The effects of social imposition and male dominance on women’s mind in the 19th century

Table of Contents

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The yellow wallpaper” is a great piece of fiction which shows the gender inequality in the 19th century. Author Gilman used this story to raise awareness in her society and help those women who needed to be ‘saved’. She used the story to comment on an autobiographical experience; her own treatment by Dr. Mitchell and his ‘rest cure’ for the treatment of cases of hysteria or nervous disorders. Dr. Mitchell’s treatment of nervous disorders was to make patients give up almost all activities; including being around their loved ones. Similarly, the story describes the narrator going mad as a result of her treatment protocol which was administered by her husband in an attempt to ‘cure’ her. The Yellow Wallpaper narrates a story of a middle-class woman losing her state of sanity caused by the social imposition of femininity on her. The narrator repeatedly hallucinates a woman enslaved behind the yellow wallpaper in her room where she is ‘locked in’ by her husband. Even though, she narrator doesn’t specifically state any major events that caused her to feel the way she feels, but it is apparent that her everyday life and her relationship with her husband are catastrophic. The assumed norm for women is to be in charge of domestic labor and childrearing in this society while men were ruling everything, and women were supposed to follow them without any question. Many literature, historical and cultural works from the 19th century discuss the societal norms and its effect on women that time; especially the ones who were married. The married women were consequently depressed because they were confined under the model of ‘perfect womanhood’. In the article ‘Reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” as Post-Traumatic Writing’ by Mahinur Aksehir, the author states, ‘A perfect woman carried out ‘vital’ tasks in the family…a woman is first and foremost a daughter/mother/ wife’ (Aksehir 2). In order for a woman to present herself as ‘healthy’ in front of the society, she had to ‘adjust’ to and accept the behavioral norms for her sex even if these norms were less socially desirable. Women who could not ‘adjust’ to this degrading role and refused to follow the stereotype were considered ‘mad’ by the males in the 19th century. The term ‘madness’ was used to identify those who refused to follow those set societal norms and/or tried to break free of these rules. The men in power used this term as a weapon to control the ‘weak’ ones. In the 19th century, the most known and popular term to describe women was ‘The angel in the house’. This term was popular because it was used to define and identify women’s roles and duties in the society. Women were called ‘angels’ to signify their roles at the time; sacrificing themselves for their families. Angels are said to be sympathetic, self-sacrificing, graceful, pious and pure. An ideal woman was expected to be sacrificing, passive, powerless and pure just like an angel. The word ‘house’ in the term was used to limit the space for women’s activities. By this, women were bound to be mothers and housewives only and couldn’t take part in the outside world. In the article ‘The helpless Angel in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Chalak Ghafoor Raouf it is stated that ‘The narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper is one of these women, or one of these helpless angels who were kept at home and prevented from having any kind of creativity that embraces her talents.. He uses his language to convince her that she is made for domestic life and any type of writing is going to be bad for her condition’. From this quotation, it can be seen that John, the narrator’s husband uses his language as one of his deceptive tools to make her feel like he is taking care of her, knows the best for her and that she doesn’t understand what’s good for her. The narrator constantly speaks about her husband being ‘loving’ and ‘careful’ and hardly lets her stir without special direction (Gilman 648) but surprisingly enough, she feels that she cannot express her true feelings about her condition to her husband because she thinks of him as wise and loving. Although she seems to think her husband is very caring, but she is not even allowed to choose the room she will stay in! Her husband’s supposed ‘protection’ eventually becomes the reason why she starts feeling imprisoned and lost. Aksehir in the article ‘Reading “The Yellow Wallpaper” as Post-Traumatic Writing’ states ‘there must be a reason why Gilman prefers to write ‘draught’ in italics… the house serves as a representation of the narrator who is also surrounded by walls and hedges that do not let her out’ (Aksehir 6). Feeling imprisoned, unheard and being lonely the narrator starts seeing a woman in her room’s wallpaper who the narrator believes is locked up on the other side of the patterns of the wallpaper and wants to get out. The locked-up woman is the representation of the narrator in the story who is incarcerated in her house, behind the invisible iron bars of social rules and roles. Charlotte Gilman used her writings to research and analyze the roles of women in America in the 19th century. She talked about matters like the absence of life for women outside their home and the cruel and unfair norms of the patriarchal society. The story symbolizes the elements that lock women within their homes which pushes them into this atmosphere where there is no freedom or happiness. This leads to them feeling suicidal or as the story states, them trying to break free. The narrator’s husband treats her like a little child and not his wife by calling her a ‘little girl’ or a ‘little goose’. He doesn’t give her the freedom to even make the smallest decisions like choosing her own room. The husband locked her up in a room she hates and believes was a children’s nursery in the past. She writes in her journal of how big and airy the room seems and judging by the barred windows it can be said that the room was used as a nursery for little children, especially boys because of the paint and wallpaper of the room. (Gilman 649) Looking at this quote, it can be concluded that she was locked in a nursery for kids whereas she wanted to be in the room downstairs as those room were nicer. When she tries to talk to her husband about her opinion on the room, he calls her a ‘blessed little goose’ and shuts her down by saying, ‘he would go down cellar, if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain.’ (Gilman 649). The article “Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper: An assertion of Gender Equality and Liberation” by Dr. G Priya, it is said, “Gilman funnily puts forth how being cared too much and treated like a little child drains away a person’s energy thus, “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”’. (Priya 2) John, the narrator’s husband treats the narrator like a child because he believes just like children, women are incapable of making their own decisions. From many readings from the 19th century, it can easily be seen that, men in that time period made decisions for their wives because they believed they were superior and were the ‘breadwinners’. Therefore, they women like ‘second class citizens’. Again, the Yellow Wallpaper portrays the agony of a woman whose activities in life are very limited as she is restricted by her husband’s beliefs of ‘saving her’ from her ‘sickness’ which ultimately drives her to madness. The repeated theme in this story is how a woman feels oppressed in a patriarchal society and its effect of oppression. In the writing, “Women’s liberation: The effects of patriarchal oppression on women’s mind’ the author Naheed Qasim writes, ‘The narrator wanted to bring together her loss and achievement through her writing. Her artistic creativity is hampered by her husband. He did not allow her to write which is a great barrier in terms of her emotional recovery. She thought she can avert her mind from her nervous breakdowns through writing but her husband and sister in law’s constant surveillance prevents her from doing so.’ (Qasim 390). The narrator acknowledges that she feels nervous about certain things in life and she also knows what would help her recover but by the end of the story she gives up all hope because she fails to make her husband understand her feelings and can’t get through to him. Her relationship with her husband was through obedience and fear. She tries to talk to her husband multiple times, but he shut her down every time. This is why she secretly writes in her diary instead of talking to her husband because she thinks her husband would never understand as he probably never felt nervous. “I suppose John never was nervous in his life. He laughs at me so about this wall-paper!” (Gilman 649). She also thinks her husband is incapable of understanding how much she suffers because he knows there is no reason for her to suffer and that satisfies him. Her husband also tells her that her way of story-making is a nervous weakness of hers and so she isn’t permitted to write or do anything that uses her brain. Being locked in a room, the narrator starts staring at the wallpaper day and night. She concludes that the shapes she sees in the paper is the shape of a woman creeping behind the paper. In her journal she says, “Of course I never mention it to them anymore— I am too wise, – -but I keep watch of it all the same. There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern, the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder – I be­gin to think – I wish John would take me away from here!” (Gilman 652). The narrator begins to see the reflection of her own self and her situation in the wallpaper. She sees a woman who is imprisoned behind the walls and is trying to break free. As the days go by, she stares at the wallpaper more and feels that there are changes in the pattern of the paper. Afterwards she starts smelling a smell coming out of the wallpaper as well. By this time, she starts seeing her own world in the paper. She notices the smell and the woman creeping come out only at night and not during the day and it can be said that this part of the story signifies that at night, the power of the patriarchal society isn’t present and women feel free to roam around.In addition, the narrator states, “I really have discovered something at last…. The front patterns DOES move and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast and her crawling shakes it all over.” (Gilman 654) Through this speech, it can be presumed that many women like her are suffering within their homes because of the restrictions given by their husbands. These women are captive inside their homes just like that woman behind the wallpaper. She thinks that the reason why the woman behind the wallpaper shakes the paper is because she is trying to get out and the narrator makes it her motive to help the woman break free. This is a metaphor for the women’s situation in that era. Women were prevented from speaking their minds and despite their best efforts, men always dehumanized them.In conclusion, Charlotte Gilman’s story reveals how women are traumatized by their experiences as the socially disadvantaged group. The society that time tried to fix the patriarchal beliefs in the minds of women by calling them the ‘Angel in the House’. By using this term, women were deceived by the society which made them believe they were born to be housewives and mothers. This misbelief led to many women feeling confined, demonized and deprived of their rights. The Yellow Wallpaper not only reveals the struggle of one particular character who feels imprisoned by the roles of her society but also reveals the common traumatic experiences that all women including Gilman herself went through in the 19th century. Through this piece of literary work, it can be summarized that patriarchal societies can do everything to maintain their control over women, even if it drives the women into madness.