In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the theme of gender expectations, especially for women, is explored through the themes of sanity and imprisonment and culminates through the author’s use of diction in the final lines of the work.
During the late 19th and early 20th century the expectations of and limitations on women were quite daunting. Women were seen as the weaker, more emotional sex and therefore were not even given the right to vote. Gilman portrays this supposed weak and emotional state of women in her opening lines of, “The Yellow Wallpaper”. She states, “he does not believe I am sick!” (Gilman 1392). As portrayed later in the work, the sickness mentioned is one of what would come to be known as post-partum depression. In order to cure her of her condition, she is prescribed the treatment of isolation and relaxation. The speaker describes that she is “absolutely forbidden to “work”.” (Gilman 1392) Her journal entries go on to describe how she slowly succombs to insanity and begins seeing a figure in the “smoldering unclean yellow” wallpaper. (Gilman 1393)
Gilman explores the ideas of imprisonment and gender roles through the symbol of the woman in the wallpaper. The woman behind the wallpaper is trapped much like our speaker is confined to the expectations and limitations of her sex. The speaker explain her concern for this trapped individual when she states “that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern , I got up and ran to help her.” (Gilman 1401) This statement portrays to the reader that the speaker sees this woman as trapped and wants to help her escape. The idea of overcoming gender is seen in the final lines of the work. The speaker asks, “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had creep over him every time!” (Gilman 1403) The use of the word “faint” when describing John shows a juxtaposition of gender stereotypes. John takes on the feminine role by “fainting”, while the speaker displays a dominant, masculine action of walking over John. The juxtapostion incorporated here depicts to the reader the totality of transformation in the protagonist of Gilman’s work.
In conclusion, Gilman explores the cultural ideas of sex in several ways in her work, “The Yellow Wallpaper”. She portrays the themes of both sanity and imprisonment as a mode for communicating the confinement found within gender stereotyping.