The Yellow Wallpaper Essay, Research Paper
Critical Response to Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Using Biographical and Historical Criticism
Charlotte Gilman was a renowned feminist author who published most of her work in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Her works, of which “The Yellow Wallpaper” is most famous, reflect her feminist views. Gilman used her writings as a way of expressing these views to the public. At the time “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written, the attitude in colonial America towards feminists was not one of tolerance or acceptance. In the mid-1880s, Gilman suffered a nervous breakdown and eventually was referred to a specialist in neurological disorders. The doctor’s diagnosis was such: Gilman was perfectly healthy. The doctor ordered Gilman to domesticate her life and to immediately stop her writings. Gilman went by the doctor’s orders, and nearly went mad. Now although “Yellow Wallpaper” is a fictional story, it becomes clear that the story was significantly influenced by Gilman’s life experiences. Gilman seems to be exploring the depths of mental illness through her writing.
Evidence of Gilman’s life experiences can be seen all throughout the story. The main character in the story, a slightly neurotic woman, is married to a prominent physician. This husband refuses to believe anything is wrong with his wife’s health simply because her physical health is intact. Thus, he prescribes for his wife nothing more than relaxation and cessation of her writings. This character clearly correlates to the doctor who “treated” Gilman for her nervous breakdown. The description of the room and the wallpaper is clearly crucial to the story as a whole. The room itself is described as large and airy, with windows facing towards a “delicious garden.” The wallpaper does not fit the room at all. It is a repulsive, pale yellow color. The description of the wallpaper seems to function metaphorically. The wallpaper becomes much more detailed and much more of a fixture in the main characters life as the story progresses. The wallpaper essentially takes on a life of its own. This progression seems to represent mental illness itself. As mental illness progresses, it becomes much more whole and enveloping. Gilman attempts to represent the depth of mental illness through the wallpaper. For example, the woman in the story comes to the conclusion that there is a woman in the wallpaper behind the pattern. This is something that only can come from complete mental fixation. All in all, the story contains numerous elements of Gilman’s life.
The time period in which this story was written also plays a role. In the late 1800s, feminism was not a popular view. The stereotypical views of women as homemakers and men as breadwinners prevailed over society in colonial America. For instance, the woman in the story was only prescribed rest for her illness, by her own husband. The husband felt that nothing was wrong with his wife at all. In addition, the idea of mental illness was not readily accepted at this time period, so they went undiagnosed. Both of these limitations affected Gilman in her life.
As a whole, Gilman set out to express her feminist views and expose mental illness to the general public. Both of these goals were not considered socially acceptable at the time this story was written. However, that fact alone makes “The Yellow Wallpaper” such a significant piece of literature.