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Gender Roles in The Yellow Wallpaper Essay


Analysis of "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Through a woman's perspective of assumed insanity, Charlotte Perkins Gilman comments on the role of the female in the late nineteenth century society in relation to the male counterpart in her short story "The Yellow Wallpaper." Gilman uses her own experience with mental instability to show the lack of power that women wielded in shaping the course of their psychological treatment. Further, she uses vivid and horrific imagery to draw on the imagination of the reader to conceive the terrors within the mind of the psychologically wounded.

The un-named woman is to spend a summer away from home with her husband in what seems to be almost a dilapidated room of a "colonial mansion" (Gilman 122). In order to cure her "temporary nervous depression- a slight hysterical tendency" (Gilman 122) she is advised to do no work and to not even acknowledge her condition. This is the advice of her husband John who also fills the role as her physician.

This response to mental instability is important to Gilman's own agenda. In being under the care of her own husband the narrator takes on the role of his inferior. She is even deemed with child-like affections such as "little girl" (Gilman 128) and her own place of confinement is a nursery. The physical description of the room serves two of Gilman's purposes. First she says, "It was a nursery first, and then playroom and gymnasium" (Gilman 124) to show that the room had been used by children in the past. Through this Gilman identifies the status of women to that of a child, helpless and subservient to the power of others. She continues to mention that "the windows are barred" (Gilman 834) to describe the prison like quality of her surroundings, showing the confinement of both her physical and mental being.

As a feminist writer, Gilman uses her supposedly mad character to show the lack of power women have in their own lives. For example the narrator wishes to reside in a downstairs room that "opened onto the piazza and had roses all over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings" (Gilman 123). In order to gain a better mental health, normally a physician with the correct training would think that surroundings would play a large impact on mood and temperament. However, her husband is oblivious to this assumption for he chooses a huge room that takes up almost the entire floor.

This attitude is important in showing the lack of communication between husband and wife. He fails to see her psychological issues for what they are and his actions to mediate her supposed problem only make it worse. The narrator even questions the treatment prescribed by her husband and brother in saying "Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good" (Gilman 122). Even though she can question her treatment she is powerless to change it. Gilman utilizes this to again show the inferiority of women to men of the nineteenth century era.

Gilman's illustration of narrative structure is important in depicting the fragmentation of the woman's mind. Through the course of the story sentences become increasingly choppy and paragraphs decrease in length. This concrete element of fiction illustrates the deterioration of that narrator's psychological well-being and mental surmise to the yellow wallpaper.

The very vehicle of the woman's madness is the yellow wallpaper that covers the walls. Gilman describes it as "dull enough to confuse the eye in following it" and the color as "Repellent, almost revolting: a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight" (Gilman 123). Through the course of her mental deterioration the narrator attempts to first understand the maddening pattern of the putrid wallpaper. The life created by the narrator within the wallpaper is important in showing the twisted inner-workings of her mind. She describes the wallpaper at a "spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down" (Gilman 124). The preoccupation with the grotesqueness of the wallpaper clearly shows her mental sickness.

In her downward mental spiral the woman decides that another woman is trapped behind the bizarre design, who is only allowed to escape during the day. She says "I've seen her! I can see her out of every one of my windows!" (Gilman 131). Through this account one can believe that Gilman is showing the woman's sub-conscious fight with her husband and control. While she complies with all of his orders she knows that to rest and experience no genuine life is what is truly damaging her mental state.

The woman behind the wallpaper is what she wants to be. During the day the mental projection of the real woman is able to go outside and be free from the restraints of the wallpaper. She says "I see her in that long shaded lane, creeping up and down. I see her in those dark grape arbors, creeping all around the garden" (Gilman 131). The wallpaper, like John, is the restraint that binds her to the yellow tinted room. In explanation for her actions to John the narrator expresses that "I've got out at spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!" (Gilman 133). After this display of power she shows her connection with the wallpaper and what it represented in her demented mind.

Finally at the height of her insanity she attempts to free the woman by ripping down the wallpaper. At this moment in the story the narrator is essentially freeing herself. Gilman proves this point through the woman's stance against her husband. For the first time she is asserting control in her relationship, and does not obey John by refusing to open the door. She instead tells him "The key is down by the front door under a plantain leaf!" (Gilman 133). At this point he is also forced to listen to her for the first time. The ending is also ironic because it serves as a reversal of the roles of male and female. The woman steps into power while the man faints in response to the reality of his wife's madness.

From beginning to end, Charlotte Perkins Gilman comments on the roles of husband and wife, and the inequality that exists within their relationship. In the depiction of her protagonist's mental collapse, Gilman shows the tribulations with psychological diagnoses and the lack of power women had in their own treatment. This stance comes from her own experience with mental illness and her inability to assert her will in the situation. Most importantly, Charlotte Perkins Gilman employs the case of one's psychological deterioration to ultimately break the barrier between men and women in terms of mental treatment and diagnosis.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte. "The Yellow Wallpaper." 1996. Writing as Revision. Ed. Beth Alvarado and Barbara Cully. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2010. 475-476. Print.

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