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The Victorian rest cure, a diagnosis set forth to upper class, white, Victorian women who were believed to be suffering from “hysteria”, or “trauma related to an unsuccessful role adjustment” sought to instill in them a “childlike submission to masculine authority” (Ammons 35). Charlotte Perkins Gilman, herself a victim of the Victorian rest cure, utilizes within “The Yellow Wallpaper” her own experiences to exemplify the violence of achieving the Victorian ideal of femininity and the sacrifices necessary for a woman to avow her right to self-determination. Gilman’s narrator, violently forced into absolute solitude, silence, and submission, must face the quagmire before her — loyalty to her husband and societal perceptions of woman, or loyalty to her imagination, her intellect, and the piece of herself that she has objectified and projected into the wallpaper and that pleads for independence. Undoubtedly, loyalties lie to self. Thus, “The Yellow Wallpaper” depicts a woman affirming her right to her own authority while breaking free from the “violent process of feminization” (Ammons 35) that masculine authority has forced her to submit to.
The rest cure that ravages Gilman’s narrator centers around the ‘compassionate’ care of a male specialist that forces his patient “to turn herself into a helpless, docile, overgrown infant — that is, a feminine adult” (Ammons 35). John, the narrator’s husband and physician plays the role of the ‘compassionate’ male expert. He hides his true purpose of molding his wife into the ideal of Victorian femininity beneath layers of care and kindliness — not allowing her “stir without special direction” (Gilman 647). His treatment of her is explicitly paternal, if not austerely dominating — he laughs when she questions him, he calls her “little girl” and “blessed little goose”, he doesn’t allow her a downstairs room as she requests, and joke-threatens to stick her in the cellar when she persists. The nursery that John confines the narrator to symbolizes her domination and at the same time her burgeoning authority over her own self.
The nursery is “a big airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge, for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things on the walls” (Gilman 647). The room provides little or no privacy and serves more or less as a jail where the hooks in the walls, the bars in the windows, and the “great immovable bed” serve to enslave and bully the inmate to return to an infantile state of rationale. The nailed down bed becomes the literal source of the narrator’s domination. The bed dictates from the center of the room, it is the site where most of her time is spent and the “site for a woman not only of birthing, dying, and sleeping but also, and probably most important for this story, of sexual intercourse and therefore a potent reminder in late nineteenth-century America of male sexual privilege and dominance, including violence” (Ammons 37). The bed symbolizes the dominance over the narrator’s body and the attempt to dominate her mind, transforming her “into nothing but body, a mass of pure passive, ostensibly desexualized flesh without self-control” (Ammons 36). Despite the forces pulling at the already fragmented mind of Gilman’s narrator, she does retain some definition of herself and begins to establish her own authority when she continues to write despite the “heavy opposition” from John and her brother — both physicians or “the new priest, the new male authority, of a new scientific era” (Ammons 36). Writing is viewed as “a dangerous move because it threatens the system of control constructed to contain women” (Ammons 38). Helene Cixous stated that “Woman must put herself into the text — as into the world and into history — by her own movement” (Ammons 38). The narrator asserts herself into the text, the world, and history when she defies the containment of the room for the sake of her own imaginative power, which in turn becomes her own sexual and intellectual power as she ” ‘speaks’… by writing her body on the walls” (Ammons 35) that attempt to contain her.
The room, therefore, not only enslaves the narrator to masculine thinking, it also, paradoxically, enlightens her to the wrongs she is enduring and introduces her to the idea of self-will. The wallpaper instigates this rebellion. She first regards it with disdain. The wallpaper is “dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide — plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (Gilman 647). The narrator’s search for an ordered pattern in the wallpaper denotes a juxtaposed irony against her search for an ordered pattern in her life — both are meaningless, both are grotesque. But as time passes the narrator discerns, in the moonlight ironically, the meaning that exists beneath the aesthetic horror and soon realizes the potential within the wallpaper and herself.
Under the moon, the paper “becomes bars” and the distinct figure of a woman behind them becomes “as plain as can be” (Gilman 652). The narrator’s empathetic fascination with her fellow inmate creates a purpose for her otherwise hollow life. She now has “something to expect, to look forward to, to watch” (Gilman 653). The entrapped woman becomes a model for her fellow prisoner. At night the figure “crawls around fast” and “takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard” while “all the time trying to climb through” (Gilman 654). In the daytime she creeps “in that long shaded lane” and in “those dark grape arbors, creeping all around the garden” (Gilman 654). This “creeping” symbolizes a liberation from the requisite bed rest that John expects of his baby-wife and although the narrator locks the door when she creeps by daylight, she is still shaking the bars of her own prison and continuing to reintegrate and build upon her own personality which masculine totalitarianism had managed to fragment. The narrator’s empowerment swings the inward struggle of loyalties and she finds it easier to resist “the shifting but seemingly inescapable patriarchal definition of motherhood as prison, flesh as destiny, and voice as silence” (Ammons 42).
A mutual understanding of the derision for confinement develops between the narrator and the figure. The narrator, having grown from the docile infant to the active toddler, schemes to help free the woman from her jail and consequently free herself from her own prison. The last day arrives and as night falls the woman ” began to crawl and shake the pattern” and the narrator immediately “got up and ran to help her. I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper” (Gilman 655). When the paper is no more, when the bars are no more, the narrator finally reaches sexual and textual authority. She has become a new woman in a new world. The woman behind the paper was the missing piece of the puzzle that would bring all the fragments together to form one individual claiming her right to self-determination. The narrator no longer objectifies this piece of herself that society, John, and the other fragments of her mind had forced behind the bars, but rather she embraces it, becomes it, wholly. She has defied male logic and dominance by reintegrating her fragmented mind and at the same time recording it in the written word. “She gets ‘in’ the paper, and its violence, formerly directed at her, becomes her articulated fury and agony” (Ammons 38). She will not be held down — when the bed will not move “I got so angry I bit off a little piece at one corner — but it hurt my teeth”, when she wants to be left alone she throws “the key down into the front path”, and when John demands an explanation for her actions she refers to him as “young man” and “that man”, establishing her dominance in the relationship (Gilman 656). The shock that consequentially comes from this shift in position causes John to faint and forces the narrator to “creep over him every time” (Gilman 657) she circles the room. The “little girl” has transformed into an independent thinker that moves wherever and whenever she desires and will not be held down by man — she will crawl over him if necessary.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” depicts the violence and horror that Victorian women were subjected to in order to achieve ‘perfection’ (in the Victorian sense of the word). The foundation of this type of theory involves sacrificing all independent thinking and will and becoming only factories of reproduction. Charlotte Perkins Gilman defies this theory and the science that justifies the actions of it by presenting a woman with no choice in what she does, what she thinks, and seemingly what she feels and the effects that this dehumanization can do. In order to affirm her own authority and break free from this violent process the narrator must go mad. Mad in the sense of a revolt against reason (Victorian reason in this case) and mad in a sense of anger. She proves that all women facing the same situation as the narrator will submit to this madness “before they will submit to the lives of infantile dependence prescribed as ideal by Victorian America” (Ammons 39).
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