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On Feminism and The Yellow

Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman

Feminism is based on the assumption that women have the same human, political and
social rights as men, furthermore, that women should have the same opportunities as men
in their personal choices regarding careers, politics and expression. A feminist text states
the authors agenda for women in society as they relate to oppression by a patriarchal
power structure and the subsequent formation of social standards and protocols. A
feminist text will be written by a woman, and it will point out deficiencies in society
regarding equal opportunity, and the reader will typically be aware of this motive. In a
work of fiction, the main character, or heroine, personifies the social struggle against
male domination.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a feminist text, telling a story about a womans struggles against
male-centric thinking and societal norms. The text may be ambiguous to the reader who
is unfamiliar with Gilmans politics and personal biography, yet, it impresses any reader
with the puerile treatment of the main character, who remains nameless in the text. To the
casual reader, the story is one of a good-meaning, but oppressive husband who drives his
wife mad in an attempt to help her, but it story illustrates how established protocols of
behavior could have devastating effects on the women of Gilmans time, regardless of the
intentions of the purveyor. By late 20th century standards, the behavior of John, the
husband, seems eerily inappropriate and restrictive, but was considered quite normal in
the 19th century.
After learning of Gilmans life, and by reading her commentary and other works, one can
readily see that The Yellow Wallpaper has a definite agenda in its quasi-autobiographical
style. As revealed in Elaine Hedges forward from the Heath Anthology of American
Literature, Gilman had a distressed life, because of the choices she had made which
disrupted common conventionsfrom her abandonment of her child to her amicable
divorce. (Lauter, 799) Her childhood is described notably by Ann Lane as an introduction to
the 1979 publication of Herland, one of Gilmans most notable novels.
Charlotte and her brother grew up in an unhappy, cheerless home. Mother and
children lived on the edge of poverty, moving nineteen times in eighteen years to
fourteen different cities.
Soon after her marriage to Charles Stetson and the birth of her daughter, she fell into a
deeply depressed condition and consulted Dr. S. Weir Mitchell who prescribed his
famous rest cure. It is her experience with Mitchells treatment that inspired her to write
The Yellow Wallpaper.
During most of her adult life, Gilman was heavily involved in politics and continued
publishing her ideas through critical essays, novels and The Forerunner, a journal that
she had written and published almost entirely by herself. Her views of a womans societal

place were made clear, not only in her novels and essays, but by her most famous work,
Women and Economics, published in 1898. (Lauter, 800)
Gilman was an early feminist, and her writings share a common theme that women do
not have an equal human status in our society. She advocated a new economic and
socialist order brought about by a collective womens movement as the solution to their
frustrations. (Gilman, Foreward) (Gilman, Foreward) She wrote the novel Herland to
describe a unique society without the problems generated by male deflections. Herland
sets a feminine Utopia where the entire society, lost by freak cataclysm, has no menand
none of their problems or rules. She wrote the novel Herland to describe a unique society
without the problems generated by male deflections. Herland sets a feminine Utopia
where the entire society, lost by freak cataclysm, has no menand none of their
problems or rules. She wrote the novel Herland to describe a unique society without the
problems generated by male deflections. Herland sets a feminine Utopia where the
entire society, lost by freak cataclysm, has no menand none of their problems or rules.
She wrote the novel Herland to describe a unique society without the problems generated
by male deflections. Herland sets a feminine Utopia where the entire society, lost by
freak cataclysm, has no menand none of their problems or rules.
Knowing that Gilman was a controversial figure for her day, and after reading her other
works, it is easy to see more of her feminist allusions in The Yellow Wallpaper. It seems
that she has carefully crafted her sentences and metaphors to instill a picture of lurid and
creepy male oppression. Her descriptions of the house recall a bygone era; she refers to it
as an ancestral hall and goes on to give a gothic description of the estate. She falls just
short of setting the scene for a ghost story. The reference to old things and the past is a
reference to out-dated practices and treatment of women, as she considers the future to
hold more equality. By setting the story in this tone, Gilman alludes to practices of
oppression that, in her mind, should be relegated to the past.
The surface of the text contains clues about Gilmans perceptions of the treatment and
roles of women. Her main character stumbles over technical words like phosphates,
showing that women were overlooked in education. Moreover, she demonstrates a
normalcy of women that are non-technicalthey should not have to worry about
phosphates, which are in the scientific realm assigned to men. The character Gilman sets
up in her first few pages is of the proper Victorian womandutiful to her husband,
simple and non-technical. Gilman goes out of her way to describe the garden of the house
as delicious, this, perhaps, an allusion to a womans place in the kitchen. In the world of
yellow wallpaper, a woman would naturally be fascinated by a garden. Gilmans
character is a nave, faithful wife who does as her husband instructs her to. She blames
herself for being unreasonably angry and is critical of her nervous disorder, as she is
pressured to think so by her husband and doctors. Despite her intuitive objections, she
agrees to treatment for her depression because her husband wishes her to.

It is the wallpaper, though, that is the focal-point of the story, and it holds within it many
descriptive and fruitful metaphors for the insidious discrimination and oppression of
women. With steady patience and a methodical rhythm, Gilman exposes more and more
insight into the meaning of the wallpaper throughout the story. She uses a slow and
steady pace to release tidbits of metaphor that clue the reader to see the wallpaper as a
symbol of male authority. The main characters fascination with the ugly paper begins as
an innocent annoyance, builds to a pastime, and crescendos to an obsession. The beauty
of the story, however, is that this build-up is very subtle, and only after reflection and
contemplation can the symbols of the wallpaper be seen. Indeed, the character in the story
cannot recognize them herself, and it is the struggle to see what is in the wallpaper that
moves the reader along.
The text is sprinkled with metaphors and allegories concerning the paper; the references
are complex and numerous. There is the papers stench, which subtly pervades the whole
house. This perhaps to give a sense of pervasive and inescapable injustice, much like the
unspoken social rules which governed Gilmans world. The papers pattern, which slowly
develops from bulbous eyes to a woman shaking bars. It contains many vague images,
but acts as a paranoid menagerie of domination. Gilman gives a sense that the wallpaper
is ever-present and lurking, like the subtle rejections she faced as a female writer. The
paper stains people and things, much like society passing its sense of protocol from
person to person, father to son. A constantly changing light which shows new and
mutating forms in the papersymbols of the many ways chauvinism has perpetrated
itself. Each one can be read as a different facet of a male-centric society and its effect on
women. The images are so numerous that it is not possible to know precisely what
Gilman meant for each oneperhaps she was unsure herselfbut a reader can
personalize them all and gain a sense of them from the context Gilman places around the
One of the texts strongest images is the papers pattern, which seems to change with
different lighting. Particular traits can only be seen under certain conditions, and they
change over time. This could be a symbol of the subtle methods of discrimination that
women face, for they can only be seen at certain times and under certain conditions. A
promotion may be passed or a novel rejected, but these actions of discrimination can be
so subtly framed that they go largely unnoticed by the masses. To the trained eye, like
Gilmans main character, they becomes obvious. Another symbol is the papers odor. It is
described as pervasive yet familiar, and makes an excellent metaphor for the pervasive
and foul effects of male domination. Gilman describes the odor magnificently, and one
becomes repulsed by it. Another tell-tale descriptor is the skulking woman, figuratively
hiding and lurking, perhaps Gilmans feelings about her own writing, lurking among men
and not being openly individualistic. Strangled heads in the paper may symbolize women
whose careers and goals have been choked, and the main characters tearing down of the
paper and creeping over her husband is clearly a symbol of triumph. Gilman herself
broke through the glass ceiling to be widely published, and this may have been the kind
of victory she was extollingtearing down the glass ceiling. Perhaps, even, her victory

over her experience with Dr. Mitchells rest cure gave inspiration. In the end, the main
character must creep over her husband even after tearing down the paper, indeed, bits of
the paper remain on the wall. This reads strongly that there are still advances to be made
in terms of true social and economic equality, and husbands lie down as obstacles to be
dealt with.
Gilman wrote about her purpose for writing The Yellow Wallpaper some years after it was
first published, and describes her motivations in doing so. She tells of at least one person
who was liberated from Mitchells rest cure, and she very clearly states her elation at
having escaped(Gilman, Oct. 1913)
The metaphors, images and the basic plot of the story leave a reader with a female
character that has broken out in triumph over an oppressive set of male characters. She
makes her own way through a hobby of writing, and finds individuality against the norms
of her society. The Yellow Wallpaper is a feminist text, because it promotes new ideas
from Gilman and challenges old ideas about womens position in society. Gilman shows a
female heroine that overcomes oppression in many forms to find her own opportunities
for personal choice. The text inspires its reader at many levels, but most importantly, it
exposes ugly and unnoticed social conventions that are second-nature to its male
characters. The story promotes Gilmans agenda for change, and it illustrates a womans
struggle to find equal opportunity in society.