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Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a short story that explores post-natal depression and mental illness. The story was published in 1892, which mirrors the progressive era when most writers used their platforms to comment on social and political issues. Gilman uses the historical setting to give readers a deep insight into how society was repressive during the 19th century, especially for women in marriages. The author uses her experience with post-partum depression to highlight a young married woman’s gradual descent into psychosis. Through her candid descriptions, readers learn of the narrator’s husband, John, and how their relationship reflects the restrictive society that fosters male domination. Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” explores the repressive social norms that restrict women’s empowerment and expression while enabling patriarchy through the character of the narrator, and her husband, John.
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The unnamed narrator is the protagonist who recounts how society has limited her expression and empowerment, as seen through her marriage. The narrator reveals the social norms and gender stereotypes that restrict her to household chores while her husband is empowered financially and vocally (Ghandeharion & Mazari, 2016). The narrator suffers from post-partum depression, but instead of getting appropriate treatment, her husband has prescribed “a rest cure,” expecting her not to do anything active. The narrator states, “You see, he does not believe I am sick!.” implying that her husband does not attempt to understand her situation. (Gilman, 1892). She refers to her husband as a “physician of high standing,” yet he ignores her mental health (Gilman, 1892). The narrator also admits that she has a brother who says the same thing as her husband, suggesting the complex relationship between women and men in a repressive society. What is meant to be a fancy getaway turns into an emotional and psychological battle, contributing to her mental deterioration. Society, including her husband, castigates her situation increasing the feelings of isolation and oppression she has battled throughout her life (Ghandeharion & Mazari, 2016). The narrator’s obsession with the shadowy figure on the wallpaper who seems to be a trapped woman depicts her connection with other women that the repressive social norms and expectations have imprisoned.
John represents a devoted and hardworking husband but equally a dominant and negligent character. John is a highly qualified physician and probably a respectable community member because of his noble profession. The narrator states, “John is practical in the extreme, he has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talks of things not to be felt and seen.” (Gilman, 1892). As a physician, John rejects superstition and is primarily interested in facts. Consequently, he dismisses his wife’s mental state and concerns about the house being haunted. Like society, John infantilizes his wife, calling her “little girl,” which illustrates male domination (Gilman, 1892). The narrator claims, “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.” (Gilman, 1892). According to Wolter (2009), this statement suggests that the narrator has conformed to the societal expectations that restrict women’s values and expression in marriage. Although John is described as loving and caring, his control and domination reflect the oppressive society’s norms and stereotypes.
We can do it today.
Generally, Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” efficiently explores gender stereotypes and expectations in a patriarchal society using a multifaceted relationship between the narrator and her husband. The narrator writes the story in a series of secret diaries as she recounts her daily struggle to find identity and express herself in a male-controlled society. Gilman uses the character’s experiences and predicament to highlight how gender roles and prejudices overlook imperative values such as the inner world and mental illness.
- Ghandeharion, A., & Mazari, M. (2016). Women entrapment and flight in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
- Gilman, C. (1892). The Yellow Wallpaper.
- Wolter, J. (2009). “The Yellow Wall-Paper”: The Ambivalence of Changing Discourses. Amerikastudien/American Studies, 195-210.