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Creeping Over the Patriarchy: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ''The Yellow Wallpaper''

As a pioneer in the women’s movement in the United States, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was another feminine writer who lost her sense of identity and autonomy in the domestic conventions of marriage. Gilman’s personal troubles stimulated her to write the haunting story of a woman tearing apart the yellow wallpaper, which is the physical manifestation of her prescribed confinement.

Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper’’ was published in January 1892 and quickly became a magnet for the attention of her contemporaries. This interest prompted Gilman to write Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper’’ in her attempt to elaborate on the inspiration behind her short but dense story and the protagonist who descends into the darkness of gender-based bias and oppression.

The Gender Oppression and Medicalization of Women in the 19th Century

Suffering from depression upon the birth of her daughter, Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself experienced the prescribed 'rest cure' in the spring of 1887. In her own words, Gilman explains what she had experienced as a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia and beyond’’ (Gilman, 1913, para. 3). Gilman’s healthy body was seen as a justification for the verdict that there was nothing wrong with her, hence the conclusion that she was to live a domestic life and have a maximum of two hours per day for her intellectual endeavors, refraining her from picking up a pen or pencil to indulge in her writings. However, this prescription almost drove Gilman to the edge of mental decay and desperation, which stimulated her to use the last remaining crumbles of her intelligence, for she decided to give credit to the specialist responsible for her health no more and started writing again after the period of arranged intellectual starvation. Upon finishing the writing process of the poignant story The Yellow Wallpaper,’’ Gilman sent a copy to her physician, whose methods almost concluded in Gilman’s mania, to which she never got an answer. Conscious input of Gilman’s own experience as a woman on the verge of mental demolition proved to be a beacon for other women undergoing similar experiences, a bedside-table story for personal salvation from the prescribed rest cure that is total stagnation. Furthermore, Gilman learned that the specialist responsible for her health altered his approach to neurasthenia after he had readThe Yellow Wallpaper.’’

Figure 1: Portrait of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (ThoughtCo, 1896).

Anne Stiles, Assistant Professor of English and Director of Medical Humanities at Saint Louis University, informs about a typical rest cure patient in her article, The Rest Cure, 1873-1925’’:

She had to lie down in bed for six weeks to two months. During this time, she needed the doctor’s permission to sit up in bed or turn over without assistance. Massage and electrical stimulation were used to ensure that her muscles did not atrophy from lying in bed day after day. (Stiles, 2012, para. 14)

The rest cure was thought to be a solution for women who malfunction when it comes to binary gender ideals. The Victorian ideal, that is, the angel in the house, has specific characteristics owing to her submissive personality and altruistic tendencies. The renowned writer Virginia Woolf describes the infamous angel in the house as follows:

She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of the family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in itin short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. (Woolf, 1931, para. 4)
Figure 2: "The Sick Girl (La malade)" (Vallotton, 1892).

Consequently, this Victorian ideal exercised a strong influence on the heteronormative understanding of gender and sex. This notion can be observed in the short story when the protagonist talks about her mental health issues as an obstacle in her way of shouldering the duty as a good wife when she declares, I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!’’ (Gilman, 1892, para. 2). Accordingly, those who do not reflect the very essence of a quiet, helpful, nurturing, and subservient angel would be prescribed to be a bedridden woman prayed for by many and approved by a few. Suppose the woman, on top of not possessing the characteristics of an ideal wife who serves her husband in his time of need and looks after her children, desires to put her brain into practical use and make it experience intellectual exposure. In that case, she, tragically, might have to be exiled from society and obligated to stop indulging in creative outlets that stimulate her brain. Hence, the domestic perimeters became a site for gender-based oppression, a prerequisite location for 19th-century women to be associated with, resulting in skirted confinement.

The rest cure, then, shows signs to be a certain kind of torture where physical autonomy is awfully limited, if not non-existent. Having been stripped of one’s bodily independence and the lack of a definitive self-decision-making mechanism further punishes the sufferer into a spiral of mental slope. Therefore, this treatment is thoroughly knotted with hefty chains to the very belly of patriarchal oppression since, at the core of its obsolete approach to the patient, there is abuse, nonconsensual conduct and enforcement. The micromanaging aspect of the cure sheds light on the underlying motivation behind this tainted and twisted approach to the patient and their individuality. Hence, the short story stands as a social commentary on the real and, indeed, experienced awful conditions by women. The medical case story is, therefore, another form of patriarchal discourse.

Figure 3: "A convalescent young woman reading" (Bles, 19th century).
The Metaphorical Tearing of the Yellow Wallpaper as a Means of Escape

The yearning for total liberty from every form of subjugation echoed through and through in women’s minds when the rest cure was proudly prescribed loud and clear. Likewise, The Yellow Wallpaper’’’s protagonist scrutinizes the woman behind the pattern, the manifestation of all her troubles, and starts to tear it down slowly but surely with hopes that she can help her escape. This action for aid can be read as the protagonist's attempt to dilute the enormity of her ailment regarding her own confinement and overall state within the secluded mansion, kept away from society, her newborn, and her family. The rest cure strips the protagonist of everything she knew earlier as to her life and does not provide her with new indulgences other than the terrible wallpaper that she has to observe since there is nothing else for her to do. In fact, even if there were other things with which she could occupy herself, her husband would not allow her to do so. Therefore, all the restrictive actions taken regarding her daily life worsen her state of mind, let alone heal her.

Gilman’s heroine is dependent on her husband, who uses his professional superiority to prolong the sickness and deterioration of his patient. However, Gilman provides a possible salvation, an escape from this vicious treatment. The feminine victim can be salvaged by gaining liberty over oppression and isolation. Although this salvation is possible, it demands a sacrifice. For the woman, the sacrifice is her sanity, as insanity provides a sense of anarchy and lawlessness toward the rules and regulations of society. It is the total denunciation of conformity provided by the cost of sanity. Therefore, Gilman emphasizes why she wrote the short story: It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked’’ (Gilman, 1913, para. 9).

Figure 4: The Yellow Wallpaper Book Cover (Gutenberg, 1899).
The Symbolism Behind The Yellow Wallpaper

The substantial symbolism ladened by The Yellow Wallpaper’’ is a certain acknowledgment of the condition under which the protagonist is. The wallpaper gradually appears to be less bearable for the woman, paralleling her mental condition. The woman figure behind the pattern is trying to escape the confining wallpaper. This exertion for liberty is an evocative action for the protagonist's inner world. The more palpable the figure behind the pattern becomes in the eyes of the protagonist, the more fragile her sanity becomes. This linear descent, therefore, links the two concepts of confinement and sanity to one another and provides a cause-and-effect relationship considering the overall mental state of the protagonist. Hence, the rest cure befalls inconclusive and an absolute bane of a treatment. The inadequate and inhumane ways of the rest cure secure the protagonist's certain descent into literal madness when she starts creeping across the room in which she dwells during the period of her secluded treatment. Therefore, the wallpaper functions as a manifestation bearing the notions of an incarcerating environment and an oppressing approach.

The short story follows the woman’s approach to the wallpaper as well as her being influenced by it since, in the end, she wholly identifies with the wallpaper. On the one hand, the woman, upon giving birth to her son, experiences what is recognized today as postpartum depression; nevertheless, her husband does not necessarily take her condition seriously and believes she pretends to be sick. On the other hand, as a doctor, the husband’s approach to the rest cure is extremely strict, micromanaging his wife’s daily life regarding the food she eats, the people she interacts with, and her intellectual endeavors. Therefore, this oppressive approach reflects the male-dominant society’s desire to keep women inside the domestic sphere and refrain them from participating in creative outlets and social exchanges, thereby molding them down into the praised icon of the angel in the house studied above. Furthermore, the 'torturing' pattern of the wallpaper is a manifestation of the protagonist’s environment, which is governed by patriarchy and gender oppression. Women’s studies professor at the University of Illinois Paula Treichler writes, In 'The Yellow Wallpaper' we see consequences of the 'death sentence.' Woman is represented as childlike and dysfunctional. Her complaints are wholly circular, merely confirming the already-spoken patriarchal diagnosis’’ (Treichler, 1984, p. 71). The woman asks to be removed from the confining atmosphere, especially the room with the 'horrid paper' and barred windows. Yet again, the husband is far better at assessing her needs and requirements to heal and better her mental state; therefore, they stay in the 'haunted' mansion, as described by the woman. This marks the woman’s acknowledgment that the wallpaper is a permanent element in her life. As the rest cure continues to be a part of her life, the woman is left with nothing but examining the wallpaper all day and night. She recognizes the sub-pattern under the wallpaper, the figure of a woman lurking behind and trying to escape by shaking the pattern. Utterly absorbed by the alive paper, the woman starts to tear it down ever so slightly in order to help the woman figure escape from its pattern. On their last day of the rest cure, she locks the door to her room and tears the whole paper down. Her husband barges in and faints at the sight of his wife, creeping across the room, uttering I’ve got out at last,’’ and And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’’ (Gilman, 1892, para. 11). Then, the woman continues to creep over her husband’s body. This quotation further sheds light on the wallpaper as a stand-in for her imprisonment. However, her freedom will be one that is extremely short-lived since her husband has merely fainted, not died. This means that a limited sense of liberation from the patriarchy is attainable on the condition that one expenses their sanity, and the limitation is brought by the time period in which the freedom is experienced, which is fatally feeble.

Figure 5: Black and White Illustration (Hatfield, 1892).

The prescribed confinement, its terminal influence on the woman’s psychology, and the linear relationship between the razing states of the woman’s psyche and the wallpaper can be observed thoroughly as the story progresses. The story confirms that the patriarchal status quo is permanent, notwithstanding the magnitude and extent of the sacrifice. The rest cure is prescribed owing to the fact that women’s mental illnesses are seen as secondary cases diagnosed as hysteria and not as real problems caused by physiological imbalances. Consequently, restrictive actions taken as preventatives regarding the patient’s personal space and individuality are arrangements conducted to protect and maintain the status quo of conventional and binary gender dynamics and expectations, resulting in imprisonment in the archaic social order. In conclusion, Gilman’s short story provides significant insight into gender bias in the fields of health and medicine, thereby highlighting the concept of secondary sex concerning the fallible approach to women’s health issues. Due to its tendency to be a lighthouse for other women, the short story also functions as a wrecking ball to demolish the pillars on which patriarchal discourse reigns.

Bibliographical References

Gilman, C. P. (1892). The Yellow Wallpaper [1999 eBook edition]. The Project Gutenberg.

Gilman, C. (1931). Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper? Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 17(4), 265-265. doi:10.1192/apt.17.4.265.

Stiles, A. (2012, October). Anne Stiles, “The rest cure, 1873-1925.” BRANCH.

Treichler, P. A. (1984). Escaping the sentence: Diagnosis and discourse in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 3(1/2), 71.

Woolf, V. (2020, December 3). Woolf, Professions for Women (1931). Literature Cambridge.

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Yasemin Değirmenci

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