Women Uniting to Defeat Patriarchy. A Feminist and Gender Critical Reading of "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Academic Paper 2018 13 Pages

American Studies - Miscellaneous


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Analysis of the gender dynamics in The Yellow Wallpaper
2.1. Gender stereotypes and the inequality within the protagonist’s marriage
2.2. The protagonist’s growing resentment towards her husband
2.3. Symbolism of the nursery and the yellow wallpaper
2.4. The woman in the wallpaper and the significance of “Jane”

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The question that characterizes the beginning of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) is one that many women in the nineteenth and twentieth century will likely have posed to themselves. “What is one to do?” (272; 15) Gilman’s narrator asks repeatedly, when, as a woman in the late nineteenth century, one has no choice but to assume the role of the helpless wife and mother under the oppression of male authority. The Yellow Wallpaper challenges this stereotypical image of womanhood as well as the unequal relationships between women and men that come along with a male dominated society and its ideology of “masculine rationality vs. feminine irrationality” (Rodriguez Salas 2012: 106).

As a result of being diagnosed with what was then called a “nervous prostration” - generally regarded as hysteria - and prescribed the “rest cure” (Gilman 1935: 95), Gilman also explores and brings to light the problematic views on and treatment of mental health in the nineteenth and twentieth century. At the time, hysteria was primarily associated with passivity, the result of leading a “softer life” and having an overactive imagination - all stereotypically feminine behaviours - and was thus diagnosed primarily in women (Kahane 1995: 10). In her autobiography Gilman talks about how she was not allowed to write, paint or have more than “two hours’ intellectual life a day” and how she was supposed to “live as domestic a life as possible” (Gilman 1935: 96), all of which are elements that are closely reflected in the protagonist’s diagnosis in The Yellow Wallpaper.

The short story has been scrutinized and dissected by many readers and scholars over the years. In her article on diagnosis and discourse in Gilman’s story, Treichler writes that it may be read as a “realistic account of madness” but that “for feminist readers (then and now) who bring to the text some comprehension of medical attitudes toward women in the nineteenth century, such a non-ironic reading is not possible” (1984: 68). Viewing the narrative from a feminist and gender critical standpoint is essential for understanding its significance and acknowledging the impact it had - and still has - on society and literature. The aim of this paper is to examine and discuss the gender dynamics and hierarchies that have characterized the nineteenth century - and that are still present today - on the basis of The Yellow Wallpaper and the development Gilman’s female protagonist undergoes in terms of women liberation in a patriarchal society.

2. Analysis of the gender dynamics in The Yellow Wallpaper

2.1. Gender stereotypes and the inequality within the protagonist’s marriage

In the beginning of her narrative, the unnamed protagonist moves into a “colonial mansion” with her husband John, “a physician of high standing,” so that she may be cured of her “temporary nervous depression” or “slight hysterical tendency” far away from the stimulus of society (272; 2, 10). She notices something “queer” about the house, even describes it as haunted, which John immediately dismisses as one of her fancies (272; 2, 5). The imbalance of power and authority within their marriage is made very clear by her repeated statements on how John “scoffs openly” at her imagination and superstition (272; 6) as well as her frequent use of the neutral pronoun “one” when referring to herself (272) and being unsurprised by her husband’s behaviour since that is to be expected in a marriage (272; 5). She knows she has no choice but to accept and abide by the societal constructs of masculinity corresponding with rational and logical thinking, only believing in what can be seen and explained with science, and femininity with irrational beliefs and sentimentalism (Rodriguez Salas 2012: 106). And though she might abide by the “rules,” she certainly has opinions of her own that strongly disagree with the regulations of the male influences in her life. It is for this reason that she keeps a secret diary in which she has the freedom to express her opinion without being met by opposition (272; 16).

2.2. The protagonist’s growing resentment towards her husband

It is that secrecy however, that exhausts her to the point of not wanting to or feeling able to write any more (277; 105-106). Being confined in the room that is supposedly an old nursery (273; 32) with nothing to do but to “stare at the walls and ceiling,” she becomes increasingly angry with John and his treatment of her as though she were a child (Ghandeharion & Mazarí 2016: 122). This notion of women being lost without men and therefore dependant on their “male counterparts” may be referred to as “infantilization” (Ibid.). Not only does John humiliate and belittle his wife by calling her a “little girl” (278; 133) or a “blessed little goose” (274; 56), he makes her feel guilty about being ill by acting, on the surface, like a caring and loving husband. She describes feeling like a burden to him since she is incapable of doing anything productive for no apparent reason at all (274; 47). Of course, there are plenty of reasons as to why she might experience nervousness and depression but they are being dismissed and even laughed at by John (274). This is a clear reflection of how mental health was viewed at the time. The limited medical knowledge of and experience with it stemmed from the men that came back from the Civil War with, what would nowadays be considered, post-traumatic stress disorder (Thrailkill 2002: 529). Thrailkill argues that “the domesticated wife is basically a victim of household rather than battlefield carnage” which was, in the eyes of medical men, hardly a valid reason to experience anxiety and depression (Ibid.). Hence, signs of “insanity” were generally given the same treatment and prescription as physical symptoms (Ghandeharion & Mazarí 2016: 116).

Furthermore, John calls his wife’s distaste of the room and the wallpaper a mere whim, a fanciful product of her “imaginative power and habit of story-making” (275; 61). What is interesting about this statement is his use of the word “power.” John does not make use of it to acknowledge strength or talent in his wife but to refer to, in his opinion, her greatest weakness that will “lead to all manner of excited fancies” if it is not kept under control (275, 61). As a result, she turns inward, makes an effort not to cry whenever John is around and expresses her thoughts solely on paper. However, believing her secrecy to be a form of betrayal, she eventually grows somewhat afraid of John and spends most of her time studying the wallpaper and retreating into a world of imagination that John cannot access (Ghandeharion & Mazarí 2016: 118).

2.3. Symbolism of the nursery and the yellow wallpaper

The strangeness of the mansion and in particular the place the narrator is forced to reside in lead her to plea for a change of rooms which John declines. The fact that it is described as a former nursery and that the protagonist has no say in the decision on where she will spend all of her time may be seen as a link to the aforementioned infantilization; however, the barred windows, the stationary bed and the woman trapped behind the pattern of the wallpaper do a lot more to give the impression of a prison or an asylum. The narrator describes the wallpaper as “one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin” and the colour as a “revolting” shade of yellow (273). Perhaps the most intriguing element about it is the pattern itself; it is unusual in that it has a front design with “uncertain curves [that] suddenly commit suicide - plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (273; 35) and a sub-pattern of a creeping woman that moves behind it (278; 125). The more time the protagonist spends looking at it, the clearer it seems to become; by daylight it is irritating and confusing, impossible to decipher (279), but by moonlight the pattern transforms so much that it is almost indistinguishable. The front pattern “becomes bars [...] and the woman behind it is as plain as can be” (279; 153). The woman - or possibly women - behind the bars, the overall prison imagery and the fact that the narrator is confined to a room that has “rings and things in the walls” (273; 32) are elements that all point to women’s entrapment in marriage and society.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Frankfurt (Main)
The Yellow Wallpaper Feminism Patriarchy 19th century Gender Mental health Mental illness Charlotte Perkins Gilman




Title: Women Uniting to Defeat Patriarchy. A Feminist and Gender Critical Reading of "The Yellow Wallpaper"