Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an American writer, lecturer, and feminist intellectual whose literary output apart from being devoted to social, political, and economic injustice in general, is mostly sacrificed to the rights of women and their unequal status in society. The work which perfectly depicts all her ideas and believes is “The Yellow Wallpaper” – a short story, first published in 1892 in “The New England Magazine”(Gray, 316). It is a collection of journal entries written by a woman who suffers from nervous depression. Her husband John, a physician, takes her to the rented summer house in order to cure her. There the woman is forbidden from working, confined to the upstairs bedroom of a house, and controlled all the time by the husband. Contemporarily, the story seems to be regarded by many literary critics as one of the most important works of American feminist literature. “The Yellow Wallpaper” perfectly illustrates dominating in the 19th-century attitudes towards women’s physical and mental problems. Moreover, it deals with women’s weakness, society’s control, and all constraints imposed on them by it. The narrator of the story is the representative of all women in the late 19th century. She is a kind of a prisoner of society, she is manipulated by it and deprived of her own identity. As we may observe, the feminist aspect in this story is the dominating one. If carefully examined, it may lead us to the conclusion that it is a man, a society, and a medical science who dominate and oppress a woman, contributing at the same time to her mental disorders.
The first aspect I would like to focus on is the issue of a man and his contribution to the woman’s descent into depression. In the 19th women of all classes were politically powerless, forced to conform to the dependence of males and patterns of everyday life that were dictated by them as well. Therefore, shaped throughout the course of history clear distinction of roles within marriage remained unchanged. Women performed all domestic functions and were docile to men. This deeply rooted gender division prevented women from proper intellectual development and fulfilling their inner desires. The narrator’s husband, John, keeps his wife in his shadow and decides about every aspect of her life. He is a typical man of the 19th century – respected, well-educated, rational, and factual. John is “practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures. (Gilman,) It is he who recognizes the narrator’s mental disorder, who treats her and controls them as he is a physician. It is him who decides about spending the summer in one of the colonial mansions, which does not take the wife’s fancy. Moreover, John and his brother – also a physician – categorically forbids the woman to work until she would completely recover. However, the narrator thinks otherwise: “Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.”(Gilman,) Clearly, the narrator thinks that prohibition on working, in this case, writing, would not be helpful on her way to get well. Furthermore, John constantly plans his wife’s free time and takes over her housework. “I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me.”(Gilman, ) The forced inactivity and having no say in the smallest detail of her life drives the narrator insane. She gradually shuts herself away, retreats into her obsessive fantasy. What is more, the continual feeling of being ungrateful as she cannot appreciate her husband’s efforts also reinforces the descent into a mental disorder. She has pricks of conscience because it is not John who should be helpful and supportive but her. Apart from prohibiting working and constant control, John determines where and when his wife should move around. Even though she is allowed to walk through the garden or to go out on the veranda and sit there to take a rest, she spends most of her time in the room upstairs.
The second aspect which is worth mentioning is the social attitude and woman weakness as a source of woman’s suppression. The protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a perfect example of the victim of a patriarchal system. She represents all sufferers who have lost their self-belief and identity, because of their imbalanced mental state, pointing at the same time to society’s perception of those people. The narrator is isolated from society as the program of her treatment does not allow for any kind of entertainment, taking part in the social events and drastic changes in daily life. Nothing but a constant rest would do well for her. That is the dominating conviction. However, she feels the opposite: “Congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.”(Gilman, ) This is not only her own way of thinking, but as she stands for all mentally disordered people, it is the crying voice of the masses. Being deprived of any entertainment, trapped in one place does not lead to the recovery but to the deterioration of one’s state. Society wrongly turns away itself from the sick. Such isolation, distance, and avoidance enhance the illness’ progress – not the other way round. Unfortunately, society constantly drives out this notion as it demands more endeavor and sacrifice. Isolation is a more convenient and easy to perform solution. Society’s oppressive nature is also revealed in the interference in one’s choice of profession. The protagonist writes a journal. One may say that there is nothing indecent in it, if not the fact that it goes beyond the social restrictions of that time. Since writing is an inappropriate occupation for women in societal norms and it falls under society’s condemnation and disapproval, the narrator must write in secret. Another factor contributing to the psychological health problems in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a personal weakness. It is a hindrance to the protagonist’s proper communication and it lessens her chances to express inner emotions and needs. Almost all her attempts to make John attentive and to gain something fall to nothing. “I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished.”(Gilman, ) By crying, the protagonist unfolds her weakness and confirms John in his belief that she needs to be under his control. The moment she outbursts with the cry, she loses a chance to take her husband to the proposal. Because of her incapability to communicate properly and voice opposition when needed, she reinforces her own meekness.
The last aspect I would like to elaborate on is the development of medical science in the 19th century and its impact on the perception of women. By the 1860s, medicine was going through so many grave changes. The germ theory of disease was invented, physicians have started to use anesthetics, antiseptics, but the greatest achievement of those times was Darwin’s theory of evolution. (…) It has entirely changed the perception of all mechanisms which can be found in the natural environment. As far as the women are concerned, the theory tore them to pieces. First of all, Darwin assigned women one and the most important role – being a key tool for reproduction. According to him, the women’s worth was assessed on the basis of their abilities to reproduce. Therefore, it goes without saying, that women were even evolutionary and medically capable only of taking care of children and supporting their families. Darwin explained the lack of women’s participation in the strengthening of their minds in terms of being unnecessary in the formation of the child or raising it. “Nature requires less from women because their role in procreation is purely physical.”(…) A similar attitude was prevailing in the field of education and brain development. Women were forbidden from higher education as their brains were not equipped to think logically. Scientists and physicians claimed that women were not capable of grasping knowledge, processing it, and finally making use of it. There was a kind of board line, a level which was beyond their reach. All these aspects made physicians treat women in the same way. They found for all women only one explanation for any health problems they faced up – exhaustion and disorders of the reproductive organs. Therefore, they prescribed them taking a rest, long walks, and prevent any intellectual endeavors. This attitude and activities are perfectly mirrored in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. John forbids his wife to work intellectually, he takes over her housework, advises her to rest, and do not worry about anything.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a brilliant story that presents a wide panorama of 19th-century society with its faults and merits. It deals with the undoubtedly difficult situation of women, their oppression, subordination to men, and more importantly the side effects of all those factors. The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one of those hounded ladies. She is submissive to her husband, constantly feels the prevailing all-around social principles. She is trapped in a world that does not allow her to live life to the full. No one takes her seriously so she gradually becomes withdrawn, has pricks of consciousness which leads her to paranoia and mental instability. Therefore, I claim that in the light of all the aspects mentioned above, it clearly appears that the man domination, social constraints, as well as the development of medical science in the 19th century, undoubtedly contribute to the oppression of women and their mental disorders. Absolute domination and control leave no chance for getting the protagonist’s feelings off her chest. In such a situation remaining mentally equilibrated seems to be unattainable.