Exploration of Victorian Feminism in The Yellow Wallpaper

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The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story published by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892 and has since been described as ‘An American Feminist classic’ (Lanser). It follows a woman’s deterioration at the hands of her husband’s prescription of the ‘rest cure’ which is ultimately detrimental to her recovery. Early readers read the story as a shocking horror and it wasn’t until the rediscovery of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in the early 1970s that it was appreciated as an indictment of Victorian patriarchy. For a text to be a feminist text, it must be written by a woman, and it will point out deficiencies in society regarding equal opportunity, and the reader will typically be aware of this motive in the text. In a work of fiction, the main character, or heroine, personifies the social struggle against the patriarchy. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a feminist text, but by writing it in the form of almost a horror story, Gilman brings to light how horrifying male oppression can be and the devastating effect it can cause and serve as a reminder for this.

Throughout Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ we see links to Gilburt and Gubar’s ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’. In this, they characterise the nineteenth century as a time when “female purity was represented not by a Madonna in heaven but by an angel in the house” (814). This idea of the “angel in the house” (814) is used by many feminist theorists derived from Coventry Patmore’s narrative poem ‘The Angel in the House’ describing the ideal Victorian women and the domestic sphere they are meant to exist in. The narrator in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ begins with trying her very hardest to become the doting, domestic wife her husband seeks as she initially seems to believe he knows best. ‘He is very careful and loving,’ she writes in her journal, ‘and hardly lets me stir without special direction.’ Her words also sound as if they have been rehearsing what she’s been told.

John himself could be viewed as control and sanity as he displays an obsession with reason as his wife grows mad. Gilbert and Gubar also discuss the perceived virtues woman should hold as if a man is responsible for a woman’s comfort, ‘It’s highly reasonable that she should be careful and diligent to content and please him’. This need to please we can see clearly in the narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, its female narrator provides a meditation on the true self against a background of imposed constraints, mirroring Gilman’s own experiences. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ acts against the expected patterns of behaviour of ‘The Angel in the House’ figure despite the narrator’s attempt to fulfil this role.

Models of behaviour are juxtaposed through “a signally society-orientated text” as Dieter Meindl identified it. It discusses dealing with ‘ordinary people’. The characters of the short story provide an American middle-class family unit, fairly common in the nineteenth century and subsequently form a ‘sociological tract’, whereby Gilman can observe and criticise on what ‘one expects in […] in a marriage’. As a Victorian wife, she belonged to her husband and her body was his to do with whatever he pleased. This is symbolised by the heavy bedstead, which is nailed to the floor. Perhaps Gilman included this symbol to represent how Victorian women were told that conjugal relations were a woman’s duty simply to please their husband and to procreate. Critics have said it might represent static sexuality. These statements ring true regarding Victorian sexuality; it was as immobile as the unmoving bedstead. In ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’, Gilbert and Gubar discuss Ruskin’s belief that a woman’s ‘power is not for rule, not for battle and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering of domesticity.’ In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ there is indications that the narrator was driven to insanity due to lack of expression as she ‘did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal – having to be so sly about it’. The narrator is intending to say that it is the hiding that is exhausting, not the writing itself. She experiences obstacles every time she attempts to express herself through writing. Every time she writes in her journal, she has to stop herself when her husband arrives because, ‘he hates to have me write a word’. Even the narrator knows the ‘rest-cure’ is making her worse but follows her husband’s orders as much as she can to try and be the subservient wife she is expected to be. Gilman, with steady rhythm and methodical patience, exposes more and more insight into the meaning of the wallpaper throughout the story. She uses a slow pace to release titbits of the metaphor that allow the reader to see the wallpaper as a symbol of male authority.

Another Feminist theory that draws links to Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is Rubin’s ‘The Traffic of Women’ which discusses the distinction between sex and gender to further her understanding of the feminist theory. She goes further in saying gender was created by “the sexual division of labour” (912) as it “exacerbates the biological differences between the sexes” (912). This idea of a large difference between genders is held by John and was by many doctors at the time. The short story gives an account result of the Victorian “rest-cure,” commonly prescribed period of inactivity thought to cure hysteria and as John diagnosed the narrator as ‘temporary nervous depression’. Psychoanalysis in the Victorian period was extremely androcentric and subsequently suffered from alpha bias even in the story the diagnosis was impressed upon her by John, and verified by her brother. The rest cure treatment originated with Dr. Weir Mitchell, who personally prescribed this “cure” to Gilman herself. She was as a result driven to near madness and later claimed to have written “The Yellow Wallpaper” to protest this treatment of women like herself. Medicine itself Is perceived to be unbiased and inherently scientific but, as displayed in The Yellow Wallpaper, is clearly influenced by the patriarchy. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ challenges this by promoting new ideas from Gilman and questioning old ideas about women’s position in society.

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Gilman shows a female heroine that overcomes oppression. The text exposes normalised and unnoticed social conventions that are second-nature to its male characters. The story promotes Gilman’s agenda for change, and illustrates a woman’s hardship as she attempts to find equal opportunity in society. Furthermore, Rubin imparts the concepts within the theories of Marxism, anthropology, and psychoanalysis in her own work. Using these theories Rubin asserts that “men and women are closer to each other than either is to anything else” (912) placing blame on the exaggerated dichotomy between the genders for the contrasting treatment of each. This is supported by the transformation of John at the end of the tale—in a reversal of traditional gothic roles—because it is he, not a female, who faints when confronted with madness in an almost hysterical manner. Rubin goes on to say ‘psychoanalysis demonstrates with equal facility that the ordinary components of feminine personality are self-hatred and passivity’.

The narrator in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ fits perfectly into these roles at the beginning. She blames herself for being ‘unreasonably angry’ and is critical of her nervous disorder, as she is pressured to think so by her husband and doctors. But as the enforced regime of seclusion continues the narrator discovers her true voice, a voice which is surprising in its force. The identity that emerges towards the end of the story vastly differs from the passive young woman at the beginning, who obeys her husband’s every word and conforms immediately to his wishes as she feels she has no other choice as ‘what is one to do?’. Instead, the woman who creeps behind and ultimately materialises from the wallpaper is an unafraid, angry and powerful creature, who steps over her husband as he lies ‘faints’ at the sight of his unruly wife. The positions of husband and wife are thus reversed.

In Luce Irigaray’s the ‘Women on the Market’ suggests that our culture is characterised by the exchange and commodification of women in our society. Irigaray begins with the statement that, “The society we know, our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women” (170) and without this crucial exchange of women “we would fall back into the anarchy of the animal kingdom” (170). In Gilman’s narrative we see this idea as we see the pressures of patriarchy on women and the detrimental effects. The relationship between the female narrator and the wallpaper reveals the inner condition of the narrator and also symbolically displays the oppression of women. The story, read through a feminist lens, reflects a struggle against the patriarchal hierarchy of the nineteenth century.

In the “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses the wallpaper to display the social and economic repression of the 19th century woman and her internal struggle. The yellow wallpaper can be read as an expression of the narrator’s deteriorating mental state, the “pattern” of social and economic dependence, which reduces women to domestic slavery and as a symbol of regression or restraints. Gilman skillfully marries each of the narrator’s failed attempts to convince her husband to allow her to leave with the rising power of the wallpaper and the influence of it over her imagination. In this way, the wallpaper becomes not only the symbol of the narrator’s imprisonment, but through the process of her insane mind it actually becomes the thing imprisoning her as it seems to be growing in strength as she is losing strength. Furthermore, in Iriqaray’s works she discusses the three roles available to women in this system of value: “mother, virgin, and prostitute” (186) following the idea that a woman’s purity directly affects her worth leaving women marginalised with no voice of their own. This emphasises the importance of the ‘baby’ in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ as the narrator was meant to fit into the role of ‘mother’ which was arguably the main role for woman in the nineteenth century but ‘she cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous’. She doesn’t fit into one of these 3 perceived roles so her ‘cure’ is almost like a punishment.

Gilman herself suffered from postpartum depression but overcame it. Many critics read “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a warning of the consequences of what happens to women suffering from neurasthenia, if they followed the prescriptions given to them by the medical field during the 19th century. The narrator’s lack of a support group or network is obvious from the beginning of the story. “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?”, she is unable to confide in her own family and friends and is left to overcome the problem by herself.

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