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In “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, her personal experiences with postpartum depression was used to create powerful fictional short story which has broad importance for women. When the narrator recognizes that there is more than one trapped, creeping woman, Gilman indicates that the meaning of her story extends beyond an individual matter. The character behind the wallpaper is a representation of the impact that being confined by the ongoing subordination of women in the era from marriage inequality and gender stereotypes that leave women restricted and unfulfilled has.The unbalanced relationship between the narrator and John is a microcosm of the larger gender inequality in society.
The author makes it clear that much of John’s condescending and paternal behavior toward his wife has little to do with her illness but her gender. He dismisses her well-thought-out opinions and belittles her creative impulses. He speaks of her as he would a child, calling her his “little girl” and saying of her, “Bless her little heart.” He disregard her judgments on the best course of treatment for herself. Johns arrogance and instinct to control forces the narrator to live in a room she detests, and in an isolated environment which makes her unhappy and lonely. John’s “care” shows his support for theories which insist that women’s natural inferiority leaves them, childlike, in a state of dependence.Gilman makes John the window through which readers can view the negative images of women in society at the time.
In Gilman’s era, women’s right to vote and become full citizens with the same rights as men became one of the primary issues debated in the home, the media, and the political arena. As women’s reform movements gained the strength and eventually win the vote in 1920. The backlash towards women became more vicious and dangerous. Psychologists detailed theories that “proved” women’s immaturity, low cognitive skills, as well as mental and emotional instability. Physicians, who actually had little knowledge of the inner workings of the female body, presented complex theories arguing that a woman’s womb created madness and that it was the main source of women’s inferiority. Ministers urged women to fulfill their duty to God and their husbands with equal submission. By using John’s patronizing treatment of the narrator, Gilman indicts the system as a whole, in which many women were trapped behind societies damaging definitions of being female.
The audience can see the negative effects of John’s (and society’s) treatment towards the narrator in her response to the rest cure. At first, she tries to fight against the growing illness that controls her. She even challenges John’s treatment of her. Yet, while one part of her may believe John is wrong, another part that has thought about the negative definitions of womanhood believes that since he is the man, the doctor, and therefore the authority, then he may be right. Because they hold unequal power positions in the relationship and in society, she lacks the courage and self-esteem to maintain her will over his even though she knows that his “treatment” is harming her. Deprived of any meaningful activity, purpose, and self-definition, the narrator’s mind becomes confused and, predictably, childlike in its fascination with the shadows in the wallpaper. This helps the reader to understand the situation she is dealing with by showing how empowering the husband is and how the although he is a doctor, the treatment he is supposedly “curing” her with turns out to be doing the opposite and actually worsening her case.
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman Short story the author uses the character John to represent the important theme of women’s mistreatment in the era. She uses the novel to raise awareness to her readers that denying women full humanity is dangerous to women, family, and society as a whole.
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