[Feminist Criticism in “The Yellow Wallpaper]
The story begins with the narrator, a woman who has recently moved with his husband to a big rented house while theirs is being repaired. The woman is suffering, what his husband call a “nervous depression” (Gilman 648). This depression, according to his husband, renders incapable of doing any physical activities, which confines her to her bedroom. To appease her boredom, the narrator decides to write a diary against the will of her husband, who considers such action would not do her any good; however, what the man fails to see is that he is imprisoning his housewife in the bedroom, worsening her condition by not allowing her to do activities that would improve her depression. Hence, although he has good intentions, his intentions are against the will of the narrator. This can be seen as the first instance of patriarchal oppression. The man, a paternalistic physician, uses treatment methods that Gilman herself suffered through her treatment for a similar problem (Gilbert and Gubar 941). For this reason, Gilman’s story is a reflection of her bouts with depression and male oppression. Hence, the author, like the narrator, was told not to live an intellectual life and rest, as if it would do her good in improving their condition. Nevertheless, to Gilman, her experience made her realize that although doctors said there was nothing wrong with her, she was clearly ill. On the other hand, this also reflects difficulties women of the 19th century had to get their illnesses recognized by the physicians; thus, by forbidding them from living an intellectual life, they castrated them, destroying their creativity in the process. Plus, Gilman, like her alter-ego, was told 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 I lived.” (Lavander 1).
Likewise, the diary the narrator writes serves as windows to her thoughts; thoughts she would rather her husband not to see. That is why she intends to conceal them that much, as not to show her rebellious nature outside the pen and paper. Plus, she understands that her husband considers that practice against her health and the impossibility of continuing it hinders her health more than the depression. The woman has an active mind and imagination, but instead of bolstering such qualities, his husband confines her to a bedroom, as to get rid of a woman who is disturbing him. Consequently, as the patterns in the wallpaper start becoming different things, they turn into bars, reflecting the nature of her captivity behind the bars of the patriarchal oppression. As a literary device, these bars show the woman’s impossibility of escaping from her fate and the permanent nature of her captivity. For that reason, her mental state begins to falter, and her descent into madness rapidly ensues. Conversely, unlike the narrator, Gilman decided to go against his physician’s intentions and went ahead with her life, finding solace in her books and writing. However, it is important to note that the fate of the narrator was not uncommon for the women of her time, where most physicians misdiagnosed their illnesses as “hysteria”, and to be sent home to live a secluded life with little-to-none interactions to the world so they would not be disturbed. These lack of disturbances, however, separated women from the outside world, leaving them subject to their minds’ whims.
However, in a feminist note, the narrator’s journey can be considered as the necessary step from a frightened housewife into an independent woman. Through her illness, she is left alone and has to take care of her emotions, realizing she needs nobody but herself. The arabesques on the wall that turn into bars are the oppressive chains of her life. (Mantho 1). On the other hand, she begins seeing a woman in the wallpaper trying to get out. That woman is nobody but herself, a figurative construct of her imagination that aims to leave the wallpaper, another construct of the narrator’s oppression. Hence, by tearing the wallpaper down, she starts to free herself, she starts thinking for herself, taking care of her life and attending to her desires. On the other hand, she still suffers from the dissociation between her status as a Victorian woman, and the free woman her mind wants her to be. For that reason, she gets a rope to tie the “other” woman if she ever wants to escape again “I’ve got a rope up here that even Jennie did not find. If that woman does get out, and tries to get away, I can tie her!” (Gilman 655). Moreover, she is afraid of herself, as her illness is showing her real capacities, capacities she is not ready to harness.
Ultimately, Gilman’s wish to write “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a reflection on the heinous practices most women suffered when diagnosed with mental illnesses that could be easily treated by bolstering their creativity and helping them overcoming their issues. The wallpaper itself is a device used to show the descent into madness of a creative woman deprived of stimuli and thrown into solitude like a criminal, losing herself in the process.
Gilbert, S., and C. Gubar. “A Feminist Reading of the Yellow Wallpaper.” University of Ottawa. Web. 31 Dec. 2015. <http://www.courseweb.uottawa.ca/ENG1120/ENG_1120/Research_essay_materials_files/Yellow Wallpaper materials 2.pdf>.
Gilman, C.P. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. 31 December 2015.
Lavander, C. “Gilman, Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.”Gilman, Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper. College of Staten Island CUNY Database. Web. 31 December 2015. <https://www.nlm.nih.gov/literatureofprescription/exhibitionAssets/digitalDocs/WhyIWroteYellowWallPaper.pdf>
Mantho, M. “”Feminist Victory” in The Yellow Wallpaper.” Web. 31 Dec. 2015. <https://mgmantho.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/the-yellow-wallpaper.pdf>.