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The Yellow Wallpaper and Feminism

The main character and speaker of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” struggles to live contently in a world that forces any women’s sense of empowerment into a box. Quickly after the start of the story, the speaker admits to having “a slight hysterical tendency.” (648). While there are valid historical reasons to believe that her husband and brother actually diagnose her with hysteria, I believe the story takes on a more nuanced meaning if this “hysteria” that she is diagnosed and locked away for is understood as feminism.

 

The men in the speaker’s life — namely her husband and brother — are the ones who “diagnose her with hysteria;” however, their roles as successful men living in a patriarchy explains why they condemn her for (at least what I understand as) feminist sentiments. If her hysteria is seen as feminist sentiment, then it would make sense why the men in her life attempt to suppress it. Indeed, the men in the story try to convince the speaker that “the very worst thing [she] can do is think about [her] condition.” (648). Here, the speaker alludes to the point often made by sexists that “women should just be happy to be taken care of.” By insisting that she should not think about her “condition” (that is feminist sentiments), the men forward the idea that women should not give too much thought to her individual freedom or rights. So, recognizing that her husband will not listen to her complaints, the speaker “let it alone and talk[s] about the house.” (648). Despite her concern for herself, the speaker listens to her husband because that is what is expected of her. By shifting focus to the house, the speakers subjects herself to a domestic role. Ironically, this eventually drives her crazy as she becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper. Eventually, she sees a women in the wallpaper which can represent herself. Repressed by her denial of empowerment, the speaker feels trapped like the women in the wallpaper, thus explaining why the woman escapes when her husband passes out.

 

The story of the speaker is a product of its time. Published in 1892, the story responds to increasing sentiments about women’s rights. Indeed, women in the late 19th century rightfully felt that they were restricted in both opportunity and rights. In specific, this story shows both how small-scale power structures indicate larger societal issues and how the cult of domesticity negatively impacted women for centuries. First, the lack of power the speaker has over her husband reveals how misogynistic attitudes can suppress women from expressing their true feelings. On the small scale, this may go be hard to see. However, when this power structure exists in countless relationships, it suppresses women from becoming empowered. Finally, the story explains how the myth of women finding happiness in the house is harmful. Indeed, the speaker does not appreciate being locked away in a house and only being able to find interest in wallpaper. By granting women basic rights and eliminating patriarchal power structures, women can feel empowered to become agents of their own change. However, there are many walls that need to be broken down in order for complete change to occur.

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4 Comments

  1. Christopher Wilson Christopher Wilson

    I completely agree with your argument here! I found it interesting how the speaker’s husband became upset with her that night when she hinted at her dissatisfaction with how she was treated by him, by the other members of their family and society in general. At that moment, he silenced her voice and her liberty when he told her- the speaker- to never voice nor think of those “irrational” thoughts again. So, I concur with you that many walls need to be dismantled so that women can receive the equality they deserve.

  2. Carly Cohen Carly Cohen

    I totally agree that this piece of work is a product of its time. However, unfair treatment of women is still a very common problem today and men oftentimes believe they are superior to women. Some of the issues in the Yellow Wallpaper are very much so relevant today.

  3. Delaney Demaret Delaney Demaret

    What I find to be most powerful about the Yellow Wallpaper is the relatively timeless nature of the work. No doubt, the actual plot in terms of mental health treatment is somewhat antiquated. However, like you pointed out, the biggest aspect of the story’s message stems from the patriarchal concepts discussed. The patriarch shifts, as does the feminist movements, but even those dynamic natures cannot evade the idea of being trapped in predetermined societal positions. There is a reason that most everyone continues to read this short story and regard it as such an important message.

  4. Sophia Picozzi Sophia Picozzi

    One point that you touched on that really struck me was when the narrator continues to suppress these feelings of neglect and sadness by the typical justification of “men are the best and women should be happy that they are taken care of them.” This justification for women withstanding oppression and this paternalistic facade is unfortunately still present today. It made me think of the other phrases that women say to justify their treatment and explain away injustices. This genteel paternalism is also present in terms of racial and class oppression as well.

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