The Yellow Wallpaper Essay
Charlotte Perkins Gilman is well known to be an outstanding writer and the author of breathtaking short stories and emotional and deep novels. But not only she is a prominent writer, she is also an economist, a lecturer, and an early theorist of feminism. Still Gilman refused to be entitled “a feminist” and preferred a term “humanist”. The goal of her life, as a humanist, was to fight for the “cause of women’s suffrage”. (Gilman, autobiography) Gilman published a vast volume of work over the course of her life, but much of it is unavailable to us. However, more and more of her works are published nowadays because at last they are recognized to be important contribution to the literature and the feminist movement.
In my paper I would like to analyze Gilman’s semi-autobiographical, radical masterpiece the Yellow Wallpaper. This novella was taken by feminists from the dimness of unpublished works and brought to the reader. In the novella Gilman tells the story through the first person narrator who expresses her feelings through the diary entries, both amazing and bone-chilling. As the narrator’s mental capacity declines the diary entries become shorter and more frequent, representing that the narrator’s mental status is declining. (Lauter)
The Yellow Wallpaper tells a story of a woman struggling with the world of patriarchal rules and norms. It may be rather hard for a reader not-familiar with Gilman’s life to understand the text. Still, the story of the narrator impresses anybody with its vividness and honesty. (Lauter)In order to show how Gilman’s life reflects in her novellas I would like to present some biographical facts.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born on July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut. Her father Frederick Beecher Perkins frequently left the family for lengthy periods of time. Being a child Charlotte spent a lot of time around her aunts: Catherine Beecher, Isabella Beecher Hooker, and Harriet Beecher Stow. Those women were the advocates of early feminism and their views passed down to Charlotte. (Karpinski)By the time she was teenager under their influence she had developed the feminist fervor and desire for social reform and change.
While being rather young Gilman started displaying the independence she later advocated. Working as a teacher she persisted on paying her mother for the room she was occupying as well as she required to be paid for the household chores. (Lane) She had no desire for clothes and jewelry, dances and social routs. She was always much more into physical activities and reading scientific and philosophic books.
After learning of Gilman’s life, and by reading her works, one can see that the Yellow Wallpaper is partially autobiographical. As mentioned in the forward of Heath Anthology of American Literature, “Gilman had a distressed life, because of the choices she had made which disrupted common conventions—from her ‘abandonment’ of her child to her amicable divorce.” (Lauter, 799) Gilman usually portrayed women who were strong and were not afraid to stand up and speak out for their independence and self-realization. Her novellas usually tell the story of women who could change their life, setting role models for the suffering women to come. (Lane)
The Yellow Wallpaper is considered Gilman’s best work of fiction, but in fact it is rather untypical for her. Rather than being optimistic of what women can achieve, the story is about a young mother’s mental capacity weakening, based on Gilman’s own experience. The story dwells upon a mother suffering from a nervous disorder. She is prescribed to desert her intellectual life and avoid company by her husband and brother, both doctors. Because of them and their “treatment”, her depression becomes deeper and deeper. Still they believe they know what is best for her. Being alone in the little bedroom of a rented house where the walls are covered with yellow wallpaper she slightly becomes insane.
Early reviewers criticized the Yellow Wallpaper as either being a horror story or a “case study” of a mental illness. However, most critics today see it as a feminist manifesto of some kind, a response to the society’s suppression of women. As well as they praise the novella’s forceful characterization, complex and philosophical symbolism, and thematic depth as well as strong emotionality. (Lane)
In the Yellow Wallpaper several symbols are used to show the oppression of women by men and the struggle against patriarchal society. While many symbols could be found in the text to support this, there are three major symbols throughout the story representing the feminism theme. The yellow wallpaper, that Gilman describes as “I never saw a worse paper in my life,” (Gilman) is symbolic of the mental screen that men tried placing upon women during the 1800s. Yellow represents sickness or weakness, and the narrator’s mental illness is a symbol of man’s oppression of the female sex. (Karpinski)
The two windows, from which the writer observes the world, being apart from it, represent the possibilities of women if considered equals by men. What she can see from the windows is described as “I can see the garden, those mysterious deep-shaded arbor, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees.” It can be said that the “garden” is a symbol of the society. The word “mysterious” shows that the possibilities and potential women have are still undiscovered by them as well as by men. (Gilman)
The narrator’s nervous condition and the emotions that the author deals with show the emotional instability most women posses. (Lauter)When the relater mentions to her husband that she “has improved not in mind but in body only” (Gilman), he insists that she is well indeed. Still adding “There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy”. So a woman for John is foolish, false, and deceptive. In the novella men’s attitude to women at that time is shown through John’s character that is defeated at the end of the novella.
Gilman has cautiously chosen her sentences and metaphors to ingrain a picture of garish and sinister patriarchal oppression. When describing a rented house, for example, it seems like she is setting a banshee story, as she gives gothic description of the estate painting the environment existing in the house in black colors. She makes a reference to old things and the past as to dated treatment of women. Still she expects the future to bring more equality. She tends to break the paragraphs frequently as well as she uses a lot of exclamation points to show the strong emotions that are dealt with in the novella. By setting the story in this tone, Gilman indicates shows the oppression and inequality women had to deal with. In her mind, these inequalities “should be demoted to the past”. (Gilman, autobiography)
The metaphors, images, characters and the plot of the story give a reader a bright imagine of the woman who has broken the rules and fought successfully with the male-centric society. She made her way through to her dream of writing and as she became an equal member of the society. The text impels its reader at many levels, but most importantly, it exposes “ugly and unnoticed” social conventions that are “second-nature” to its male characters. (Lane)
The time has changed, and nowadays women are given most of the freedoms they used to just dream of. However, Gilman’s ideas are still relevant and many modern feminist writers chose to follows Gilman’s style and reflect her ideas in their work.