Analyzing “The Yellow Wallpaper” using the Feminist Criticism Theory

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Analyzing “The Yellow Wallpaper” using the Feminist Criticism Theory

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a fictionalized short story authored by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, an American feminist, and novelist. The story was published in 1892 and revolves around Jane, a woman who is struggling with her mental sickness and on the verge of going insane but is unable to recover since her husband does not believe in her. Jane, the story’s protagonist, is the narrator and describes events from a first-person perspective. She is suffering from postpartum depression, and John, her husband, who is a physician, strives to cure her condition. John prescribes rest cure treatment for his wife and asks her to stay away from all creative stimulus and physical activity. Jane is banned from to writing, reading, or even seeing her new baby. She is only allowed to sleep and breath in the fresh air. John does not allow his wife to make her own decision which makes her feel trapped in her marriage. The story is set in the 19th century, a time when women were dominated by men in all aspects of their lives and had no rights or voice. During this time, women could not speak for themselves, and their husbands used to make all the decisions in the house. This paper uses feminist criticism theory to analyze “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Feminist criticism is a literary analysis that is based on the viewpoint of feminism, feminist politics, or feminist theory. The short story is an embodiment of the challenges that women go through in their quest for independence. From a feminist perspective, it is evident that this narrative is a commentary on the status of women in the late 1800s within a male-dominated society. Through the characterization of John, the protagonist’s husband, the narrator’s thoughts and writing, the environment in which the narrator is placed, and the use of symbolism, the author shows women’s imprisonment and the power men had over them during this time.

The narrator struggles against male dominance and depression, which were pronounced in the 1800s. From the start, we see the narrator being dominated by her husband. John, who is serving as her physician, dictates orders and tells her to remain in bed, not to explore her creativity, and to stop writing. The narrator explains this by saying that “I take phosphates or phosphites whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again” (Gilman 648). She goes ahead to explain that she disagrees with her husband’s ideas stating that she believes that congenial work, along with change and excitement, would do her good. However, she does not have anything to do because society expects women to submit and obey their husbands. Also, although the narrator believes her husband could be wrong, she does not question it openly. This shows how husbands in the 19th century took control of their wives and how women lacked a voice. John’s ignorance of understanding his wife leads her to insanity (Haney‐Peritz 113), a situation which would have been avoided if John had stepped out of society’s shortcomings. John’s dominance over her wife is also seen when she “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression- – slight hysterical tendency- – what is one to do?” (Gilman 648). According to this statement, no matter what the narrator says to her husband, he shrugs away her sickness and believes that his wife is just being dramatic and nothing is wrong. Despite the narrator’s feelings, she cannot do anything because her husband has spoken. Also, the narrator falls victim of oppression through the derogatory names that her husband calls her. For instance, John calls his wife “a blessed little goose.” The narrator explains this by saying, “he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose” (Gilman 649).

Charlotte Gilman uses symbolism to represent and enhance the idea of feminism in her piece of work. Specifically, author uses the yellow wallpaper itself in her short story to enhance feminism (Lanser 425). Everything that is represented by the wallpaper deepens the story and helps the reader comprehend the woman’s predicament. To begin with, the paper symbolizes how women were denied the freedom to change or make their own decisions. The narrator says that the wallpaper “sticks horribly, and the pattern just enjoys it” (Gilman 655). She uses the wallpaper to express how she felt trapped in a life without change. Also, the paper symbolizes the mental screen that men enforced upon women. Describing the wallpaper, the narrator states that “The color is hideous enough and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing” (Gilman 653). This serves as a symbol of the limitations placed on women in the 19th century. Here, the author suggests that when men refuse to treat women equally, it is a “hideous” behavior and that it is frequently “unreliable” when men treat women somewhat equally. The emotions of women in 19th-century society are also described by the adjectives “infuriating” and “torturing.” Also, the wallpaper is described as faded, ugly, and torn in some spots, with a figure of a woman trapped in it. This shows how women were trapped in a male-dominated society. Also, in the same way, the wallpaper has a woman trapped behind the pattern is, and so does the narrator. The narrator explains, “At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern, I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be” (Gilman 653). The trapped woman she sees in the yellow paper is a reflection of herself (Lanser 421). She, too, felt trapped, cried out for help, and believed that someone had to intervene to rescue her from the life she was leading. She expresses herself in her marriage to John by describing what she sees in the yellow wallpaper in a way that is typical of female language.

John, the protagonist’s husband, is a good example of a controlling spouse-a husband who exerts total authority over his wife in 19th century (Ghandeharion and Milad 117). The narrator says, “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage” (Gilman 647). It is clear from this statement that John laughs at his wife since it was socially acceptable to do so during the time this story was set. John finds his wife’s thoughts and ideas to be absurd and does not take them with seriousness until it is too late to save his wife from going insane. Also, John is seen to be a controlling husband because he limits his wife from working and writing and forces her to stay in an isolated nursery. For instance, John’s wife talks about how she wants to work since it will help her mentally. “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good (Gilman 649).” Through the lens of feminist criticism theory, it can be said that John does not believe his wife’s ideas and coerces her into doing something against her will. John thinks his ideas and viewpoints are superior. John does not allow his wife to express her feelings through writing. When the narrator sees her husband coming, she says, “There Comes John, and I must put this away – he hates to have me writing a word” (Gilman 649). This shows how controlling men were during the 19th century.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” short story also depicts how women were imprisoned during the 1800s through Jane’s thoughts and conversations. In the play, Jane’s wish to express her thoughts and ideas is seen to break through tough societal barriers. The narrator says, “I did write for a while in spite of them” (Gilman 648). The narrator feels ill and depressed until she can express herself in writing, at which time she experiences exhaustion from having to keep her ideas hidden from society and her spouse. However, she feels under social pressure to remain in her husband’s care. She is not comfortable with it and states that “he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more” (Gilman 648). She feels trapped and worthless because her husband has taken away all power and responsibility, yet she is under social pressure to worship and give thanks to him because he has taken away the need for her to think.

Given that the majority of the action occurs in a space that only serves to fuel the female protagonist’s scorn and insanity, it is obvious that Jane’s surroundings serve to further emphasize feminist criticism viewpoints. Jane’s room is nearly prison-like. There are locks, gates, and other small houses that surround it, with large walls. The description of the room is seen when Jane asks to have the walls repapered. John refuses, saying “that after the wallpaper was changed, it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on.” Despite the fact that Jane may feel restrained by these gates and bars, her husband is unwilling to alter her surroundings because he wants to keep her confined. From the feminist criticism theory, the wallpaper itself makes the clearest use of the environment to show how women were imprisoned in the 1800s (Samuels 102). Despite not physically imprisoning her like the gates and bars, the author uses this environment to represent a psychological prison. Jane is completely preoccupied with the paper; she cannot take her mind off of the unusual attraction of its design, which has captured her attention. The narrator’s mind is not freed up to the end of the story after she has taken most of the paper off, which ties everything together with the idea of the woman trapped behind the paper (Treichler 64). Thus, looking at the setting place the narrator is confined by her husband through the feminist lens, it is evident that women in the 19th century were living under control and supervision.

Overall, Gilman’s piece of work is used to express the author’s feminist views, illustrating the pain that women had to go through during the 19th century in a male-dominated society. These ideas are expressed through John’s actions, Jane’s thoughts, and the story setting. Gilman addresses the confinement and psychological challenges that society places on women in this story. It is evident from this short story that gender roles cause psychological struggles and feelings of imprisonment in women and should be removed from society to free women.

Works Cited

Ghandeharion, Azra, and Milad Mazari. “Women entrapment and flight in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”.” (2016).

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The yellow wallpaper.” (1892).

Haney‐Peritz, Janice. “Monumental feminism and literature’s ancestral house: Another look at “The Yellow Wallpaper”.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12.2 (1986): 113-128.

Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist criticism,” The Yellow Wallpaper,” and the politics of color in America.” Feminist Studies 15.3 (1989): 415-441.

Samuels, Shirley. “How Turn of the Century Feminism Finds Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s’ The Yellow Wallpaper.’.” Feminist Moments: Reading Feminist Texts. Ed. Katherine Smits and Susan Bruce. London: Bloomsbury (2015): 99-106.

Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the sentence: diagnosis and discourse in” The Yellow Wallpaper”.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 3.1/2 (1984): 61-77.