Role of Women
The theme which pervades, and in a very real sense defines, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a feminist critique of the role of women in late nineteenth century society. Better known in her time as a leading writer of feminist non-fiction, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is Gilman’s only work of fiction to achieve status as a canonical work in its own right. It has succeeded partly due to its masterful style, economic use of language, strong auto-biographical origin and, certainly not least, due to its strong thematic exploration of the role of women. During the course of the story, Gilman identifies several roles for women that serve to reaffirm the dominance of the male society even as they circumscribe the growth of women and, in the case of Gilman, place them in impossible circumstances in which madness or flight are the only possible courses of action.
The roles explored in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, include:
Woman as Children: The comparisons between the Narrator and a child abound in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. First, her husband insists (over his wife’s objections) that she sleep in the “nursery” upstairs since it is the largest room, full of light and will allow him to stay with her at night to monitor her “condition”. Her attempts to relocate to the presumably more adult room on the first floor, with its charming “antique” décor, meet with refusal and her husband calls her his “blessed little goose”. This only serves to underscore her childlike powerlessness over something as basic as her choice of sleeping quarters. We are given to understand that the “children” who previously occupied the upstairs nursery did not care for it, or their powerlessness, either as evidenced by the “damage” they’ve inflicted on the walls, floors and bed.
Later when the Narrator is refused permission to go visit her stimulating relatives (identified only as “Cousin Henry and Julia”), she suffers emotional collapse and is reduced to tears. John, misunderstanding that his wife’s emotional distress is the result, not the cause, of the “rest” treatment, gathers her in his arms, carries her upstairs, puts her in bed and reads to her until she is relaxed. Each of these actions carries with it a strong element of infantilizing his wife. First, he carries her in his arms asserting his physical strength and power over her. Second, he puts her to bed underscoring his belief that she only requires rest to recover from her “condition”. Third, he reads to his wife as one would read to a child incapable of doing so themselves.
Still later, when the Narrator rises in the night to inspect the wallpaper and her husband tells her to return to bed she uses the occasion to ask, again, that they leave the house. He protests that she is doing better to which she offers counter evidence. Treating her like a child, he hugs her and addressing her in the third-person, says: “Bless her little heart! She’ll be as sick as she pleases!”
Significantly, both the women in the wallpaper and the Narrator are reduced to “creeping” – or crawling like children – along the ground by the end of the story. Thus her body, like her mind, is reduced to a childlike realm of pure imagination, irrational fear and concealment.
Women as Prisoners: The first level of the Narrator’s imprisonment is that of the estate grounds. As a key component of the “rest” treatment, the Narrator is not permitted by her physician/husband to leave the estate. While John comes and goes, and sometimes stays away all night caring for patients, his wife is not permitted the same freedom and must sleep every night surrounded by the yellow wallpaper.
The second level of her imprisonment is within the upstairs nursery. Despite her repeated requests to relocate to a different room downstairs, the Narrator is told she must sleep in the nursery with its prison-like barred windows and dungeon-like rings upon the walls. As the story progresses she comes to embrace her confinement to the nursery, going so far as to lock herself in it to prevent her husband from interrupting her assault upon the wallpaper.
The third level of her imprisonment is within her mind as represented by the woman trapped in the outer wallpaper pattern. In the course of her delusion, the Narrator recognizes that the ugly pattern on the wallpaper is like a cage imprisoning the women desperately trying to escape. To facilitate her “escape” the Narrator tears the wallpaper from the walls, figuratively tearing the bars from the cage.
By clearly identifying her protagonist as being like a prisoner, within the room and within her mind, Gilman thematically addresses the situation of her contemporaries who were similarly imprisoned in the traditional female role of subservience in a male dominated culture.
Significantly, Gilman herself referred to her departure from Dr. S. Weir Mitchell’s care as an “escape” from confinement that sought to drive her insane.
Women as Domestic Slaves: The closer the Narrator comes to realizing her escape through insanity, the more she divests herself of domestic duties. The Narrator’s desperate quest for mental freedom contrasts sharply with the complacency of her sister-in-law Jennie who she describes as a “perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession”. Thus, the Narrator surrenders what little power (i.e. over the housekeeping) male society has afforded her in favor of the freedom to immerse herself in her imagination. Thus, the jealously a “normal” woman might feel at having her housekeeping authority challenged is replaced by the Narrator’s jealously of her sister-in-law’s supposed interest in the wallpaper. Significantly, Jennie pleads her only interest in the wallpaper to be its role in creating stains in the laundry – a concern well within the bounds of her traditional role but worthy of suspicion in the eyes of the Narrator whose concern with the wallpaper runs, literally, much deeper.
The Dangers of Passivity
In the subtext of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Gilman seems to argue that those women who fail to honestly evaluate their place in society and, more specifically within the hierarchy of their own homes, are worthy of pity if not disdain. Early in the story, the Narrator describes one of her attempts to overcome her husband’s opinion. While he is convinced of the efficacy of the “rest” cure developed by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, she believes that activity, work and mental engagement would be best. But, as she informs the reader that John has told her that “the very worst thing [she] can do is to think about [her] condition” and she confesses that thinking about it always “makes me feel bad.” Moments like this serve as a subtle critique of the passive women of Gilman’s time who, though possessing the mental acuity to challenge their second-rate status and rigid domesticity, fail to take action and risk spending their lives in submissive deferment to the men who dictate the limits of their expression.
It becomes evident that, even if the Narrator is willing to outwardly submit to John’s wishes, her mind will not survive the enforced inactivity of her “rest” treatment. At first her journal provides some relief. She takes comfort in disagreeing with her husband, even if it is only within the confines of her journal. “But I must say what I feel and think in some way,” she confides to her journal, “it is such a relief!” As the story progresses, however, the Narrator becomes less able to experience the same relief from her journal and her mind finds escape in insanity. Thus, the “Yellow Wallpaper” serves as an implicit authorial rebuke to those women in her time that counseled adherence to their prevailing condition of passivity.
Sanity & Mental Illness
In that the story was intended by Gilman as a direct rebuke to her doctor – Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a leading mental health practitioner of his day – it thematically addresses the failings of late nineteenth century understanding and treatment. With the benefit perspective, modern readers recognize that Gilman and her fictional counterpart suffered from what is now commonly referred to as “post-partum depression” – an acute mental illness that some women suffer to varying extents following childbirth. At the time Gilman was writing, and suffering depression, mental illnesses were not recognized as having any physiological origin and were treated as though the sufferer’s mind simply made them up. For his reason, John refuses to consider his wife’s condition an illness. In fact, precisely because he is a doctor, he is incapable of considering it anything more than failure on his wife’s part to overcome the deleterious effects of her imagination. The Narrator alludes to this situation from the start: “John is a physician, and perhaps…that is the reason I do not get well faster.” This not only serves to underscore the stolid, male-centric practice of medicine at the time; it frames the Narrator’s predicament :“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing physically the matter with one but temporary nervous depression…what is one to do?”