings, the yellow wallpaper represents (1) the narrator’s own mind, (2) the narrator’s unconscious, (3) the “pattern” of social and economic dependence which reduces women to domestic slavery. The woman in the wallpaper represents (1) the narrator herself, gone mad, (2) the narrator’s unconscious, (3) all women.
Something that also calls to question the narrator’s unconscious is when the woman in the story talks about keeping a journal. She stated, “There comes John,” she tells us at the end of her first entry, “and I must put this away, he hates to have me write a word”. This demonstrates her forbidden disclosure, but here you don’t see the women questioning her husband, but just bowing down to what he sees as best for her. She is too stuck in the veneer of having what a good husband and doctor appears to be.
This also plays into the “pattern” of social and economic dependence, which reduces women to domestic slavery. The fact that her husband is her doctor, and that her brother is one as well, and they both agree about the treatment course and what is wrong with her proves that male dominance was a very prevalent thing during this time period. After the opinion of her brother is given, it dictates the narrator’s removal to the “ancestral halls” where the story is set and generates a medical therapeutic treatment that includes isolation, “phosphates or phosphites” air, and rest. It forbids her to work and/or write. The husband uses his sense of power as her doctor and also as her husband to be able to control her behavior. One may argue that her “diagnosis” could be used as a metaphor for the voice of medicine or science that speaks to define a women’s condition. The term diagnosis is something that is seen as powerful, and the person who gives the diagnosis holds that sense of power and authority. It dictates money, resources., and space. In the story it is a male voice that has the privilege to be rational, practical and observant. It is male judgement that dismisses superstition and refuses to see the house as haunted or the narrator’s condition as one that is serious.
Overall the woman feels as though she is the one that has gone mad, not because of the symptoms that she may be experiencing but what society, her husband/doctor and brother/doctor also advise her. Throughout the story, one can see that she makes numerous attempts to plead her case and explain to her husband how she is feeling, and what she feels may be able to help her, but she is continuously shot down. Even though she is advised to not “work” or write during the time that she is sick, she does anyways to try to feel some type of sanity. Eventually the narrator begins to keep this journal but also speaks privately to her journal. One can see that the journal entries at early stages are very tentative and are clearly shaped under the stern eye of male judgement. As she continues to write in the journal her views begin to change. She even begins to question what her doctor/husband has told her about her temporary depression, and in ways mocks it. She also begins to picture the figure of a women behind the yellow paper, and almost attempts to get rid of the wallpaper. As the story continues to progress, she becomes enraged with the wallpaper, and begins to see an alternative reality where there is a figure of a woman emerging from the paper. She begins to liberate the women, and then she states, “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!”.
Therefore, the ending of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is ambivalent and complex, the narrator’s final triumph can be seen as both a huge triumph as well as horrifying. The escape at the end could be seen as both negative and positive. On one hand, it shows an alternative reality and challenges patriarchy head on. Then her husband fainted, and this helped to show her newfound sense of freedom. She defies the judgment that she suffers from a “temporary nervous depression,” she has followed her own sense of logic, perception, and finds her sanity through doing so by the end of the story. This story was meant to encourage women who read to follow their own logic and reasoning to find happiness and freedom, because they are also human beings and should trust themselves. People generally understand their own emotions better than anyone else can and can take care of themselves through whichever therapeutic methods they have found to be most effective. In this case, the woman wanted to write, but was told not to do so by the men who were expected to be the rational ones. They wanted her to “take it easy” and not engage in tasks they deemed too difficult for women. They wanted her to receive treatment that they thought was appropriate for a “delicate” woman. Today we understand basic psychology and know that regardless of sex or gender, when you trap someone in a room without the freedom to be creative, without the view of sunlight or trees, and without companionship, it is bound to create a deeper sense of depression and loneliness. Everyone has the same basic needs, regardless of the societal role they were given to fulfill at the time of their birth.
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