The Yellow Wallpaper, an Argument for Abscence

I have been quite absent as of late from this wonderful world of blogging, having thrown myself quite completely into my scholarly pursuits. I have however achieved the apex of my term and am once again eager to write for my pleasure and ignite my blog with dreams that have sat too long in my journal and piled upon one another in a crowded and fussy fashion. My first post back after such a long hiatus then, will not be a dream, but a literary analysis, an excuse if you will, and strong argument for why I would ever leave my lovely blog to dangle aimlessly for so long. This is what I have been up to.

If you are as of yet unfamiliar with the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, I shall proffer a link:

http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/wallpaper.html

Here it is, literary analysis of one of my favorite short stories:

The Yellow Wallpaper: An Inspection of the Audacity of Hysteria

Melancholia and hypochondria amongst women during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been called a movement of “female individualism”-Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness. Women of the time would retreat to day spas to take their ease, or keep to their beds as if it were fashionable, with largely misunderstood conditions, symptoms of which were clustered together and shoved under the umbrella term of “hysteria” by men.

During this period, women’s health was a subject of study for men alone, treated and understood by a masculine system in which men controlled women’s physiological and psychological status by means of assigning illness or “mania,” for behaviors that today we might explain as anything from post-partum depression to the very innocent act of masturbation. Thus both sexes perpetuated the idea of “practical” men presiding over a widespread epidemic of mental weakness in women.

Throughout Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, one woman’s struggle against an oppressive, patriarchal system is brought to light, challenging the societal norms of the period and raising the question that a man’s prescriptions for feminine well-being may well be an absurd institution in itself.

Gilman ties the protagonist’s slow downward spiral as it becomes more and more irrational, to the very rational argument that when men are allowed to control the diagnoses and treatment of women’s health issues, it is indeed to disastrous effect. She uses the piece to call attention to the fact that trying to control a woman’s wellbeing through a “schedule prescription,”(Gillman 1685) is a deranged thought indeed and as we see in her piece, it only serves to lead the protagonist, who at first appears of sound mind, into the true hysteria and madness she is originally accused of suffering from.

 

When the speaker first enters the house, she wonders thoughtfully, “if a physician of high standing and one’s own husband assures friends and family that there is really nothing the matter with one…but a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?”(Gillman 1684) She is speaking of her husband John here, and elaborates to the reader that he not only tells her what her opinions are, claiming to know more about how she feels than she, a woman, possibly could, but he physically controls her schedule. She is forbidden to do things she feels would make her feel better such as write, (which she manages to sneak anyways), or attempt to evoke more, “society and stimulus,” within her life, yet she herself defers to his judgment despite admitting, “Personally, I disagree with their ideas.”(Gillman 1684)

This was a time when women took airs, visited spas to drink special tonics and would on occasion retire to their bedchambers a la Mrs. Bennett and her “nerves.” Gillman put it into terms, “American men have bred a race of women weak enough to be handed about like invalids; or mentally weak enough to pretend they are – and like it.”-Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.  In Yellow Wallpaper we glimpse that the “ill” wife seems to be quite normal.

She writes of the beauty of the house and grounds claiming, “There is a delicious garden!”(Gillman 1685) She continues on saying that thinking about her condition, “always makes (her) feel bad,”(Gillman 1684) and we learn that it is not her self-prescribed writing that tires her most, but the act of being forced to do it in secret, taking great care not to be caught, “It does exhaust me a great deal – having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.” (Gillman 1684) She is so deferent to her husband in fact, that she censures herself saying, “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes…I think it’s due to this nervous condition,”(Gillman 1685) when he tells her her thoughts and feelings are essentially silly and wrong, and that he knows better.

Gilman proposes a very politically fueled challenge as the story progresses, against the idea of “common hysteria” and its prescribed treatments. The second time that the speaker begins to write, she introduces a careful reader to a much more reasonable explanation for her depression. We become aware for the first time that she has given birth to a child, and it is strange that she only mentions herself and her husband in the beginning paragraphs. She also “cannot be with him,”(Gillman 1686) because she says he makes her far to “nervous.”

It seems quite possible in this section that she is in fact suffering from postpartum depression. Her husband the physician however, has already diagnosed her with a common case of “nerves” and through his inability or lack of want to understand, he condemns her condition to fester and grow quite atrociously. She morphs under his tyranny into one truly disturbed. As her opinions and feelings are dashed again and again and she is continually oppressed she becomes paranoid and all the while feels that she is to blame, “It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight. Just this nervous weakness I suppose.”(Gillman 1689) She begins to lean into the crutch of her illness offering it as a logical excuse for her increasingly bizarre actions and fancies like noticing a woman crawling about and trying to get out of the wall.

The wallpaper has now become a mirror through which she views her own misery. As the woman in the wall, “takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard,” (Gillman 1692) our narrator herself is found to be trapped within her own oppressive household, held down by John’s myopic opinions, his sister’s watchful gaze, and indeed the room itself with its sickly wallpaper. She rattles her own cage by first attempting to speak out, deciding that, “it was a good time to talk,” (Gillman 1690) to her husband. She tries hard to let him understand her feelings and begs to leave, but it is to no avail, thus she finally recedes into her own mind and becomes secretive and conniving. Much as the woman “creeps about,” our narrator sneaks around, becomes suspicious of everyone else and lies about her own feelings, having found that the only way to nurture them is within her own mind.

Finally Gilman reaches the crux of the issue, offering a staunch argument for women taking charge of their own healthcare; we finally see the full effect of her protagonist’s oppression. The woman has become manic, truly hallucinating as she spins round and round the room that the little hunched woman from inside the wallpaper is visible outside the windows, “always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight…in the long shaded lane creeping up and down.”(Gillman 1693) She becomes highly paranoid of John and his sister and withdraws so far into herself that she begins to creep about the room herself. Finally, with a cry of true, insane independence she cries, “I’ve got out at last!”(Gillman 1695) and we see John faint, as she continues to creep about.

I believe that this last altercation with her husband is indicative of women’s struggle to overcome male dominance when concerning matters better left to themselves. How can a man take charge of an issue concerning another sex entirely, especially if, as John does, he refuses to consult and mind the feelings and sentiments of his female patient? This final scene shows the main character breaking loose form this tyrannical influence, tearing down the wallpaper that is so symbolic of the oppression she feels every day being forced to comply with the will of another, she frees herself, by going insane.

As a woman, she takes control of her mind, though we now see it has felt the detrimental effects of John’s meddling, and partakes in the wild freedom of behaving exactly how she wishes unbound by his control. I find it equally symbolic that John himself when he realizes this faints on the spot. Symbolically, we can infer that once the woman takes control into her own hands and claims independence, the man must acquiesce and remove himself from the position of power allowing her to control her person as she sees fit.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself admits that she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper as a fictional response to her own experience being diagnosed with “hysteria” a few years prior. Her male doctor told her to lie and rest and that she should never write again, abandon her passions for artistic culture, and, “have but two hours intellectual life a day.”-Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.  After ascribing herself to this way of living she found that she simply couldn’t tolerate it any longer, and “cured” herself by taking matters into her own hands, returning to work, and beginning to write once more. She says that she felt she had “escaped” a much worse fate had she not stood up for herself and ignored the generally accepted good sense of the times. When she wrote this piece she was attempting to bring it to light that women needed to take matters into their own hands if they truly wish to be well, and as she found herself, she was not truly saved from her “illness” until she decided to take charge of her health herself.

For the time in which it is written we can consider Gilman truly revolutionary, not only for putting the sentiment out into the world, but for being in no small part responsible for changing the mindset of the times. She even admits of her own doctor, “The great specialist had admitted to his friends that he had altered his treatment… since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.” –Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.

The Yellow Wallpaper is a strong testament to free women from the control of men on the subject of personal health, offering a relatable description, a challenge, and a victory over the meddling male whose job he assumes it is to tell a woman how she really feels and thinks, despite her own opinions on the matter. Today’s society is a far different landscape of gender roles and we have made many great leaps and bounds towards equality between the sexes. I do believe however, that Gilman might roll over in her grave to see recent rulings by men concerning women’s health. We must always remember that though we have come very far already, there is still much to be done regarding equality of the sexes in our world.

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