The Yellow Wallpaper Male Opression Of Women

The Yellow Wallpaper: Male Opression Of Women In Society Essay, Research Paper

The Yellow Wallpaper: Male Opression of Women in Society

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a commentary on the

male oppression of women in a patriarchal society. However, the story itself

presents an interesting look at one woman’s struggle to deal with both physical

and mental confinement. This theme is particularly thought-provoking when read

in today’s context where individual freedom is one of our most cherished rights.

This analysis will focus on two primary issues: 1) the many vivid images Gilman

uses to illustrate the physical and symbolic confinement the narrator endures

during her illness; and 2) the overall effect of, and her reaction to, this


The Yellow Wallpaper begins with the narrator’s description of the

physically confining elements surrounding her. The story is cast in an isolated

hereditary estate, set back from the road and located three miles from town.

The property boasts protective hedges that surround the garden, walls that

surround the estate, and locked gates which guarantee seclusion. Even the

connecting garden represents confinement, with box-bordered paths and grape-

covered arbors. This isolation motif continues within the mansion itself.

Although she preferred the downstairs room with roses all over the windows that

opened on the piazza, the narrator finds herself relegated to an out of the way

dungeon-like nursery on the second floor, appropriately equipped with “rings and

things” in the walls. Windows in each direction provide glimpses of the garden,

arbors, bushes, and trees. The bay is visible, as is a private wharf that

adjoins the estate. These views reinforce isolationism; they can be seen from

the room, but not touched or experienced. There is a gate at the head of the

stairs, presumably to keep the children contained in their play area.

Additionally, the bed is immovable as it has been nailed to the floor. It is

here that the narrator secretly describes her slow decent into madness.

Although the physical confinement drains the narrator’s strength and will,

the mental and emotional confinement symbolized in the story play an important

role in her ultimate fall into dementia. By being forced to be her own company,

she is confined within her mind. Likewise, part of the narrator’s mental

confinement stems from her recognition of her physical confinement. The

depression the narrator has experienced associated with child bearing is

mentally confining as well. Specifically, she cannot control her emotions or

manage her guilt over her inability to care for her child. These structures of

confinement contribute to the rapid degeneration of her faculties.

As the wife of a prominent physician in the late nineteenth century, the

narrator’s assumption of the typical female role illustrates one aspect of the

symbolic confinement present within both the story and the society. She is

subservient and deferential to her husband John who enjoys the power

traditionally associated with his sex and additional authority afforded him by

his status as a doctor. Jean Kennard notes, “By keeping her underemployed and

isolated, John effectively ensures his wife’s dependence on him” (81). John’s

control over his wife is typical of the control most men had over women in the

late nineteenth century. He decides everything on her behalf, including what

room she will stay in and who she will be allowed to see. He diagnoses her

postpartum depression as a “temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical

tendency” and in doing so, diminishes her complaints and demeans her

individuality. His prescribed treatment is worse than the disease; every hour

is scheduled, she is forbidden to write, told what to think, and prohibited from

acting as mother to her child.

John’s behavior illustrates his covert efforts to control his wife as

well. He looks to the narrator’s brother, who is also a physician, to validate

his diagnosis and prescribed cure, making it even more difficult for the

narrator to challenge the prescription herself. He repeatedly diminishes her by

laughing at her and not taking her grievances seriously. The narrator complains

“John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to

suffer, and that satisfies him.” John’s contempt for his wife’s ideas is

blatant; he refers to her as a “little girl,” and when she requests that she be

moved to a different room downstairs, he “took [her] in his arms and called

[her] a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if [she]

wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain.” That he is only willing to

move her into the basement, instead of allowing her a room of her choice,

epitomizes his domineering personality.

As the woman descends into madness, she notices that the pattern in the

wallpaper “becomes bars” in the moonlight and that “the woman behind it is as

plain as can be.” Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar assert that the woman behind

the wallpaper is the narrator’s doppelg nger (10). This woman is symbolic of the

narrator’s own confinement by the patriarchal society she lives in. Moreover,

we see that the wallpaper is a metaphor of her fractured mental state. She

describes the chaotic pattern that will follow “. . . the lame uncertain curves

for a little distance. . . suddenly committing suicide–plunging off at

outrageous angles, destroying themselves in unheard of contradictions,” alluding

to her own, and society’s, eventual destruction in the absence of enlightened

change. Furthermore, the narrator acknowledges that she is representative of

most women of her time with the statement “I think there are a great many women

[behind the paper].”

The effect of John’s oppression on the narrator is severe. At the

climax of her insanity she writes that she can see the woman from behind the

wallpaper pattern “out of every one of my windows!” The narrator continues:

It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do

not creep by daylight. I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping

along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines. I don’t

blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight!

That evening the narrator noticed the woman in the pattern begin to crawl and

shake the wallpaper in an effort to break free from it, just as she would like

to break free from the confines and restrictions imposed on her by society and

her husband John. In her diary she describes helping the woman tear down the

paper: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled . . . .” Most of the

paper was removed the next day while the narrator watched many women creeping

around in the street. At the end of the story the narrator has surprised John,

who has come home from work to find her creeping around the room. She proclaims

“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!”

Although the reader might pity the narrator’s inability to challenge

John’s authority, one must view the events of the story within the context of

the 1860’s. At this time, socitey would not tolerate such assertiveness from

women. Moreover, the tragic story ends with a paradox. By definition, one who

is mentally ill is not healthy. However, the narrator finds freedom, and

apparently health, by rejecting an insane society and loosing her identity to

the wallpaper. In contrast, the reader concludes the narrator is now confined

by her insanity, and cannot be free.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” English 2307. Comp. Jane

Bell. n.p., c.1996. 3-7.

Kennard, Jean. “Convention Coverage or How to Read Your Own Life.”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work. Ed. Sheryl Meyering.

Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989. 75-94.

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