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The Yellow Wallpaper

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Contents

Themes

Themes

The Subordination of Women in Marriage

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman uses the conventions of the psychological horror tale to critique the position of women within the institution of marriage, especially as practiced by the “respectable” classes of her time. When the story was first published, most readers took it as a scary tale about a woman in an extreme state of consciousness—a gripping, disturbing entertainment, but little more. After its rediscovery in the twentieth century, however, readings of the story have become more complex. For Gilman, the conventional nineteenth-century middle-class marriage, with its rigid distinction between the “domestic” functions of the female and the “active” work of the male, ensured that women remained second-class citizens. The story reveals that this gender division had the effect of keeping women in a childish state of ignorance and preventing their full development. John’s assumption of his own superior wisdom and maturity leads him to misjudge, patronize, and dominate his wife, all in the name of “helping” her. The narrator is reduced to acting like a cross, petulant child, unable to stand up for herself without seeming unreasonable or disloyal. The narrator has no say in even the smallest details of her life, and she retreats into her obsessive fantasy, the only place she can retain some control and exercise the power of her mind.

The Importance of Self-Expression

The mental constraints placed upon the narrator, even more so than the physical ones, are what ultimately drive her insane. She is forced to hide her anxieties and fears in order to preserve the façade of a happy marriage and to make it seem as though she is winning the fight against her depression. From the beginning, the most intolerable aspect of her treatment is the compulsory silence and idleness of the “resting cure.” She is forced to become completely passive, forbidden from exercising her mind in any way. Writing is especially off limits, and John warns her several times that she must use her self-control to rein in her imagination, which he fears will run away with her. Of course, the narrator’s eventual insanity is a product of the repression of her imaginative power, not the expression of it. She is constantly longing for an emotional and intellectual outlet, even going so far as to keep a secret journal, which she describes more than once as a “relief” to her mind. For Gilman, a mind that is kept in a state of forced inactivity is doomed to self-destruction.

The Evils of the “Resting Cure”

As someone who almost was destroyed by S. Weir Mitchell’s “resting cure” for depression, it is not surprising that Gilman structured her story as an attack on this ineffective and cruel course of treatment. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an illustration of the way a mind that is already plagued with anxiety can deteriorate and begin to prey on itself when it is forced into inactivity and kept from healthy work. To his credit, Mitchell, who is mentioned by name in the story, took Gilman’s criticism to heart and abandoned the “resting cure.” Beyond the specific technique described in the story, Gilman means to criticize any form of medical care that ignores the concerns of the patient, considering her only as a passive object of treatment. The connection between a woman’s subordination in the home and her subordination in a doctor/patient relationship is clear—John is, after all, the narrator’s husband and doctor. Gilman implies that both forms of authority can be easily abused, even when the husband or doctor means to help. All too often, the women who are the silent subjects of this authority are infantilized, or worse.

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THEMES QUIZ

When the story was first published, it was perceived as ___.
Critique of gender roles
An intellectual treatise
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Wh

by agthomashc, April 11, 2014

I think the wallpaper represents her trying to escape her husband. She said she saw a woman trapped by bars trying to escape the wallpaper. This is symbolic of her relationship with John. As she looks further into the wallpaper, she is really examining her life and begins to change her mind and talk about how she now despises John.

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35 out of 41 people found this helpful

Postpartum Depression

by emilykwilk, May 06, 2014

I think it's important to realise not only that she is suffering from depression, but also the kind of depression she's really experiencing. The mention of the newborn child she is not allowed to see leads to the assumption that she is enduring postpartum depression. This adds to the sexism within the theme of the story. Her inability to meet the motherly expectations are a key factor to why she's addressed as a child.

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60 out of 64 people found this helpful

My Thoughts

by mythoughtsabout, April 21, 2015

I think the woman in the wallpaper is an image she is seeing of herself being trapped. People who are depressed are constantly stuck in their own minds. Sort of like being inside your own head and your eyes are just glass windows you can see out of, but cannot escape. She's seeing herself in the wallpaper trying to escape because she is also trying to escape her depression. When she is ripping off the wall paper and the woman is also ripping it from the inside, she thinks that the woman is helping her, but it's herself trying to escape.

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