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Treatment of Women in “The Yellow Wallpaper” sample essay

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is a short story which gives the reader insight on the plight of women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time, Gilman makes it clear that women were not only controlled by their husbands, but also by society. The particular elements in “The Yellow Wallpaper” which lead to this conclusion are the setting of the story, both in terms of the main character’s room and the time period the story was written in, and the central conflict, which is the woman against her society. This paper will proceed to describe the significance of the woman’s surroundings and the societal pressures that held her captive.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” was written by Gilman in 1892. From the very first page of the story it is easy to ascertain the situation in which the protagonist finds herself. She firmly believes that she is ill, but her husband and brother, both “physicians” (Gilman, 286), believe that she is not. Instead, they claim that she has a, “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency” (Gilman, 286).

The woman has no recourse against this diagnosis. One can safely assume that if the two doctors of the family feel the same way, any other doctor would hardly disagree. The woman has a desire to work and to be out in society, but her husband insists that she remain secluded and rest. Perhaps the seclusion would not be so bad if it was not for the room that her husband insisted she take for the summer. The woman describes it as a “nursery,” but many things about the room indicate that is may have been anything but. There are “barred” windows, and “rings and things in the walls” (Gilman, 288). The floor is “scratched and gouged and splintered,” there are holes in the walls, and the bed is in bad shape, as well as apparently bolted to the floor (Gilman, 290-291).

The worst thing, however, is the yellow wallpaper. It is described as being, “repellant, almost revolting, a smouldering, unclean yellow” (Gilman, 288). The woman states that the paper has been pulled off in places, and the vine pattern is nearly maddening by description. This vivid recreation of the room makes one think that it probably was not a nursery at all. Instead, the room reminds one more of an insane asylum. Even though the husband claims the woman is not sick, one must wonder at his true thoughts after insisting his wife stay in such a room.

The woman tells the reader many things that she does not feel comfortable relating to her husband or her sister-in-law. She longs to be somewhere else, anywhere else. She pleads with her husband to let her visit with relatives, but he claims that she is not strong enough to go (Gilman, 292). She begs to go home early, but he won’t hear of it. It seems that, generally, whatever she wants to do that might make her feel a bit better is out of the question. Instead, he suggests that if she is not better in the Fall, she should go to a doctor that specializes in “female hysteria” (Gilman, 291). The woman knows that this doctor will do nothing for her that her husband is not already doing, and will probably restrict her even more (Gilman, 291).

The reader gets the impression that depression is not well understood by the society in which the woman lives. The cure, according to the times, was to have the woman simply sit around and do nothing while being kept mostly out of sight. While rest may be good for depression, it seems that society during Gilman’s time was ill equipped to deal with a woman who cried and found it difficult to carry out the demands expected of her. Since no one really knew what to do, it must have seemed best to hide such people away and pretend that the problem would fix itself. Besides, the woman’s husband claimed that she was not sick for as long as he could.

Depression was not seen as an illness, which lends credibility to the idea that the husband wanted to send the woman away to the other “doctor” so she would not be a burden to him. One clue to the woman’s problem rests in the revelation that she has a baby (Gilman, 293). No one mentions the age of the baby, but the impression is that the child is still very small. Postpartum depression would not be thought of until many years later, but the reader could make a case for the woman having this particular affliction. No matter what was wrong, it is clear that society was ill prepared to deal with illnesses of the mind.

The text of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a struggle against society within itself. The woman mentions many times that she is not supposed to be writing, and many paragraphs are closed with the quick comment that someone is coming, and thus she must hide her papers away. Part of the woman’s “cure” was to not write, and being kept from writing, because her husband, “hates to have me write a word” (Gilman, 288) forces her to become more and more secretive. It could be that this impulse to sneak around and hide her feelings leads to her mental deterioration. It is very clear by the ending of the story that she might not have been crazy before, but the solitude and seclusion in the terrible yellow room pushes her to the very edge of sanity.

She speaks of a woman who shares the room with her, but the other woman is trapped behind the wallpaper. While this seems to be a fairly harmless fantasy, she begins to believe that the woman is getting out and roaming around the house (Gilman, 297). Perhaps this is a wish, though through an altered state of mind, to be free and roam as she wished.

Frightening enough, the woman seems to improve when she has this “other” woman to be concerned with (Gilman, 295). She will not tell anyone about this other woman, however, because “it does not do to trust people too much” (Gilman, 297). This woman is so trapped by the expectations of her society that she cannot feel safe explaining what she sees and how she feels. She is just as stuck as the woman behind the wallpaper.

The more ill the woman gets, the more she begins to see other women in the wallpaper (Gilman, 299). They are “creeping” everywhere: behind the wallpaper, around the house, and in the garden. Not one of them is able to risk being seen, so they simply creep around and hide. This, in this writer’s opinion, is Gilman’s statement about all women in her society, ill or not. All women were kept under the thumb of someone, be it a father, husband, brother, or doctor. None of them were able to go out and do exactly what they wished, or be exactly what they wished. Instead, they were forced to move about in secret, not trusting anyone with their most inward feelings. Perhaps this led to the “hysteria” that men so liked to diagnose.

When the woman finally manages to set the “other woman,” whom she now sees as herself, free, her husband faints with horror (Gilman, 300). Not only did he faint, but to the woman’s annoyance he faints “right across (her) path…so that (she) had to creep over him every time!” (Gilman, 300). Even when she set herself “free,” she still could not escape from societal ideals completely. She was still forced to “creep,” but at least she could finally creep over a man. The woman in the story is free because she has lost her mind, but Gilman is free because she can tell the story, even though she must creep around to get to the point. Women are captives of society, and they must do what is necessary to break out.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a story of a woman who goes mad due to her captivity, but it is also the story of many women who were forced into societal roles that they neither wanted or deserved. Husbands are blamed for most of the control of women, but society played a massive part. The time and physical setting of the story, as well as the central conflict of woman against society, is played out in Gilman’s story in an unusual way, but one that resonates even today.

Mental illness is still stigmatizing to many people, not just women now, and many women still allow themselves to be pushed into roles they do not want to play by the men in their lives. Even though the story is well over one hundred years old, there are still lessons to be learned from a woman’s decent into madness and rise to mental freedom. It is a shame, however, that the only way to freedom was to lose touch with a world that would not grant it itself.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, New England Magazine, 1892.

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