One of the major goals of feminist literature is to determine what kind of voice women have or do not have in a world, dominated by men. Women are seen as not as important as men in humanity, and language is one of the tools used to emphasize men’s power over women. Often the world in literature is represented from a male point of view, yet female writers have continued to write. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper the author uses slight symbolism to tell the reader how the main character is really feeling while the literal text goes either talk like men or not talk at all. Even with these expectations, men have different experiences than women and women needed to find a way to express them, by finding their own style that includes specific themes, like mental illness, and women work on self expression. Mental illness and disease are common themes in North American feminist writing (Feminist Criticism, 173). This piece was written during what Showalter refers to as the Feminist phase, which was between 1880-1920 when omen protested against society’s standards and values. (Feminist Criticism and Jane Eyre, 462)
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Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of many women who used mental illness as a theme in her writing, as well as suffering from it in real life. As the story unfolds, the characters oppression from men and resulting mental illness takes shape. At the beginning, the author quickly makes it obvious who is dominant in her marriage, saying “John and myself” while writing in her personal diary. Even in her private thoughts she feels respectful to the men in her life. As quickly as she lets the reader know the way her relationship is set up, it becomes obvious that she has a very active imagination. She describes the house as “a haunted house”, which also is a foreshadowing to the conclusion of the story. Her resentment towards John is shown in small ways and is hard to detect, “John laughs at me, of course”. She is used to John thinking her ideas are a joke. Throughout the beginning of the story we learn all about John’s personality traits, a practical forceful physician. In describing John and emphasizing how different the two are, she implies that she is the opposite of his traits. Where he is practical, she is a dreamer. The juxtaposition of John and the narrator reflects the universal juxtaposition of men and women.
The dominance of men is undeniable, “He does not believe I’m sick”. The narrator has lost control to decide if she’s sick or not, one of the most basic things a person can determine. Her brother is another male figure who makes decisions for her. Although she disagrees, it is not something that she is vocal about. While describing herself, John and her brother the narrator does not use a lot of symbolism. However with the sentence “So I will let it alone and talk about the house”, the symbolism begins. Because she cannot argue in the realm of men, she chooses a different outlet for her feelings in issues surrounding the house. She describes the house and its surroundings as beautiful, she then says “There were greenhouses too, but they are all broken now”. It is common knowledge that greenhouses are areas of new life and growth, the fact that they are broken symbolizing the end of growing new life. The narrator was pregnant, and the idea of a broken greenhouse could symbolize depression relating to the pregnancy and not having the baby growing inside her anymore.
The narrators imagination is something that John expects her to control and change, his constant disapproval of her true personality is unavoidable. She does not disagree with John actively or in an upfront manner, even within the text. The houses features, especially the wallpaper, can be seen as a symbol for the narrator’s marriage and general feelings. John chooses for the two of them to live in the upstairs nursery, while the narrator preferred the prettier downstairs. “I don’t like our room one bit”. The narrators distaste for the nursery could also symbolize the fact that she did not want to have a child in the first place, which is also evident in the fact that she does not refer to the baby by name or show any desire to interact with it. Their room and shared space could be interpreted to mean their marriage, where it seems that she spends a lot of time alone. Even when attempting to describe John in a positive loving way such as, “He is so careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction” the narrator manages to imply that this is irritating and stifling. This isn’t genuine pleasure in this attention. She is not openly rebellious, yet her feelings of unhappiness towards male dominance cause her to feel “ungrateful” because she is aware of the role women are supposed to happily play.
She feels trapped, her unwanted nursery room is ugly and “the windows are barred”. This was once a precaution for children inhabiting the nursery, but now makes a cage like environment for the narrator and serves as a constant reminder of children. It also is a blatant symbol of the fact that the narrator is caged within a life she has no control over. Her hatred of tire room is intensified by her disgust with the wallpaper. She describes it as “committing every aesthetic sin”. At first glance, the wallpaper may be seen as insignificant. But upon closer inspection it can be obviously interpreted as a symbol for her marriage. She calls the wall paper “dull but irritating”, John is either leaving her which is boring or trying to control her life which is annoying. The narrator spends a countless amount of time studying the wall paper, “I start, we’ll say at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of conclusion”. This passage despite how frustrated she is, she continually complains of feeling a lack of strength. She is unable to truly change her situation and feels defeated by this.
John makes assumptions and assertions such as “You know the place is doing you good”, while the narrator is slowly slipping into madness. It shows his ignorance towards his wife’s situation, and men’s general ignorance of the well being of women. Also it makes it obvious that one person shouldn’t be making decisions for someone else, which was a major cause of unhappiness for women when men were accepted by society as the dominant gender. The narrator feels separated from her husband, there is a disconnected displayed by their inability to communicate, his lack of awareness of their needs and their marriage as a whole.
The fact that the narrator has been put in this room, symbolically her marriage, angers her and she makes this known “I would not be as silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim”. He makes her stay upstairs just because that is his preference, when he is often away. The narrator describes the wallpaper and her feelings towards it by saying,” I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and everlastingness”. Her marriage is something she cannot escape from, and she has no choice in the matter. The word choices made in this part of the story intensify the feeling of unhappiness, words such as “inharmonious” and sentences like “ravages the children have made here they must have had perseverance as well as hatred” convey a negative image.
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Yet as much as there is the narrator fights against the oppression of men there are moments within the text where she doesn’t do a very good job of making her case. “And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head” At times like this she enforces the idea that she is a child and needs to be babied. If this is the way she behaves than it is no wonder that he treats her the way he does. As much as the oppression is created by men it is accepted and at times encouraged by women.
Her tears and weakness are leading towards a mental breakdown. She begins to see a woman in the pattern, “stooping down and creeping about”. If her marriage is the wallpaper, than the woman behind it can be seen as the narrator’s subconscious. Her growing unhappiness makes the woman more and more noticeable. She lacks purpose, as she is not allowed to write, and this causes her over active imagination to engage. Her woman behind the pattern feels as she does, “the faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out”. The narrator desires to shake off her marriage as the woman tries to shake the pattern. The use of the word pattern is no accident either, as these types of relationships are the typical pattern followed by society at his time. As time progresses the narrator sinks deeper into her obsession with the woman in the wallpaper, perhaps her only means of escape from a situation she cannot change.
Finally the narrator gives way to madness, ripping at the wallpaper and creeping around the room causing her husband to faint. She hasn’t managed to escape the confines of her relationship, yet she is attempting to free the woman from behind the pattern of the wallpaper. Her obsession with the wall paper is directly correlated to her desire for control within her life and relationships, she can assert her dominance over the wall paper yet she is incapable of changing her relationship.
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