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Yellow Wallpaper

← The Role of Women in Society

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a famous feminist writer and social thinker in the early twentieth century. Her best work The Yellow Wallpaper illustrates the general attitude towards women during the 19th century, when females did not adopt important roles in society and were oppressed in marriage. Gilman wrote this semi-autobiographical story after a hard struggle with postpartum psychosis. Written with the purpose to expose the oppressive methods of treatment of nerve disorders adopted at that time, The Yellow Wallpaper immediately went beyond its own idea and soon grew into a peculiar manifesto of feminist literature, since it simultaneously focused on disapproval of patriarchal dependence and insignificant role of women in the 19th century displaying the devastating effect of social and spiritual isolation as well as highlighting the importance of emotional expression and freedom of thought viewed from the female perspective.

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Brief Statement of the Contents of the Story

In the story, John, husband and doctor of the main heroine, diagnoses his wife with a temporary nervous depression with a slight hysterical tendency. Despite the fact that she does not agree with this decision, John orders his wife several months of the rest cure. As a result, they move to a secluded mansion for the summer as a means of treatment. During their three-month stay, the heroine has very little interaction with the outside world. She is forbidden to take strenuous actions, and most importantly, she cannot write. Constant isolation and lack of activity gradually cause hallucination. The woman is trapped and becomes obsessed with hideous yellow wallpaper in the room. The heroine begins to associate herself with a woman allegedly depicted on the wallpapers. At the end, trying to break free, the protagonist loses her senses and tears down most of the wallpaper.

Description of the Purpose of the Story

Mental illness or rather the method of its treatment is the main theme of the analyzed story. The author aimed at revealing the oppressive methods of treatment in psychiatry at the end of the 19th century. The rest cure prescribed to women suffering from nervous disorders, in fact aggravates the symptoms of mental illness. Putting patients in a position of total submission to their doctors, spouses and family members, this cure is a battle of morality and will. The heroine is isolated from friends and other relatives in order to recover better. She opposes the norms of traditional medicine at that time as well as the orders and diagnosis of John to rest and not think about her illness. Hence, the author emphasizes the importance of emotional expression and freedom of thought. According to rules, a wife must suppress and hide her emotions. Instead, the heroine is crouched deeper in her own mind, contemplates her nervous state all the time, feels guilty, and writes a diary secretly from her husband. Recognizing her feelings, she could be saved from insanity.

Analysis of the Message of the Story

Rejection of the Patriarchal Family Model

In this emotionally impressive story about the dramatic relationship between the young wife who is in the grip of depression and her psychiatrist-husband, the reader gradually reveals the divulgation of the hidden mechanism of functioning of the dominant or even frankly repressive model of a patriarchal society based on the oppression of female nature. The imbalance of men and women is traced from the very beginning of the story, starting with the fact that only the name of the husband (John) is known, but the wife's name is not mentioned. She is almost anonymous; her personality is John's wife. The discourse of masculine submission (physical and mental) is spread over all the text. It is symbolized by the images of a closed space like a remote, deserted mansion in which the spouses settle and a bedroom separated from other rooms on the upper floor of the house. The ascetic interior, reinforced by a description of a fixed, like nailed, bed and bars on the windows, in contradistinction to the open, enticing space of freedom represented by the images of the huge beautiful garden and rooms with a terrace and flowers, is associated with the prison rather than with the temporary home. Moreover, the captivity can be traced to the juvenile condition of the wife, which John establishes. Her dependent, helpless, incapable existence deprived of her own free will, in need of care, or rather supervision, is expressed in Johns's attitude to the heroine like to a child. Nonetheless, at the end of the story, the irony avenges the woman's insanity. Finding her mad wife among the torn wallpaper, John loses consciousness, which stereotypically manifests feminine weakness. The wife finally attains an authoritative position in her wedlock. When John has fainted, her creative imagination is free from all restrictions.

Disclosure of Destructive Effect of Social and Spiritual Isolation of a Person

The discourse of social and spiritual isolation is defined by the lack of any society for a sick wife who is doomed to loneliness and alienation. Eventually, obtaining direct display in the dictates of John's masculine voice, it operates as a discourse neglecting female needs or desires, rejecting any initiative or prohibiting any kind of creative realization. The only available space for the protagonists self-expression is a diary, which offers the alternative female worldview based on the active way of life, intense intellectual and physical work, communicating with others and listening to herself. Nevertheless, the muteness and secrecy of the diary testify that the alleged space of internal freedom is merely a quasi-freedom, which hides the disregarded feminine personality. The heroine finds her own essentiality hence gaining real individual freedom beyond the limits of her own consciousness in a state of absolute madness that symbolically uttered in the release of the pattern of the illusive figure from the wallpaper. The pattern of yellow wallpaper created by the painful imagination of the heroine is the figurative vision of female life, which carries all the drama, or rather the tragedy of a feminine outlook in an alien man's world. The wallpaper generates the atmosphere of absurd discord and disorientation expressed by the images of breakout, madness or demise. The heroine imagines the lines on the wallpaper running away or falling into the whirlpool, committing suicide or appearing in the form of strangled heads with convex eyes. Therefore, the imaginary portrait of a woman imprisoned behind wallpapers bars projects a real inner self of the protagonist and symbolizes the quintessence of cornered, unbearable, suffocated existence.

Emphasis on the Importance of Self-Expression and the Freedom of Sought and Creativity

From the very beginning of the story, the wife's creativity is in conflict with the rationality of John. As a writer, the woman thrives in the use of imagination, and her writing is an integral part of her nature. John does not recognize the fundamental oeuvre of his spouse and believes that he can supplant her creative fantasies and replace them with his own solid rationality. In fact, the rest cure is centered on John's efforts to eliminate the wife's creativity. Forcing the heroine to abandon her writing, John hopes to calm her troubled nature and help her to assume the role of ideal wife and mother. However, the woman is not able to suppress her creativity, despite her efforts to follow husband's instructions. Having no opportunity to write openly, she inadvertently occupies her imagination with the yellow wallpaper. The heroine starts to actively observe and decrypt the sense of the pattern on the wallpaper. She unravels its chaotic picture and finds the figure of a woman struggling to break out of the bars of the pattern. Thus, the heroines oppressed imagination begins to manage and she loses touch with reality becoming overwhelmed by delusions and identifying herself as a woman confined in the yellow paperhanging. The idea of the art without limits is one of the messages of the story. The repressed imagination of the protagonist is the main cause of her psychotic disorder. The effort to contradict the fundamental part of female nature is fated from the very beginning. John should accept the true nature of his wife, rather than force her to follow the dictates of his own personality. When she tears off the wallpaper at the end of the story, the heroine believes that she is finally released from the wallpaper, where John is imprisoned with her.

Protest against the Insignificant Role of Women in the 19th Century

In accordance with the social norms of the 19th century, women were expected to fulfill their responsibilities as a wife and mother, to be happy with this role and nothing more. Social and private life of men and women were divided. The latter were destined to spend their time exclusively in the domestic environment. The women who dared to enter the male social sphere were considered as something similar to prostitutes, the lowest orders. Therefore, John is not a dictatorial villain of this story, but merely a reflection of the current society. The desire of the main heroine to have more in her life than a husband and a child does not meet social expectations. Furthermore, her passion to write and create differentiates her from the idealized housewife that she is supposed to imitate. Using the term work by the heroine is also important in this context. She considers the destruction of wallpapers as the work to be done, which contradicts the expectations of the community. The heroine brings a strictly masculine activity in her inner world and destroys the repressive wallpaper. It means that the way for women to overcome the suppression of paternalistic society is to adopt the masculine role in the public life.

Effects of the Story

Creating a symbol of the oppression of women in a paternalistic society, The Yellow Wallpaper initiated changes of human awareness of the role of females in a society characterized by a lack of womens autonomy that was considered harmful to their mental, emotional and even physical well-being. Since the story was written, women have won their equality in the community as well as free opportunities to realize themselves. Moreover, the story made indirect impact on reconsideration of treatment methods in psychiatry in the 19th century, which were subsequently criticized by the progressive specialists. Surely, the medicine never stands still and always develops due to the progress. However, complaints and reproofs of the wrong methods of treatment motivate doctors to rethink their therapeutic technique and find better solution to the problem.

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Conclusion

In conclusion, the main purpose of the story The Yellow Wallpaper is the attempt to save women from suffering and the oppressive treatment from postpartum depression. The story reveals negative effect of social and spiritual isolation on the mental health, which could lead even to insanity. Gilmans narration became one of the most important early works of the American feminist literature. Living in times when females were condemned for being more than a housewife and totally depended on the husband, the author found strengths to expose this patriarchal structure of society. Due to The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman was one of the first writers to defend the significant role of women emphasizing the importance of self-expression and the freedom of sought and creativity.

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