During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the expectations of women were quite different from what they are in current society. According to Katherine Hughes of the British Library, “women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men, which meant that they were best suited to the domestic sphere” (Hughes). Women did not typically work outside the home, and those who did were looked down upon by society. A woman’s purpose and expectation in life was to bear children and run the household while their husband worked outside the home. Women were also limited within the realms of the marriage bed. Unlike men of the time, Hughes argues, “women were assumed to desire marriage because it allowed them to become mothers rather than to pursue sexual or emotional satisfaction.” (Hughes) Women of this time period also did not have the benefits of social equality that a woman may enjoy today. For instance, women did not have the right to vote. The nineteenth amendment would not be ratified until June of 1920. Not all women living within this time period equated themselves with the expectations of their gender. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman confronts the cultural expectations of being a woman and the idea of female identity by evoking the theme of writing, the juxtaposition of feminine stereotypes, the symbol of the yellow wallpaper, the symbol of the woman within the wallpaper, and the role reversal depicted in the final scene.
Writing is one of the central themes of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The primary reason to evoke this theme to address the reliability of the narrator. Most critics argue that the narrator is, in some ways, unreliable due to the madness that the writer enters into throughout the course of the work. One could also argue that the speaker is a reliable narrator due to the organization method of the work itself. The entire story is told through twelve diary entries. These entries are written solely from the speaker’s personal perspective. There is also no indication that the speaker’s habit of writing was not something that she had been doing since before her illness. When describing her writing, the narrator explains that “[she] would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind” (Gilman 1392). This statement illuminates to the reader that the narrator uses her writing as means of working through her own thoughts. The narrator reiterates this notion when she states, “I must say what I feel and think in some way-it is such a relief.” (Gilman 1396). The narrator goes to great lengths to hide her writing from both her husband John and sister-in-law Jennie. Janet Witalec, who writes short story criticism, explains the hidden writing by stating that “Gilman’s story further expresses a concern for the ways in which society discourages women of creative self-expression.” (“The Yellow Wallpaper.”)
The women described within this story represent the female expectations of the nineteenth century. Rena Korb describes a similar theory by stating that the Yellow Wallpaper “touches on many relevant issues to women of the nineteenth century, most particularly that of the roles they are allowed to play.” (Korb) One such role is depicted by Mary. Mary is mentioned only once within the work and is described as being “good with the baby” (Gilman, 1394).She represents the expectation of motherhood. Naming the mothering figure, Mary, is significant in that it alludes to the virgin mother of Jesus in the Bible. The narrator, unlike the alluded to Biblical Mary, is unable to take on the role of mother with her own child due to her illness. Korb comments on this expectation within Gilman’s work by stating that “[the] narrator is so cruelly trapped by the conventions of the nineteenth-century American society which says that a woman’s function is to bare and raise children” (Korb). The juxtaposition of the narrator to Mary conveys to the reader one of the many ways in which the narrator does not live up to the expectations of her gender.
Jennie represents a second expected feminine role, that of the “perfect enthusiastic housekeeper” who hopes for no better profession” (Gilman 1395). She is later described as the one who “sees to everything now” (Gilman 1395). Both of these descriptions relay to the reader the idea that Jennie is in charge of running the house and is being a gracious hostess to those visiting the narrator. According to Korb, Jennie is “a woman who occupies her proper place in the domestic sphere” (Korb). Similarly, Karen Ford goes on to comment that even Jennie’s name indicates her position within the family. Ford states that Jennie is “a word which means female donkey or beast of burden” (Ford). Ford’s description is appropriate as Jennie is described as the one who “sees to everything”(Gilman 1395).
The descriptions of Mary and Jennie serve as a way to highlight the degree of opposition found when compared to the narrator. In the beginning of the story, the narrator represents the societal normality of women being the weaker, subordinate sex. The narrator originally writes in a manner that suggests she has accepted her state. She responds to her husband John laughing at her by saying that “one expects that” (Gilman 1392). She also acknowledges her plight when she states that “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression, a slight hysterical tendency, what is one to do?” (Gilman 1392). This statement conveys to the reader that the narrator does not agree with her husband, but is trapped by his opinions.
Women during the nineteenth century had few legal rights. Once a woman was married she and her belongings were considered to be her husband’s property and therefore she had similar legal rights to those of a child. The narrator is compared to a child by her husband as a means for the author to criticize the view of women during this time period. Comparing the narrator to a child, is seen when John refers to her as a “blessed little goose” and a “little girl”(Gilman 1397). The comparison is further enforced as the narrator describes that John “gathered [her] up in his arms, and just carried [her] upstairs and laid [her] on the bed, sat by [her] and read to [her] till it tired [her] head” (Gilman 1397). This description of a bed time routine, seems to be one of a father and child rather than that of a husband and wife. Just as a parent makes medical treatment decisions for a child, John also makes such decisions for the narrator as she describes by stating that “if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall. But I don’t want to go there at all” (Gilman 1396).
At the end of the story, the narrator represents a woman who breaks free of societal norms and works against them. The reader’s first indication of the narrator’s rebellion is seen as she writes, “I must write and say what I feel and think in some way” (Gilman 1396). This statement indicates a turning point for change in the personality of the narrator. The narrator present towards the end of the story goes so far as to talk to John about her current state contradictory to the woman she was at the beginning of the story.
She states that she “tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day” and that she “did not make a very good case for [herself] for [she] was crying before [she] had finished” (Gilman 1397). The narrator’s tone in these lines gives the reader a sense of her disappointment, possibly from falling into yet another feminine stereotype of being over emotional.
The narrator’s transformation slowly grows as the story progresses. She stands up to John when discussing her appetite and tells him that she “was really not gaining here” and that she “wished he would take me away” (Gilman 1397). The narrator also begins to describe John and his motives very differently. She goes from stating that John “loves me dearly” to stating that John was “pretending to be very loving and kind” (Gilman 1397 and 1401). She goes on to state that she could “see through him” (Gilman 1401). These changes in descriptions help convey to the reader that there is a change in the narrator from a state submissiveness to one of empowerment.
The women described in “The Yellow Wallpaper” are not the only symbols within the work. The narrator’s surroundings at the mansion help reinforce the ideas of confinement and gender. The mansion itself, is described as being “ancestral” (Gilman 1392). The adjective ancestral helps to indicate to the reader that the roles of women have been passed down through generations. The idea of ancestral is further enforced as the speaker continues to describe the hall as being “a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house” (Gilman 1392). The speaker goes on to describe the mansion as “standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village” (Gilman 1392). Here, the speaker is describing not only the manor’s proximity to society, but the speaker’s as well. During the nineteenth century, a woman’s place was at home tending to the house and the children and only the men had lives outside of the home. Women were isolated by the expectation to stay within the home, just as the speaker is isolated by her confinement to the manor.
The nursery that the speaker lives in is yet another representation of her confinement to gender. MacPike echoes this confinement sentiment by stating that since: “the fact that the narrator’s prison-room is a nursery [it] indicates her status in society. The woman is legally a child; socially, economically, and philosophically she must be led by an adult- her husband; and therefore the nursery is an appropriate place to house her” (MacPike).
The yellow wallpaper itself is a major symbol throughout the work. The narrator describes the wall paper as:
dull enough to confuse the eyes, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide- plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in un-heard contradictions (Gilman 1393).
The wallpaper symbolizes the expectations and confinements of society on the female gender. This description, therefore indicates to the reader the way the speaker views the expectations of her gender. Just as the narrator does not understand the wallpaper, she is also unable to understand society’s expectations of her. Asha Nadkarni argues that the narrator’s quest to understand the wallpaper’s pattern “becomes both maddening and ultimately liberating” (Nadkarni). The narrator goes on to state that she “should hate it [herself] if [she] had to live in it long” (Gilman 1393). This statement reveals to the reader that the speaker cannot live within the wallpaper, just as she cannot live within the confines of society’s expectations.
The speaker’s opinions of the wallpaper mirror her growing dislike for the gender expectations within nineteenth century culture. The narrator describes that “there is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down” (Gilman 1395). The speaker makes this statement to impress upon the reader how she sees the gender expectations for her culture. The wallpaper pattern is broken and does not make sense to the speaker which symbolizes how the multiple parts of female stereotyping does not make sense to Gilman herself. The narrator’s description also depicts how women are broken and tortured by the expectations of the male dominated society. The speaker also becomes “positively angry” with the pattern on the wallpaper and its “everlastingness” (Gilman 1395). This description indicates to the reader that the speaker acknowledges that expectations upon her gender have been ongoing for centuries and that she does not see an end to them because they possess an “everlastingness”(Gilman 1395).
The narrator describes the color of the wallpaper as being “repellent, almost revolting: a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow turning sunlight” (Gilman 1393). The smoldering nature of the color indicates to the read a slow sense of burning. The idea of burning is repeated in the following sentence when the color is described as having a “sulphur tint” (Gilman 1393). In this case, the allusions to burning indicate how the roles of women can burn them out slowly over time.
The speaker describes that there is a “sub-pattern” to the wallpaper. She states that “you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then” (Gilman 1395). The speaker uses this passage to represent how from certain perspectives, the expected role of women was a positive way of living, but when seen from other perspectives, like that of one who lives the role, the expectations are not as positive as they originally seemed. The sub-pattern soon transforms into a woman. The narrator states that “the woman behind [the wallpaper] is as plain as can be” (Gilman 1399). This passage is particularly important because it shows the reader that the speaker has realized the imprisonment placed upon her and her gender is at the discretion of the male dominating society. According to Korb, the narrator “sees mirrored in the wallpaper her own existence” (Korb). Beverly A. Hume however, argues that the figure in the wallpaper “becomes not her liberator but her nemesis (Hume). The idea that the speaker is or becomes the woman in the wallpaper appears more obvious when she questions whether or not “they all come out of that wallpaper as I did” (Gilman 1402). She goes on to address her husband by saying “’I’ve got out at last’” and describes that she “pulled off most of the paper, so you can put me back” (Gilman 1403).
The final scene of the story depicts a role reversal between the speaker and her husband. The speaker states “Why there’s John at the door! It is no use young man, you can’t open it!” (Gilman 1402). The speaker referring to John as young man shows that she is no longer confined by her gender, and that she has overcome it and is now overpowering her husband in the same ways that he did when he referred to her as little goose. The speaker enforces the idea of overcoming her husband and the imprisonment forced upon her by asking, “Now why should that man have fainted?” (Gilman 1402) .The word fainted has a feminine connotation. Attaching such a feminine verb to John, conveys to the reader that the narrator’s transformation is complete and that she is no longer confined by her husband’s or society’s standards of who they think she should be.
In conclusion, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” evokes, through the diary entries of an unnamed woman, ideas of feminism. Gilman uses her narrator to represent how woman are confined to the standards of a male dominated society. The speaker’s transformation into an independent woman represents the independence the author wants for women during the nineteenth century society. Furthermore, the woman in the wallpaper represents the personal identity trapped inside women of this time period by the male dominated society that Gilman represents through the wallpaper.
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