Women in the 19th-Century Society: The Yellow Wallpaper



Literature is an artistic and intellectual way of not only addressing individuality but also the norms of society. For centuries, the literary world has been the cornerstone of relief of social spasms arising from disorder, passivity, and dictatorship as the reflection of the social reality. Thanks to literature’s powerful impact, it is possible to bring a new communal perspective with its critical and natural impulses. Writers, additionally, are the creators of the individual and social atmosphere. An author could build social awareness by creating a target audience instead of remaining silent. Thus, they transport community to different perspectives towards current social perception. In this regard, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of the most influential authors who chose the target that was the fundamental issue in 19th-century society: gender inequality.



Literature & Society


Charlotte Perkins Gilman, besides being a humanist and novelist, was also a utopian feminist. Through her innate intellect and depth of knowledge, she paved the way towards social equality. Her work called “The Yellow Wallpaper” emphasizes the importance of 19th-century social facts, individual roles, and most importantly, gender discrimination. In other words, in several of her novels, Gilman makes an effort to create a world seen from a feminist perspective. It is crucial to mention that Gilman broke taboos of the 19th– century social mentality towards women’s role through her powerful depictions, symbolic and imaginary expressions, which are still baseline elements of today’s literary world. Her novel, The Yellow Wallpaper is an example of Gilman’s works that focuses on how women are more than just the stay-at-home mothers they are supposed to be. The novel critically highlights the psychology of women after childbirth and the negative impacts of 19th-century psychological treatment given to women. In other words, Gilman pays attention to the effects of the patriarchal system on women whose aspirations require a world where women are just as important as men.


(Credit: Charlotte Perkins Gilman)


"The Yellow Wallpaper" provided readers with a feminist point of view in literature. It is one of the canonical gothic novels which portraits madness and weakness. According to the genre, there are certain features of Gothic novels:

· The story contains bleak or remote places.

· The plot involves macabre or violent incidents.

· Characters are in psychological and physical torment.


These features are the fundamental aspects of the social reflection of the basic 19th-century women in the novel. Moreover, the story is a first-person account of a young mother’s mental deterioration. The plot reflects Gilman’s own experience with postpartum depression. The unnamed protagonist tells her story of depression and mental deterioration. At the beginning of the story, the unnamed protagonist’s husband takes her to a country house, where she is forced to stay in a former nursery decorated with yellow wallpaper. Her husband, John, classifies his wife as ”sick” thereby personifying the prevailing attitude of the patriarchal society. She spends all her time in the bedroom doing nothing following her doctor’s orders. Following the norms of mental patient's treatment in the 19th-century, it was forbidden for people with psychological problems to have an occupation or a hobby. In particular this applied to mothers who experienced postnatal depression: they were not allowed to read, sing, write or even see their babies under the name of the Rest Cure. The narrator criticizes this way of treating patients because she thinks that it is unhealthy and ineffective. That is why she has to keep her diary a secret, that fills up her time in the bedroom. However, as time passes, she sees the yellow wallpaper that activates her. Gradually, she loses her mind and commences to imagine different women figures on the wall.


There are things in that paper which nobody knows but me, or ever will.

Behind that outside pattern, the dim shapes get clearer every day.

It is always the same shape, only very numerous.

And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern.

(Credit: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman)


(Credit: Interior with White Chair by Peter Vilhelm Ilsted, 1907)


The narrator imagines a woman in the pattern who is imprisoned behind the bars. The figure endeavors to escape, but she doesn't succeed. In other words, she cannot be free. The unnamed protagonist decides to save her and begins to peel away the wallpaper. Yet, she cannot get all of it off. She goes mad and thinks about committing suicide. After a short break, she changes her mind as she realizes that committing suicide would be improper in society for a mother. At the end of the story, her husband John sees his wife peeling off the wallpaper and how she is out of her control. He is so shocked that he faints. In this part, Gilman becomes ironic about gender equality: women characters in the novels are usually the ones who always faint, yet in this scene, the character who faints is a man rather than a woman.

Symbolism


As stated previously, the most obvious and essential symbol in the story is the yellow wallpaper. Most critics have claimed that the yellow wallpaper is the reflection of the protagonist’s state of mind. Besides, it can be said that the yellow wallpaper symbolizes the women who lived in 19th-century society. To explain this profoundly, the yellow wallpaper contains ”pointless patterns”, ”lame, uncertain curves’‘, and ”outrageous angles”. When it comes to the meaning of these adjectives, there is no doubt that the yellow wallpaper echoes with the stereotypical perception of women as unpredictable, irrational, and self-destructive. Another symbolic figure would be the woman trapped in the wallpaper. She reflects the unnamed protagonist’s emotional and mental process. The narrator, like the trapped women, represses her anger leading her to insanity. The symbol of the nursery room, on the other hand, represents 19th-century society’s conception of women. Put differently, according to the social perception of 19th-century society, a woman was seen as a child that should be taken care of due to their ”weakness”. It is not surprising that the novel was written in 1892, the last decade of the Victorian Period in Britain. Not to mention of the fact that in the 1800s, the common law of female coverture was prevalent in the United States. The Victorian Period had a conservative morality.


(Credit: Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1916)


Femme Coverture: It was a law in the U.S. According to the law, women had no civil and individual rights. They were under the protection of their fathers or husbands. Coverture was increasingly criticized as patriarchal during the advent of the women’s rights movement in the mid-nineteenth century, excluding women from practicing ordinary property rights and pursuing a career. In 1869, the first organization devoted to women’s right were established: National Woman Suffrage Association. By 1890, such organizations had reached a total of 500.000 members.


This article deals with the brief history of 19th-century society and the perception that feminism had of this period by analyzing one of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short stories named "The Yellow Wallpaper". Taking everything into account, the most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that Gilman, as a leading feminist and social activist, claimed that women’s social status was not a result of biological inferiority but of culture and society's enforced behaviour patterns. Gilman asserted that the realization of paradise was dependent on women's "mother instinct," and she campaigned for "greater motherhood." She also stated that women should attain economic independence by working in specialized occupations since there is a double standard in marriage since men and women cannot be treated equally. She despised the meaningless occupations that women undertook in their life, which had become mainly confined as a result of marriage and had devolved into domestic bondage in exchange for food and shelter. These struggles, according to Gilman, were the primary cause of women's lack of vision and atrophy in social relationships. Thus, "The Yellow Wallpaper" serves as a crucial criticism of the position of women in society, especially after marriage. It is the vital opposition to the idea that women's only duty was to take care of their children and their spouse, and were prevented from expressing themselves.


In the 1800s, Gilman actively spoke to the annual California Women's Congress about improving the social and moral conditions of women. At the same time, she was exhibiting a feminist and reformist stance. Hence, she was commemorated as the most qualified leader of the women's revolt in the patriarchal society of the period.


”One girl reads this, and takes fire! Her life is changed. She becomes a power – a mover of others – I write for her.”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman


Resources and References;


- T.C. Yeditepe University, Literary Genres 108 Lecture Notes (2021)

- The Yellow Wallpaper. (2018). [E-book].

- Allen, J. A. (2009). The Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Sexualities, Histories, Progressivism (Women in Culture and Society) (1st ed.) [E-book]. University of Chicago Press.

- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Charlotte Perkins Gilman | Life, Books, The Yellow Wallpaper, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved April 24, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charlotte-Perkins-Gilman


Image Resources;


- The Yellow Wallpaper. (n.d.). [Illustration]. Pinterest. https://tr.pinterest.com/pin/170925748328370484/

- Wilhelm, P. (n.d.). Interior with White Chair [Painting]. Pinterest. https://tr.pinterest.com/pin/480196379020454825/

- Charlotte Perkins Gilman. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Petrol-İş Kadın Dergisi. https://www.petrol-is.org.tr/kadindergisi/sayi61/charlotte.htm

Documentaries;

- Gender in 19th Century Britain. (2014, December 19). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkJJFX8Qn90


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