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Though contextually deviant from one another, the voices of “Professions for Women” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” both embrace the same themes: the potential creativity and splendor of the female mind, and the oppression a woman must overcome to realize this potential. While also detailing her personal struggle in the field of writing, Virginia Woolf addresses the obstacles a woman faces in her path to mental unity, namely the burden of men and the female inclination to succumb to it. Charlotte Gilman portrays this struggle as an actual situation, as the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” finds herself pitted directly against both her own mental affliction and the oppression of men, much as a Roman Gladiator would face the lions. Sadly, the narrator cannot overcome her personal “Angel of the House” as Woolf had; the obstacles decimate and devour her will and sanity. While Woolf slays her personal demons, the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” confronts her own, and loses.
Viewed by Woolf as some sort of birth defect, the inhibiting factors of the female mind come standard with the birth of a woman. Woolf takes these factors, and balls them up into what she calls the “Angel of the House”: a semi-conscience, present in the mind of a woman as an entity itself, manipulating its host’s thoughts and actions based upon social expectations. Disclosing that the Angel of the House’s “purity was supposed to be her chief beauty-her blushes, her great grace,” Woolf depicts the Angel as a creation of the expectation of a woman, the beauty and grace and physical appearance expected of a perfect female. Finding that she needs to rid herself of this inhibition in order to write, Woolf finds the strength of mind and will power needed to destroy her ghosts. Conversely, Gilman’s narrator has her imagination and intellect stripped from her by her husband and cannot combat her illness through cleverness and strength of mind.
These battles-Woolf against her “Angel of the House” and the Gilman’s narrator against her impediments-juxtapose physically different yet strikingly familiar enemies. Gilman’s narrator, in contrast to Woolf’s, possesses an illness of depression from the beginning, making her mind vulnerable to both her mental demons and her husband’s unwavering oppression. Providing the reason for John’s officiousness, as the narrator tells that “[John] says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of exited fancies,” she illustrates his inadvertent yet domineering nature, that he believes her own creativity and imagination present not only a hindrance to the alleviation of her condition but also a cause of her depression. Fettering her freedom of mind, John incubates the parasite, the demons, already within her mind, and leaves her defenseless. As Woolf tells us, “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality,” she notes that dispatching a mental opponent does not happen by simply adjusting reality, yet John heeds not this advice. By forcibly creating a place devoid of distraction for his wife to rest in, in essence the cell in which she lives, John creates a nest for her mental demons, allowing them to grow and fester in her head, gnawing and clawing at her mind until she loses control, becoming insane. In this scenario, the oppression of men that Woolf details aids and abets the “Angel of the House”, thus it generates an adamant, formidable opponent to the female mind.
Though the narrator allows her afflictions to run rampant through her mind, Woolf provides some methods for overcoming her own obstacles, as well as those of other women. Indicting men as unable to “realize or… control the extreme severity with which the condemn such freedom in women,” she points to men as one of the inhibitors of women, yet does not hold them truly responsible for their actions. Just as women come with the “Angel of the House” programmed into heir minds, so to do men with their intrinsic need to assert themselves over the opposite sex. Because men cannot “realize… or control” this primordial sense of domination, women must not hold them in contempt, but take initiative and fix things for themselves. Gilman’s narrator cannot solve her own problems, as John has left her literally fettered, and the reader must witness with agony her descent into a state less than human. Woolf shows us that these problems will not be resolved via neglect, but rather from direct action on the part of the victim.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” does not overtly provide advice as that seen in Woolf’s essay, but it does provide an example of the lessons therein. The story demonstrates the extent to which a woman’s mind can decay, if not properly cared for and attended to. Gilman also expounds upon the role of men in the state of the female spirit, as they can easily corrupt and condemn members of the opposite sex. However, both stories confer an underlying sense of optimism. Questioning the role John’s assertiveness played in his wife’s demise, the reader must take into account that John could have helped his wife when she clearly needed someone, instead of condemning her to the prison of a bedroom as he chooses to do. Similarly, Woolf shows how one woman, completely independent, can amend her own problematic situation. The female mind can exist at once splendidly, colorfully imaginative, and fragile, unstable, requiring constant attendance. It is worth fighting for.
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