The Yellow Wallpaper

This essay has a total of 2508 words and 10 pages.

The Yellow Wallpaper

In the last half of the nineteenth century, Victorian ideals still held sway in American
society, at least among members of the middle and upper classes. Thus the cult of True
Womanhood was still promoted which preached four cardinal virtues for women: piety,
purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Women were considered far more religious than men
and, therefore, they had to be pure in heart, mind, and, of course, body, not engaging in
sex until marriage, and even then not finding any pleasure in it. They were also supposed
to be passive responders to men's decisions, actions, and needs. The true woman's place
was her home; "females were uniquely suited to raise children,care for the needs of their
menfolk, and devote their lives to creating a nurturing home environment." (Norton, 108).
However, the tensions between old and new, traditional and untraditional , were great
during the last years of nineteenth century and there was a debate among male and female
writers and social thinkers as to what the role of women should be. Among the female
writers who devoted their work to defying their views about the woman's place in society
were Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a social activist and theorist of the women's
movement at the turn of the twentieth century. She developed her feminist ideals in her
novels, short stories and nonfiction books such as Women and Economics. Charlotte Perkins
Gilman is best known for her short story The Yellow Wallpaper, (1892) which is based on
her own experience.

As the story begins, the woman-whose name we never learn- tells of her depression and how
it is being treated by her husband and brother who are both doctors. These two men are
unable to see that there is more to her condition than just a stress and depression and
prescribe for her rest as a cure. The narrator is taken to a summer house to recover form
her condition where she is not allowed to do anything but rest and sleep. Furthermore, she
cannot do one thing that she loves the most: writing. " I must put this away, -he hates to
have me write a word." She spends most of her time in a room with yellow wallpaper and
very little to occupy her mind with. She becomes obsessed with discovering what is behind
the pattern of the wallpaper and becomes determined that the image is a woman who is
struggling to become free. The narrator wants to set this woman free, so she peels off the
yellow wallpaper. Then she locks herself in the room and throws the keys out of the
window. When her husband gets to the door and wants to break in, she tells him over and
over again where the keys are. After he gets in and sees her creeping on the floor, he
faints, and the narrator "had to creep over him every time."

Though The Yellow Wallpaper is a fiction, it was based on Gilman's own experience after
being diagnosed as a hysteric and prescribed a rest cure which prohibited her writing.
However, The Yellow Wallpaper is more than a case study in mental illness or a horror
story, it is a story of a dominant/submissive relationship between husband and wife. John,
the narrator's husband, never takes her seriously. At the very beginning of the story she
says " John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage." Anytime the
narrator would make a suggestion for her recovery, John would give her a " stern
reproachful look." Although the narrator feels desperate, John tells her that there is no
reason for how she feels. He treats her like a child and makes her doubt herself. John is
the man of the house and he expects the narrator to trust him completely, just as small
children trust in their parents. The narrator often speaks in a manner that suggests that
she cannot disagree with anything her husband says. She is a typical nineteenth century
submissive wife and her "What is one to do?" means that she has no authority and no
control over her life. The idea of resting is not something she likes, she would rather
work, but she has no choice. Still, she manages to disobey her husband and write her
journal without him knowing it. There are many other evidences of dominant-submissive
relationship, and one of the most convincing is when John says, " I beg of you, for my
sake and our child's sake, as well as for your own" By placing himself and the baby first
he is unintentionally saying that she is not important enough.

The main cause of the narrator's mental condition is her overbearing husband who stifles
her emotional and imaginative impulses and forces her to concentrate on the objects that
surround her. Furthermore, this inactivity pushes her deeper into madness. John imprisons
her in a room that has no escape with bars on the windows and immovable bed which is
"nailed down." But the narrator is not just a prison of this room, she is a prison of her
marriage. Her developing insanity is a form of rebellion and a way to gain her own
independence. Her struggle to set the woman in the wallpaper free symbolized her fight for

Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) carried out the same theme of struggling woman in a
dominant/ submissive relationship. However, Kate Chopin was different from Gilman because
she never joined or supported organizations though which women fought to gain political,
economic, and social rights equal to those of men. At the same time they both felt that
relationships founded on economic dependence and household duties had to be reconsidered.
Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman had very different views on women's sexuality.
Gilman spoke out strongly against eroticism in women's life while Kate Chopin concentrated
mainly on the biological aspects of women's situation and was the first writer in her
country " to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction." ( Per
Seyerted, 198)

The Awakening tells the story of a middle class woman, Edna Pontellier, who lives in New
Orleans. She is married to a man she no longer loves and she looks for excitement and
passion that they don't have in their relationship. She falls in love with a young man,
Robert Lebrun, but he goes to Mexico when he discovers that his feelings toward Edna are
very strong. During their separation Edna becomes involved with another man even though
she doesn't love him. After Robert Lebrun comes back from Mexico, he meets Edna and admits
to her that he loves her, but their happiness doesn't last long. Edna leaves to see her
friend, Adele, and when she comes home, there is a note that is left by Robert Lebrun that
says, "I love you. Good-by- because I love you." Edna decides to take a swim and she never

Edna, as the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper, isn't satisfied with her marriage which is
based on dominant/ submissive relationship. Her husband, Mr. Pontellier, doesn't treat
Edna as human being , rather he treats her like one of his possessions paying just enough
attention to make sure Edna is physically well and does everything that is expected from
her. Mr. Pontellier lives for his business, social respect, and a decent family. As soon
as he sees Edna's behavior changing, he seeks advice of a doctor. He is concerned about
the fact that Edna "lets the housekeeping go to the dickens" and about her "some sort of
notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women."

While Edna seeks romance as a source of happiness, she experiments with art, and as she
awakens personally, she develops a deeper commitment to it. Art plays a very important
role in the life on the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper too. For Kate Chopin and
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, art is work because it is both difficult labor and "one's true
vocation", the idea that wasn't very common among nineteenth century women. Adele plays
Continues for 5 more pages >>

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