Essay on Oppression in 'The Yellow Wallpaper'

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The oppression of women refers to a more insidious type of manipulation and control of women. Little Women by Louisa Alcott was published in 1868. It was written in the 1860s and was set in the civil war where the mum and the four sisters live in a neighborhood in Massachusetts in refined poverty. This book is about four sisters who have tight bonds and the different ways their lives pan out through being oppressed into confining to societal roles such as getting married and being a housewife and performing the expressive role. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was published in 1892. The Yellow Wallpaper was written in 1890 and set in America, in an isolated large summer home in the countryside. This book is about an insane woman who is judged and made to seem mad by her husband. The characters in Little Women have more freedom even though they are in the middle of a Civil War compared to The Yellow Wallpaper who feels more trapped because of the husband. These poems explore the oppression of women by men and society through male pressure and being labeled as childlike.

Alcott goes against the oppression of women through Jo who is the second oldest daughter of the March sisters by making her against the stereotypes of a standard woman during the 19th century. During the Victorian period, women were expected to find a husband, act decorously, and not focus on their careers over starting a family. When Jo is referring to how she would act in marriage as 'I'll try to be what he loves to call me a little woman'. (Alcott 15)This reveals men labelling their wives and shows the title as a mocking title for women making them give up their dreams insinuating that women should behave how they are told to. Alcott has contrasted these stereotypes by making Jo a strident Tomboy through her physical attributes such as her cutting her hair short this would be seen as a mental breakdown and it would bring shame to the March family. Alcott did this to reflect her views on how society works by making Jo stick out in society and not accept her role as a woman. Jo denied Laurie's marriage request even though she knew they were suitable together by saying 'You, you are, you're a great deal too good for me' (Alcott 353) Alcott has used the stumbling repetition of 'you' as a direct address to remind Laurie Jo cares for him but can't change her aspirations. The noun phrase of 'a great deal too good for me' shows the self-belief of women thinking that they are inferior to men due to society. The repetition of the letter 'Y' gives a coarse and aggressive tone of Jo trying to inform Laurie she doesn't want him. Alcott does this to exhibit the idea that men don't listen to women's opinions and still try and get what they want after they have been told they can't have it. She then carries on this concept by making Laurie continue to persistently try to change Jo's mind by convincing her he will be ' a perfect saint, for you could make me anything you like'(Alcott 355)Here again, the use of alliteration is used in 'make me' to emphasize the letter 'm' which insinuates an empathetic tone because it makes Jo feel guilty for her decision and the imperative makes it sound as Laurie is suggesting she can have power in the relationship when we know this would not be the case. The image of 'A perfect saint' displays contemporary attitudes that men can do no wrong like Laurie getting drunk all the time with no judgement whereas women needed to act 'ladylike'. These attitudes are repeated in society through the way women were prepared in education to perform in society. They are taught to speak well, cook, and clean whereas men would learn skills to get jobs and a good education. It also relates to the societal views that women should play the expressive role and care for the man while the man should play the instrumental role and get treated by the women at home. Alcott has made Jo deny Laurie to show her conflicting views on the role of women. Critically, this denied marriage proposal has an underlying message that women are oppressed socially by the expectations and judgment of choosing not to marry. However, Alcott displays that however hard a young girl in society tries to rebel against the social expectations of women they will always have to at some point conform with them. Jo's purpose here is to educate the audience on the standards of women and show you don't have a choice in the 19th century to go against the expectations of women. Jo tries so hard not to get married yet at the end of the book gives up her writing to marry Professor Bhaer losing her headstrong independence. Alcott indicates that women are oppressed by the ideas in the society of marriage and have to conform to them even if they try their hardest not to. Usually for the sake of not putting shame on their family.

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This is contrasted in The Yellow Wallpaper where Gilman has made the narrator feel trapped in her marriage with no alternative but to stay whereas Alcott has shown Jo more of a choice in marriage. However, both writers show the way women feel pressured to have a partner. Gilman has written in the first person despite the narrator never being given recognition for her story by not being named whereas Alcott names Jo giving her more choice in life than the narrator. This reflects on the time when women were expected to care for a man and if they didn't they would have been harshly judged by society. This can be shown through the eyes of the law that when women are married they are then the husband's property. During the 1860s the start of the suffragette movement was arising as in 1866 the Great Reform Act allowed women to vote. Gilman was a very impacting feminist so this law change would have influenced her in this book to show other struggles women face such as mental health. By the narrator not being named the audience would have sympathized with her because they see the control from her husband. Her husband's being named really showed the gender divide in roles within the family and the lack of support for women going through mental health issues. The name 'John' comes from a Hebrew origin meaning that 'God is gracious' This shines a light on discrimination against women because John is a high-standing physician meaning he has the power of his wife even in the bible women are patriarchal. John asks her 'What is it, little girl?' (Gilman 23). The phrase 'little girl' it is referring to her as unavailing and explains that she can't fend for herself. He then continues to tell her 'Don't go walking about like that - you'll get cold'(Gilman 23) The negative imperative of 'don't' suggests an aggressive tone in his voice; this continues to be apparent when he states 'walking about like that-' it suggests John is judging her for what she is wearing as he doesn't want her to be seen as a whore. In the Victorian era, women were expected to cover up, and by not wearing many clothes you were 'asking for it' which again shows us the societal unfair 'rules' put in place for women leading to their oppression. He then pauses and states 'you'll get cold'. The dramatic pause tells us he is making up an excuse as to why he would not want her to wear that but the audience knows the real reasons behind what he is saying. However, Susan Lanser in her journal 'Feminist Criticism, 'The Yellow Wallpaper' and the Politics of Colour in America' Lanser stated that Gliman argues that 'American children made 'better citizens' than 'the more submissive races'. She argues Gilman was racist and only spoke about the ways that white women were oppressed. In my opinion, I agree that Gilman only took the view of the white american and ignored other races. This is wrong because she was meant to be a feminist therefore should want equality for everyone.

Alcott has presented the oppression of women through the setting of the girl's house being in the middle of nowhere in Concord, Massachusetts. Across the road from their house is a glamorous mansion owned by Laurie's grandfather. Straight away this shows the women living in poverty and the men living in luxury. This reflects the societal ideas that men should have an education and earn money whereas because there is only one man in the March family they have a lot less income. Being in the middle of nowhere gives the idea that they have no other option than to stay there for their mother. An example of the March Families' poverty would be the lack of presents they had a Christmas. Jo complains to her mother that 'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents' (Alcott 7) This shows the children only have what is essential. It also shows the children being very materialistic from other people in society such as peers in school. The repetition of 'Christmas' shows Jo's frustration towards the fact she is poor and her belief that it won't be the same as a rich person's Christmas. Marxist feminists would argue that society has planted the ideas in her head that money creates happiness and that capitalism makes women think the only way to get money is to marry rich and not make their own living. The only sister who doesn't complain about the presents is Beth who ironically dies showing that being nice won't get far in life. Alcott makes Meg, the oldest daughter, marry a poor man to show the struggle women face to marry poor but for love. This is a contrast to her dreams because she intended to marry rich. Alcott does this to explain life doesn't always go the way society tells you it will.

This relates a lot to Alcott's life because she grew up in poverty due to her father Amos Bronson Alcott failing to provide enough money for her family and moving them around a lot in Massachusetts. She reflects on her sister's death through Beth's death in the book. Alcott also became the first woman to vote in Massachusetts and portrays a lot of her suffragette mindset onto Jo. Alcott describes 'Jo's ambition was to do something very splendid' (Alcott 44) This shows Jo being capable of great things. Jo is seen as a foil for Alcott and by her saying this it shows Alcott was very ambitious and wanted to achieve life on her own as well. Alcott shows how poverty makes it harder for young women in poverty to achieve and how they end up being oppressed by society's standards. This is evident through Stephanie Foote's journal arguing about the class and gender called 'resentful little women'. In this journal, she argues she sees the negative emotions of the March girls and their setbacks due to class such as Jo struggling to post her story.

The image of being trapped in a small town is also represented in The Yellow Wallpaper where Gilman has placed this family in the country house located three miles away from the nearest town. The country is known for being in the middle of nowhere meaning her insanity is inevitable and she feels trapped with no escape. Gilman actually experienced depression herself and this was due to her father leaving and her being moved around a lot. She was married twice which foreshadows the narrator getting divorced from her husband if she felt the same way. The fact he put up the yellow wallpaper makes us blame him for her depression much as Gilman blamed her father. She describes getting over the wallpaper as 'You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you.' (Gilman 25) The metaphor of the wallpaper 'slapping, knocking, and trampling' her down shows her insanity starting. The triplication and verbs show the endless work and pressure that mothers have to face after having a baby. It refers to the trifle shift that women face in housework, childcare and sometimes paid work. She sees the wallpaper as a task to get over and describes herself as having 'mastered it'. This demonstrates how she is secluded by location and that she has nothing else to do but feel trapped by her husband. The rule of three of 'slaps you in the face, knocks you down and tramples upon you' could refer to domestic violence in the home which women faced at this time for speaking up about their problems. It also could refer to the struggle of talking about her illness, getting her voice heard, and the pain of just being labeled 'mad' by her husband. Gilman has placed her in a nursery which reinforces the idea in society that women are childlike and helpless. The house is described as having gates that lock. The image of a lock and key suggests she can't get anywhere without a key which in this instance is the husband. The house is a motif that relates to the gothic horror genre. It is seen as a gothic horror because there is a damsel in distress throughout the book as the woman is trapped and doesn't have control over her own life. Another way it could be seen as a gothic horror would be through the atmosphere of the play being awkward and scary. Gilman has done this to show the fear some women had of their husbands whereas in Little Women this was not a problem.

Little Women shows some breaking of the social norms. During the 19th century, women were seen as playing a role to look after the husband in an expressive role. However, during the civil war, the husband would be away the majority of the time so the women would have to step up and perform all the roles of the family. Alcott shows this by the sisters coming together to help their mother. The sisters collect their own money to buy their 'Marmee' (Alcott 19) a present. This reinforces the idea of childlike behaviors. By nicknaming their mother, Alcott is showing they are still dependent on their mother much like a child, and portrays the idea of them being childlike through them not having any responsibilities. This idea came about by the patriarchal society and was reinforced by writers such as Charles Dickens who wrote about the industrial revolution the class divide and the situation of the poor. This is evident in his plays such as Oliver Twist which showed the journey of Oliver (a boy) in poverty. It showed his journey to a happy life. There are three main female characters. One is Rose Maylie who has a 'girly' name and is supposed to show Oliver positive pathways. This shows women as pretty and only good at giving motherly advice. Due to the stereotype of boys being more influenced by men, this is why it is a very patriarchal book because women were not seen as very helpful during this time period. This is conveyed in Little Women when Meg March claims 'Poor girls don't stand any chance' This is a metaphor for men in society not taking women's ambitions seriously. This shows women as being unhelpful because the women are described as 'ambitious' but are not talked about helping society when in reality it is because they aren't accepted to help. Because of texts like this Louisa Alcott wanted to show women as the main breadwinner when the father is gone. Her ideas are conveyed through Jo March stating 'I'd rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.' This metaphor of life is explaining the image that Jo March would rather be on her own and get her own career than marry rich. The contrast between a free spinner and a canoe is reinstated through the free spinner not having a course and could land in any direction whereas a canoe always has a destination. However, critics such as Hillary Kelly argue that Little Women is not a feminist novel because all the girls end up getting married and ditching their dreams to work for their husbands for the rest of their lives. I disagree with this critique because Little Women shows the story of the mother and the four girls going through life without a man and it conveys the message women don't need men to live. Also just because the women get married it doesn't mean they gave up their careers for the man and you can still get married but have your own opinions on societal viewpoints.

Gilman doesn't take this approach of the narrator but actually shows the extent of female oppression by the motif of the yellow wallpaper representing the main character as trapped in a situation the man essentially caused. Her husband tried numerous times to constrain her but this only worsens her condition. The journal is a major motif in this poem showing her trying to escape her horrid life. This gives the reader the sense that she wants to get out because she doesn't tell the husband about her journal and reveals her own life which gives a glimpse of a feminist future. In today's society, it would be normalized to be a single parent but in the late 19th century single parents were given a hard time through judgment and threats. Gilman has shown the journal to reflect her own feelings of being trapped in her first marriage and to reiterate her beliefs on feminism. Back in the 19th century, psychics dealt with women's health very differently from today and they believed that the cure for depression or mental illness would be isolation and rest. Therefore this can be critically argued that John was just taking professional advice because he was maybe scared of her looking after the baby. Gilman only mentions the baby twice in the book. This is done to remind the audience that the narrator can not fulfill her feminine role. This is apparent when the narrator envies Mary exclaiming 'It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I can not be with him, it makes me so nervous.' (Gilman 14)The name 'Mary' gives a correlation to the Bible and the birth of Jesus and suggests that her baby was meant to be really special to her however she fails to see this. Here Gilman highlights the real 'reason' for women in society. The exclamatory 'dear baby!' shows the audience her frustration with postnatal depression. The fact she doesn't use the possessive noun of 'my' also emphasizes this. She goes on to say the baby makes her nervous which gives her a childlike persona because she can't even look after herself. In the 19th century, she would have been seen as an outcast and not accepted by society which relates to little women and Jo always feeling like an outcast to her family. This is due to the oppression of women through expectations such as giving birth being put on them.

In Conclusion, Little Women shows oppression but not as harshly as The Yellow Wallpaper because the March girls have more freedom. However, they are still socialized as childlike and taught to be 'ladylike' and in The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator is trapped and can't leave her room showing pressure from men and being socialized as childlike.

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Essay on Oppression in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. (2024, January 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from
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