Power Politics in Marriage and Medical Attitudes in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Seminar Paper 2015 15 Pages

American Studies - Literature


List of contents

1. Introduction

2. Motivation for writing the story

3. Analysis
3.1. Setting
3.2. Medical measures
3.3 Language and female voice
3.4 Wallpaper as metaphor

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

From our current perspective issues upon women’s freedom and independence are chiefly solved. U.S. society in the 19th century, however, is characterized as an androcentric culture. Men and the masculine point of view are considered to be the norm, thus society resembles a barricade upon female affairs.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who is representative of feminist writing, challenged many women to achieve economic and personal independence in a man-made world that regarded the female sex as a deviation from the norm, depriving them from social benefits and development. She lays great emphasis on the woman’s role as (re-) producer and enables females to enter the public sphere originally dominated by males.

Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, published in 1892 in The New England Magazine and narrated in the first person is about a woman who suffers from a nervous depression and is taken to a house for the summer by her physician husband. His treatment intends total bed rest and forbids her from working, i.e. reading and writing, so that she starts to observe the wallpaper in her bedroom with which she becomes obsessed.

In my paper I would like to examine how Gilman’s 19th century short story engages with the power politics of marriage and the medical attitudes towards women in the 19th-century U.S. society. I would like to argue that in Gilman’s autobiographical story, the female protagonist, who undergoes the rest cure, escapes from the oppression through the patriarchal institutions of marriage and medicine in search of personal and intellectual independence. The realist narrative provides peculiar imagery that depicts the idea of a power structure regulated by male authority and women’s subordinate position in society.

My purpose here is to give a brief insight into medical care in the 19th century but also to portray the depression and the treatment Gilman herself underwent. In doing so I would like to reflect on Gilman’s motivation for writing “The Yellow Wallpaper” and to reconstruct the social context by calling into question her nonfictional work “The Man-Made World”. The main part of my investigation will cover the analysis of the short story with the main focus being/put on the key trope, in which I will proceed chronologically. Finally, my inquiry will close with pointing out the main achievements and effects the short story had on contemporary society and readership.

2. Motivation for writing the story

Gilman herself suffered from a nervous depression and she was sent to the specialist Weir Mitchell who applied the rest cure. His advice was to “’live as domestic a life as far as possible,’ to ‚have but two hours' intellectual life a day,’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again’ as long as [she] lived.” (Gilman, Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper) During this period she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” and sent a copy to the doctor who drove her mad.

Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper. It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked. (Gilman, Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper)

The 19th century in America is characterized by male dominance. Society is divided into two spheres, forming gendered groups. Women are considered to be the weaker sex, thus relegated to the domestic sphere. But at the turn of the 19th century many feminine short story writers turned away from the ideal of women’s identity promoted by “The Cult of True Womanhood”. The “New Woman” who wants financial independence from her husband and enters the public sphere challenges the “True Woman”. The “New Woman” is rebelling, more articulate and she hates home because it vulgarizes life. (cf. Cutter 106, Gilman 25 Women as World Builders) It is the picture Gilman promotes in her female narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” who struggles for liberation.

In “Our Androcentric Culture” she portrays a history made and written by men. On the contrary, it is woman’s “natural work” to be a mother and serve men for they are male property. However, for Gilman “it is necessary that a woman should be a person as well as a mother.” (28f. Women as World Builders) The female sex is inferior and weak, thus forbidden to take part in politics. Society is based on masculine desires alone and they dominate it. (Gilman 24 Our Androcentric Culture) Due to the fact that men monopolize literature, writing is masculine and sewing feminine. (Gilman 25 Our Androcentric Culture) “Within this last century, ‘the women’s century,’ the century of the great awakening, the rising demand for freedom, political, economic, and domestic, we are beginning to write real history, human history, not merely masculine history.” (Gilman 26 Our Androcentric Culture) Gilman encourages women and promotes new ideals embodied by her protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

3. Analysis

The analysis provided is arranged according to semantic aspects that cover the story’s setting (i.e. the house, room and furniture), the medical measures, language with special regard to the female voice, and the woman behind the wall. Due to the immense metaphorical significance, the wallpaper as an essential key trope giving the short story its title will be examined separately from language.

3.1. Setting

The patriarchal setting frames Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Already in the very first line of short story the female narrator mentions the “ancestral halls” which convey male dominance. The estate arouses her suspicion because “the place has been empty for years” (Gilman 609 The Yellow Wallpaper) and strikes fear. She dwells in a big room at the top of the house with a “heavy bed”, “barred windows” and “that horrid paper”. It resembles more a prison than a place for recovery and cure of post-partum depression the protagonist suffers from.

The nursery room that “was used as a playroom” once, indicates ravages “the children have made”. Since the husband accommodates his wife here now and she continues the ravage by stripping off the paper, she is infantilized. “Infantilization was often a symptom of nervous disease, but was not for Mitchell a therapeutic end; the point of the rest cure was to restore a woman to adulthood.” (Thraikill 540) Thus, it is a reversed diagnosis for her husband makes her appear sicker than she already is. And “[…] perhaps that is one reason [she does] not get well faster.” (Gilman 608) This early recognition reveals the medical treatment as deceptive. Her mental condition even deteriorates. The patient is confined to a place where she is constantly being watched and controlled as a domestic slave. Hence, the story suggests the idea “that the narrator is the victim of an oppressive patriarchal social system”. (Thraikill 549)

A male community makes up the surrounding i.e. first her brother, later her husband, maybe Weir Mitchell in the fall and even the baby is a boy. (cf. Ford 309) Her wish is to be confronted with “less opposition and more society and stimulus-but” (Gilman 608) [John’s] prescription intends avoidance of social contact and interaction. “In fact, the opening imagery- ‘ancestral halls’, ‘a colonial mansion’, ‘a haunted house’-legitimizes the diagnostic process by placing it firmly within an institutional frame: medicine, marriage, patriarchy. All function in the story to define and prescribe.” (Treichler 66) The environment has an immense effect on the protagonist; it restricts and deprives her of her intellectual freedom she strives for.

“[…] the […] females in the house appear to be cardboard figures cut out by patriarchy […].” (Ford 309) Seldom do Mary or Jane, other female characters, come to her room and speak to her, but by taking care of the baby and doing the housework they deprive her from motherhood and occupation. Besides, there are greenhouses and a garden where later the woman creeps around. The narrator sees them only out of one window, thus she is excluded from a place consisting of a female community. The pathetic attempts to change or at least repaper the room are symbolical for “deconstructing dominant male patterns of thought and social practice”. (Lanser 422) Initially they fail and the imprisoned woman seeks for her liberation and she puts it into action by beginning to tear off the wallpaper. Nevertheless, in the final scene of “The Yellow Wallpaper” Gilman presents John at the door and afterwards entering the room. Just as I mentioned at the beginning the story closes with a patriarchal/masculine image/representative.

3.2. Medical measures

The medical measures in the story support the idea of women being oppressed. They go hand in hand with the setting because the “rest cure” insists on removing the patient from their environment. John and his wife come as physician and patient to the ancestral halls instead of spending time together as a married couple. (cf. Treichler 63) It is all about the narrator’s disease. “The key elements of the treatment were isolation, complete physical rest, a rich diet of creamy foods, […] and complete submission to the authority of the attending physician.” (Thraikill 536) Again the female character is exposed to a masculine culture influencing her body and advising her to behave in a way women are expected to behave.

The fact that “‘medical men’ were unable to cure most diseases” in the 19th century, as Thraikill maintains (549), justifies my assumption that the “nervous depression” (a symptom of hysteria) is a socially constructed disease because women’s mind is something they are suspicious of. It is dealing with angry women like the narrator and this serves to repress their intellect. She is forbidden from congenial work and confronted with a wallpaper which is a medical means “paradigmatic of the patriarchal silencing of women”. (Thraikill 526) The physician employs measures whose purpose it is to drive her to madness.



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power politics marriage medical attitudes charlotte perkins gilman’s yellow wallpaper




Title: Power Politics in Marriage and Medical Attitudes in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper"