The position of women in the society of the 19th century is one of the most controversial discussion questions from the perspectives of feminist movements and different psychological ideas.
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In the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents her vision of the problem of the female role in the family and society with references to the theme of mental illness. It is important to note that the depiction of the female character’s depression is the representation of a situation that can be discussed as characteristic for many families in the 19th century.
Moreover, Gilman presents her interpretation of the issue basing on her own experience and autobiographical facts (Ford). However, the narrator’s developing madness can also act as the symbolical depiction of the effects of the men’s dominance on women and the female suppression in the 19th-century society.
Women’s Role as a Discussion Question in The Yellow Wallpaper
“The Yellow Wallpaper” was first published in The New England Magazine in 1892, and this short story became an example of the problematic feminist literature which began to develop actively in the first half of the 20th century (Carnley). In this story, Gilman discusses the problem of the woman’s role in the men’s society concentrating on the questions of marriage, women’s social work, domestic sphere, rest cure as the way to treat depressions and psychoses.
It is necessary to pay attention to the fact that the author’s position is reflected with references to the idea that making women idle is the way to oppress and isolate them from any social activities. Thus, the problem of postpartum depression and the methods of its treatment became the frame for discussing the more significant social issue of gender inequality and women’s suppression (Hochman).
The importance of referring to the mental illness is emphasized in the short story with the help of the used structure. Thus, Gilman presents the thoughts of the main female character in the form of journal entries.
These entries are essential for examining the process of the development of the woman’s illness. The reader learns about the character’s “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency” at the first pages of the journal. Then it is possible to follow the further evolution of the mental illness and the characters’ reaction to it (Gilman 7).
The specific organization of the story also helps readers to focus on the female character’s vision of the situation of her rest cure. The character draws the readers’ attention to the fact that “this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind” (Gilman 7). That is why there are no opportunities to state strictly about the events and things described in the journal entries as about the results of the character’s fantasy or reality.
The woman who suffers from confinement in a room with the yellow wallpaper is the main character and narrator of Gilman’s short story. The other characters depicted in The Yellow Wallpaper are the woman’s husband, John, and his sister Jennie. These persons are presented from the perspective of the main character’s vision of them.
Thus, the readers learn the fact that the character’s husband is a physician, and “John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (Gilman 7). Providing John’s characterization in such a way, the author accentuates the traditional vision of a man in 19th-century society.
This man is practical and decisive, his word is influential, and his wife should follow his vision of the situation or even obey the orders. From this point, it is possible to discuss the room where John’s wife should live as the place of real confinement. The character of Jennie in The Yellow Wallpaper is presented to emphasize the aspects of the narrator’s illness (Thrailkill). Thus, the woman becomes sure that Jennie is also interested in the wallpaper, but there are also hints in the text that Jennie in The Yellow Wallpaper helps her brother to control his wife.
To analyze the problem of the woman’s oppression and the necessity to obey the husband’s will, one can refer to the idea of imprisonment in a room with the yellow wallpaper. From this point, the examination of the settings is significant for understanding the symbolic meaning of the short story.
The room which becomes the real prison for the main character is in the “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate … a haunted house” (Gilman 7). This house is rented by John in order to provide his wife with the necessary rest cure. However, this treatment of the woman’s depression responds to only men’s vision of the problem, which can be discussed as traditional for the society in the 19th century.
The situation of preventing any work and interactions is not discussed by the woman as good and contributing to her mental health. The woman states, “I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good” (Gilman 8). Nevertheless, according to her husband’s will, the woman has to be imprisoned in the room with the yellow wallpaper, which becomes the single trigger for her considerations and ideas.
The main idea of Gilman’s short story is to depict the suppressed position of a woman in the society of the 19th century. However, the author develops the discussion of the problem creatively with references to the female character’s madness. Thus, a woman is portrayed as a person limited in her rights, imprisoned in the yellow room because of the postpartum depression interpreted as psychosis (Knight).
From this perspective, it is necessary to pay attention to the repetition of the question “what is one to do?” which emphasizes the woman’s impossibility to reject the pressure of the social norms according to which a woman should obey her husband (Gilman 7-8). Thus, being the prisoner of social stereotypes, the woman should be isolated from the other world because of her depression. The only way to avoid boredom is to write the diary and concentrate on the color of the wallpaper.
The author’s message is accentuated with the help of the ironic tone used in the story. Gilman presents some hints to make the readers predict the woman’s madness. Thus, the woman states that “there is something strange about the house” at the first pages of the diary, and the next pages of the diary help the readers realize that the woman becomes obsessed with the color of the wallpaper which even transforms into the yellow smell (Gilman 8).
The final stage of the woman’s illness is the focus on the woman who creeps behind the wallpaper. The dramatic irony of the fact can be observed with concentrating on the woman’s discussion of the situation, “life is very much more exciting now than it used to be” (Gilman 19).