The Yellow Wallpaper: Feminist Viewpoint

The Yellow Wallpaper is a much acclaimed nineteenth century short story authored by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  It first appeared in The New England Magazine in 1892.  Upon its publication it proved controversial and provocative due to its bold portrayal of women’s sexuality and psychology.  The story is also unique, for it adopts the epistolary style, which is a device uncommonly used in short fiction. The letters/journal entries record the experiences of a woman who is confined by her husband to the bedroom upstairs.  She is ordered not to work or exert herself in any which way, so that her recovery from ‘temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency’ will be quick and effective.  In what amounts to a house-arrest by her husband, the woman’s condition steadily descends toward psychosis due to lack of variety and distraction in the bed-room existence.  For example, “the character becomes increasingly perplexed by the garish color and the intricate patterns of the wallpaper all around her. She begins to see distorted shapes, eventually identifying a woman trapped behind the paper fighting to get out. The story ends with the narrator’s husband discovering his wife maniacally circling the bedroom, surrounded by the tattered shreds of paper she has torn from the walls. He faints at the sight.” (USA Today, 2010, p.4)  The rest of the essay will present the feminist interpretation of this important piece of American women’s literature.

During the feminist movement of early twentieth century, many feminist scholars were up in arms against the gross injustice depicted in the story.  The inequalities prevalent in patriarchal American society of late nineteenth century is pointed at and criticized.  The insensitivity and high-handedness of healthcare professionals, especially psychiatrists, is also highlighted.  Since Gilman drew the material for the story from her own experiences in getting cured of depression, her interaction with the famous nervous diseases specialist Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell is relevant for the discussion.  As one of the many physicians who debated ‘the woman question’, he

“defended the notion of significant differences between the sexes and argued that an epidemic of neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion, was rife among women who attempted to exceed their natural limits. He recommended a “rest cure” in which the patient was not allowed to read, write, feed herself, or talk to others–or, as Charlotte described it: “Live as domestic a life as possible … and never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.””  (USA Today, 2010, p.4)

The feminist grievance with respect to the prognosis of the condition lies in the fact that the depressed woman saw recuperation in totally different terms.  For example, instead of spending time within the bounds of four walls, she felt an active social life would lift her out of the mental morose.  This Charlotte Gilman masterpiece challenges traditional notions about gender that excluded them from mainstream political and intellectual life.  It also questions how medical and scientific experts drew on notions of female weakness to justify inequality between the sexes. In Gilman’s own life, she was discouraged from pursuing a career to preserve her health.  Hence the authorial voice is both autobiographical as well as generally representative of women of the era. (Delashmit & Long, 1991, p.32)

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