Stories exist to act as a sort of virtual reality of the mind allowing readers to interact with various ideas and concepts that may require alteration. Altering the definition of what it means to be a woman in any society has become an important arena for consideration. In her short story, “Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman captures the essence of this anxiety of definition in narrative journal format allowing a first person view of the inner struggle and thought the process of self-identity. Discourse, in the story, can be observed to be divided in a very Platonic way in the conception of two social spheres representing the enlightened men and the ordinary women, doctor and patient, and husband and wife. Rather than placing women in a position to explore a self-realized identity based on education, Gilman’s story divides men and women into distinct categories where dialog becomes the means in which to explore women’s identity.
To streamline the examination of Gilman’s dialog this essay will be divided into three distinct parts. First, the historical context of the place of women in the nineteenth century will be reviewed to better understand the place of the narrator as well as the purpose of the diagnosis. Secondly, a review of previous interpretations of the story will be considered in light of a Platonic interpretation of the story. Finally, the essay will examine discourse as a means of understanding the place of women as being the domestic sphere which acts as a metaphorical cave.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of reading any work of literature is to understand the social and cultural contexts in which of a story is set. While autonomous projection can serve a useful purpose for a contemporary interpretation of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” understanding the place of women in the late nineteenth century can also provide insight into understanding the story. Essentially, it is important to keep in mind that the story was not written directly for a contemporary audience, and that can change the overall meaning within the story.
The story, published in 1892, during an era that promoted the concept of “separate spheres” where men and women were moral, ethically, and politically divided (Hughes). The ideology tended to rest on hard definitions of “natural” characteristics of men and females. Women were considered physically inferior to men, but they were also considered morally superior to men as they never left the domestic environment (Hughes). Moral superiority was the quality that best-suited women to care for the “domestic sphere” where women would raise children, care for the home, cook, and clean. They also acted as a ballast to ensure that when men came home, they would not also bring the taint of the immoral public sphere with them (Hughes). Along with the duty of raising children, a woman who may have been middle or upper class would ensure that the servants were doing an adequate job in taking care of the domestic environment.
Women’s rights did not exist in any meaningful way during this era. Both law and public opinion supported the family as a patriarchal institution in which the husband, and father, was considered the only legal “person” in a household (Goodsell 13). While this may have operated to make the family a robust and coherent unit, it also legally recognized men as the land owners, property owners, and the owner of his wife and children (Goodsell 13). In fact, women’s rights could only be considered within the framework of separate spheres. There were many tracks, embellished with easy to remember poems, which encouraged the subservient behavior. It was audaciously titled “Women’s Rights.” These rights consisted of:
The right to be a comforter,
When other comforts fail;
The right to cheer the drooping heart
When troubles most assail.
The right to train the infant mind,
To think of Heaven and God;
The right to guide the tiny feet
The path our Savior trod.
The right to solace the distressed,
To wipe the mourners tear;
The right to shelter the oppressed,
And gently chide the fear…
Such are the noblest women’s rights,
The rights which God hath given,
The right to comfort man on earth
And smooth his path to heaven. (Hughes)
Women’s rights, then, were solely guided by the domestic sphere, and their foremost duty was to their husbands as they “smooth his path to heaven” in a “cheerful” manner (Hughes). It also highlights an economy where the woman’s cares and concerns come last. Her first duty is to her husband, next to her children, then to God, and, finally, the oppressed. Not having any time for herself, the woman acts as a slave to her husband and the domestic environment.
Apart from being enslaved by social and cultural norms that dictated their vocation as raising the next generation, it was assumed that women did not seek sexual or emotional satisfaction. As William Acton declared, “the majority of women (happy for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind” (112). When young women were finally married, they were united with men who were at least five years older. This served a dual purpose. First, it allowed a man to pursue an education that would provide a foundational income for raising a family (Hughes). Secondly, the age difference reinforced the perception of the natural hierarchy between the sexes allowing the man to maintain headship over a younger woman (Hughs).
While these marriages were essentially the enslavement of women, many women believed that they belonged in the domestic sphere. Graves wrote in 1841 that, “Fathers should be the patriarchal sovereigns, and mothers the queens of their households…The sanctuary of domestic life is to her (the wife) the place of safety as well as the ‘post of honour’” (45,60). The French thinker Alex De Tocqueville was greatly impressed by the fact that in America, “the independence of women is irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony” (245). While the single girl “makes her father’s home an abode of freedom and of pleasure; the wife lives in the home of her husband as if it were a cloister” (245). Overall, women could be viewed as little more than property designed for the particular purpose of serving a husband as a nun might serve God.
Masculine Definition of the Narrator
Within the framework of the two spheres dichotomy, Gilman’s story becomes a recognition of two separate worlds in the form of the physician or scientist, and patient. Contained in the title of “physician” is the complete history of Western Civilization. All man-made philosophy has elevated John, and all those who remain unblessed by Enlightenment education are those who live in Plato’s cave watching shadows on the wall. It is from his position as a “physician of high standing” that allows John to authoritatively diagnose and, thus, define his young wife. He diagnoses the narrator with “temporary nervous depression” with “slight hysterical tendencies,” but found nothing physically wrong with her (Gilman 138). In the absence of physical evidence of a malady, John subjected his wife to the “rest cure” pioneered by Weir Mitchell and applauded the world over for its innovation, seemingly only be men who would have dominated the medical field. The “cure” would only work, however, if key elements were followed:
…isolation, complete physical rest, a rich diet of creamy foods, massage, and electrical stimulation of disused muscles, and complete submission to the authority of the attending physician. All physical and intellectual activity is to be prohibited. A patient is to be lifted out of her own social and familial milieu and transported to a neutral environment tended only by a nurse and her doctor. (Mitchell)
Based on the conception of women as inferior in every way to man, the concept of the rest cure was designed to provide respite from regular domestic duties that had become a source of stress and anxiety. The removal to a neutral environment was intended to take all that was stressful from the woman’s life. However, by the second page of the story, the narrator already feels helpless and frustrated in light of her husband’s diagnostic declaration:
If… one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression- a slight hysterical tendency-what is one to do?…I take phospahtes or phosphites- whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again. Personally I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. (Gilman 138-139)
John has defined his wife, apparently, very publicly, and he has done so in such a way as to veto any self-identification from the narrator. If the unexamined life is not worth living then, John has examined the narrator’s life for her and has decided that she requires more restriction to heal. Further diagnostic definition becomes necessary on John’s part to restrict the narrator as a thinking and creative being to relieve her anxiety.
Despite the fact that the narrator may know what is best for herself, she allows her husband to exercise his authority over her out of social obligation to her husband but also out of a sense of inferiority. Given the public nature of the diagnosis as being both declaratively professional and masculine, the narrator must adhere to the regiment despite the fact that she feels that something is wrong, but she is unable to contradict her husband. The narrator then becomes “unreasonably angry,” but she reminds herself that she is overly sensitive given her condition further allowing her husband to tighten the chains that enslave her to his person (Gilman 139).
The narrator reacts to the diagnosis by striving to define John. Her definition of her husband describes him as extremely practical to the point that he has no patience for faith, and he also has an “intense horror of superstition” (Gilman 138). She initially identifies him as a cold scientist, that believes only observable fact and cares nothing for feelings and less for imagination (Gilman 138). While John is representative of early modernist Enlightenment thought, he also embodies all of the Western philosophy. He is the Platonic prisoner set free from the cave through education, and he no longer looks at the world as shadows cast on the wall (Bloom 194). John can look at and contemplate the light of the sun believing he pursues the source of all knowledge (Bloom 195). All is illuminated and bright for John, and he is the enlightened man of science.
John’s diagnosis of his wife’s sickness as a nervous disorder is indicative of Enlightenment concepts of women. Her disorder is a product of the very fact that she is a woman and not a man. Rousseau said of women, “Consult women in all bodily matter, in all concerns of the senses; consult men in the matters of morality, and all that involves understanding” (59). Women, according to Hegel, also lack self-conscious reflection which would necessarily mean that women were weaker than men both intellectually and self-consciously as they would have not a human consciousness (Kant 78; Hegel). Finally, Kant describes women, while beautiful, as being intellectually inferior to men and not cut out for the work of exercising logic or engaging in complex thought (77-79). All of these definitions of women serve to illustrate the belief that not all were designed to crawl out of Plato’s cave, and, in fact, only a handful of men would achieve the prestige of coming into the light.
As John is dedicated to reason, he decides to remove his wife from the stressful environment of the home and moves her out to the country. However, his choice of location for respite is worth exploring. John rents a “secure ancestral hall for the summer” that the narrator also describes as a “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate” and, even, a “haunted house” (Gilman 138). Considering that women are part of the domestic sphere, it would stand to reason that remaining at home where everything would be familiar would have been a healthier choice. The narrator does not seem to appreciate the new surroundings, and she believes that there is “something queer about it” (Gilman 139). John shrinks her world to a minuscule cocoon meant to envelop and heal, but in so doing he has condemned her to the impossible task of recovering without thought or vocation enshrouded with the vestiges of the shadow of patriarchy.
The “hereditary estate” can also serve as the idea of secluding the narrator in the darkness of Plato’s cave. To this point, John has provided every definition by his education and gender. Now, as she has a kind of existential crisis he prescribes a remedy that would take her away from her home and into the country. Like the cave, the colonial mansion represents repression for those who are too uneducated or unworthy to be left to the steady upward slope toward the light of truth. The ancestral halls embody the shadow of patriarchy that casts shadows upon the wall to allow the narrator some little understanding of why the rest cure is necessary.
Not only has John chained her to a metaphor for the cave, but he also uses condescending childish language as a way to explain why she must stay in the house. He belittles her as a thinker and writer as he explains:
…that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. (Gilman 144)
He also, out of frustration, reminds his wife of the domestic hierarchy:
My darling…I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so? (Gilman 147)
John not only controls the light of her life, but he also manipulates the statues that cast shadows upon the wall to help his wife understand what is best. She is not to imagine, but to be practical and willful, both tendencies that suit the masculine. When the narrator claims she is not feeling better, he tells her that she must get better, not for herself, but for him, their son, and that she just needs to trust him as a doctor. There is no appeal for his sake as a husband, and she must become more like him if she is to heal.
The majority of healing in the narrator’s case also means identifying within her domestic sphere. She is anxious and stressed because she may be trying too hard to be selfish and independent. The diagnostic relationship, rather than being therapeutic, serves to reorient her to the established social order. She does not belong to herself, and John not only continues to remind her that she does not belong to herself but he also never refers to her by name. He refers to her by very simple pet names such as “blessed little goose” (Gilman 141), “darling” or “dear” (Gilman 145,147), and “little girl” (Gilman 146). By not using her name, the narrator’s identity must attach to John to have an identity. Treating her as a child also serves to allow John the advantage of continual definition to the point that narrator can only identify herself by John’s dictates. While the narrator reacts negatively to these definitions, they still make self-definition much harder as she has undergone extensive re-description by the light of her life.
While John defines the narrator using scientific language, the narrator fights to understand her personal identity. Given the rigid definition of women in her day, the narrator struggles to understand who she is. The conflict makes any definition bipolar as she swings from one extreme to the next in the space of a few sentences. One moment she describes how much she disagrees believing that “excitement and change” would be better than resting (Gilman 138-139). Above all, however, she strives to conform to her husband’s wishes, but there is no rest in conformity. At first, she aims to become the expectation of her society, but the exertion is overwhelming:
… I take pains to control myself- before him, at least, and that makes me very tired…Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able- to dress and entertain, and order things… (Gilman 139, 141)
The act of conformity to please her husband is a heavy burden that contradicts John’s edict as a physician, but the narrator seems to recognize that it is the only way she will be declared cured and released.
However, no matter how hard the narrator strives to conform, she has nothing to occupy her mind except the contradiction and confusion of defining herself. The narrator allows the contradictory nature of her husband’s definition to oppose her desire for self-actualization. Ford notes that “but,” the conjunction of contradiction, is used fifty-six times in the short space of the story (311). Other words such as “and, so, only, besides” are also used as substitutes for “but.” Even though her thoughts are written secretly on “dead paper,” the narrator seeks a small internal rebellion as a means of identifying separately from and contradicting her husband (Gilman 138). Having nothing else to occupy her time, the narrator begins to study the wallpaper as it reflects the confusion she feels.
With no other stimulation, however, the yellow wallpaper covering her room becomes her focal point. She reads it as she might read a book, and she wishes to interpret it as she is interpreting her life. However, she finds that neither makes sense. Just as the narrator is to be domestic, so too is wallpaper domestic and humble used to decorate a room or hide drywall or cover blemishes. Outside her domestic environment, however, the wallpaper becomes a nightmarish symbol of being trapped in her domestic life. Both become:
Repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is dull yet lurid orange in some, a sickly sulfur tint in others (Gilman 140).
Just as the yellow wallpaper has been warped and faded, so too has the narrator personified and projected her confused feelings onto that wallpaper. She feels repelled, revolted, and she smolders against the definition that John has assigned her, but she still finds no self-definition since she can only describe what she is not as John provides her singular self-conception.
Confusion over who she is can also be examined in the simple nature of her confinement. Her prison is a nursery, with rings on the walls, and bars on the windows (Gilman140). The only piece of furniture in the chamber is a large bed that is immovable as it has been nailed to the floor (Gilman144). Here rests another absurdity suggesting that she is a child, but the bed fixed to the floor also defines her sexual life regarding being beholden to her husband. The nursery has become a place of childishness as well as sexual slavery designed to keep her ignorant and subdued making her recovery an extreme return to Plato’s cave.
Given the contradictory nature of her existence, and having no intellectual stimulation, the narrator studies and observes the wallpaper:
…by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind…it changes with the light. When the sun shoots in through the east window- I always watch for that first long, straight ray-it changes so quickly that I never can quite believe it…by daylight it is subdued, quiet…in the day time it is tiresome and perplexing. (147,148-149)
While the sun subdues the wallpaper, it also becomes confusing to behold. What makes the pattern complicated may stem from two similar reasons. First, it could mean that the narrator is being exposed to the light of knowledge too soon and has no idea how to self-identify apart from John. Just as in Plato’s cave, exposure to the light too soon may cause disorientation and confusion as the prisoner’s eyes are not yet accustomed to the light and must only receive definition from her husband. Secondly, the wallpaper may be the narrator’s confusion as she realizes that she is a separate self, and is uncertain how to proceed without a voice. During the day, in the absence of her husband, she can relax, her journal serves as her voice, and she writes with some certainty of opinion. There is no burden to conform in the same way as when John is present. In John’s absence, the narrator seems to use the wallpaper to reflect on her identity and what it means to be an individual. In any case, the wallpaper becomes tiresome and perplexing as the narrator tries to force a definition of conformity upon it so that she may subdue it in the same way that she is subdued and wishes to overcome herself (Gilman 149).
While the narrator is unable to make sense of the pattern of the wallpaper under the light of the sun, she does discover that under certain dimmer lights she can make out a pattern. The moonlight, however, becomes the most helpful light as it reveals the true nature of the pattern:
By moonlight- the moon shines in all night when there is a moon- I wouldn’t know it was the same paper. At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind them is as plain as can be. (Gilman 148)
Just as in Plato, Gilman uses the moon to illuminate what cannot be observed during the day. The narrator, then, can see the truth of the wallpaper, and the wallpaper’s true nature is that of a prison. It may be the prison of her identity or freedom of choice based on the concepts of family and social structure that trapped so many married women of the nineteenth century. The moonlight unveils the nature of wallpaper identifying by night what becomes impossible to fathom by day.
Besides the bars imprisoning the woman, the yellow wallpaper is also festooned with other designs. The first designs that she makes out are the heads of many women, strangled, necks broken, and bulbous eyes that stare at her (Gilman 142). Those women who tried to escape the bars by forcing their heads through it were strangled and killed. It may be that this accounts for the rancid smell connected to the “yellow” of the wallpaper:
It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper. It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw- not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things. But there is something else about the paper- the smell! I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad. Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here. (Gilman 149).
The smell and the color may be tied to the idea of Gilman nodding to the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre as the segregation of the “other” where “yellow” can mean anyone who is not white (Lanser 428; Owens 77). While this is an excellent interpretation of the color yellow, I would suggest that the color yellow becomes so pervasive because it is emanating from the narrator. It’s in her clothes, her hair, and she notices it even when she is out riding in the open air (Gilman 150). Perhaps it has always been her natural smell, and it was accepted because she took her role and definition in society without question. Understanding that her definition does not come from her self-consciousness has allowed her to realize that she is part of the “yellow.” Perhaps the whole world is yellow apart from the patriarchs of the West who form the definitions of not just their society but the world. Women, ethnic minorities, gay and lesbian, and any who do not fit John’s misogynist definition may be yellow.
While this may generalize the color yellow, it also includes all those who would continue to be yellow even today. Rather than making it a single group such as women or designing a concept of the Orientalization of the world from the color, it seems that any whose definition could be inhibited by a rhetoric of conquest and definition would fall into the category of the wallpaper. In the case of the narrator, just as in the event of all who may be yellow, a new self-conception takes drastic action. When the author finally does tear down the wallpaper, she liberates the shadow woman behind it, and they are united. She becomes so convincing that she bends John to her will. Having been out all night, John returns home to find the door locked, and no key. He calls for an ax, but the narrator stops him:
“John, dear!” said I in the gentlest voice, “the key is down by the front steps, under the plantain leaf!” That silenced him for a few moments. Then he said- very quietly indeed, “Open the door my darling!” “I can’t,” said I, “key is down by the front door under the plantain leaf!” And then I said it again, several times, very gently and slowly, and said so often that he had to go and see, and he got it of course and came back. (Gilman 154)
Being free of the norms represented by the wallpaper, the narrator can stay the hand of her husband from destroying the door with an ax. While it takes a repetition, John eventually leaves to find the key and uses it to open the door.
Finally, the door open, the discourse ends when John observes his wife creeping around the room. Creeping is an interesting word that means to go without being noticed. Throughout the story, the women of the wallpaper have crept, sometimes on all fours, but always the creep. They do so, it would seem, in order not to be noticed. Once they escape their prison and realize that they are human and intelligent, they have no desire to return. However, lacking a definition, the narrator seems to have gone mad. Finally, she has come from the cave, but she is just as confused as when she was confined, “I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back” (Gilman 154). John faints. Patriarchy has been temporary reversed, but she creeps over him (Gilman 154). She must continue to creep over him until he wakes. There is the idea that he will wake at some point since he’s only fainted. Patriarchy is only temporarily suspended, and while he cannot put her back behind the bars of the wallpaper, at some point, she will have to be contained to return her to the healthy society of her day.
Gilman’s story represents an ongoing struggle for women as they seek to identify themselves separately from preconceived notions of the masculine social convention. Language can become the chains that constrain and require conformity to social conventions. One area that is rife with a similar dialog as Gilman’s is the concept of extreme complementarianism. One such example is John Piper and his conception of living as a Biblical man or woman. On his radio show, he was taking phone calls answering questions and providing a view of what it meant to live as a Biblical man or woman. Piper accepted one particular call that interested me, and that was a woman who was interested in becoming a member of law enforcement.
Piper listened to the young lady, but his response to her was similar to reading the dialog of John as he berated and belittled his wife in his sarcastic, condescending fashion:
At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to man’s differing relationships. The postman won’t relate to the lady at the door the way the husband will, but he will be a man. At the heart of mature womanhood is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to woman’s differing relationships. (Piper)
Just as the wallpaper reflects the confusion of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” so too does Piper use a language that confuses the identity of women trying to live in the public sphere. Just as the poem “Women’s Rights” suggests, Piper draws a list of acceptable behaviors for women as, “the heart of a mature woman is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men” (Piper). Piper seems to suggest that all men are entitled to if the postman, who is not the woman’s husband, has natural authority over a woman because he is a man strikes me as being very similar to the way in which John belittles his wife as if she were a child.
Despite the fact that Piper began his comments with a disclaimer that he would never make a declarative category that would divide people into distinctly male or female groups, he still felt that there was a difference between masculine and feminine jobs. Police officers, doctors, lawyers, or, basically, any position where a woman would have authority over a man was unacceptable:
Some influence is very directive, and some are non-directive. For example, a drill sergeant might epitomize directive influence over the privates in a platoon. And it would be hard for me to see how a woman could be a drill sergeant- hut two, right face, left face, keep your mouth shut, private- over men without violating their sense of manhood and her sense of womanhood. (Piper)
Again, Piper uses words to bind the authority and ability of women. A woman should never have authority over man as “it would violate his sense of manhood makes men seem weak in the first place” (Piper). However, his language is also the language of definition intended to shape the future.
Patriarchal language begins developing the minds of people when they are mere children. Lately, my ten-year-old daughter has experienced subjection to afore-mentioned language and practice of patriarchy. She loves to play sports, but recently she was told by a group of boys at school that boy’s sports were all that mattered because their dads said so. They told her that nobody cared “about girl’s sports.” She came straight home and asked me if that was what everybody thought. When I explained to her that was not what everybody thought, she seemed happier, but she informed me that she was going to prove all those boys wrong. She would outplay any of them any day if they let her play.
Gilman masterfully captures these ideas in her story. John embodies the social conception of women as being substandard. Much like Piper and the boys at school, John mostly treats his wife as if she were complaining, and Rousseau suggests, “Women do wrong to complain of inequality of man-made laws; this inequality is not of man’s making, or at any rate it is not the result of more prejudice, but of reason” (571).
Even more than just complaining, however, Gilman represents the flawed logic of her day as well as the advice given by Piper. There is a suggestion that men are necessary as logical beings to bring definition to women. Piper’s language is indicative of the same linguistic category suggested by Gilman, namely that the justification for dominance over women through medical definition, family position, and social roles is due to women being merely creatures rather than fully formed adults that can reason and desire without outside definitions.
The dialog between John and his wife oversimplifies women. He treats her as a child using language that would be more appropriate for a child. He lords his scientific prowess and high reputation over her as if he were a god and her his creation. The narrator strives to fit into the conception of what it means to be a woman for her husband. She struggles to admire him, she obeys his orders as a doctor and a husband, and she struggles to appease him even when she has done nothing wrong. The dialog has changed since Gilman wrote this story, but it has not changed so drastically to erase the image of the yellow wallpaper from out of the hearts of women in Western society. The urge to perform according to the social standards still exists, and that desire can still be tyrannical.
In conclusion, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman provides an astounding commentary on the desire of women to define themselves as individuals apart from social convention. Just as masculine identity does not depend only on a profession, so women should not be defined by the social tendency to categorize women as “other.” The concept of what it means to be a woman must not continuously and continually find definition through patriarchal cultural institutions; instead, women need the freedom to explore and identify who they are without the interference of so many overarching interpretations. In the end, an institutional definition serves to confuse individual identity both socially and privately. The idea of the yellow wallpaper provides a discourse on how women can be trapped desiring to know who they are and how they should act or be.
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