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Christina Stewart

English 101

Mrs. Fischer

October 19th, 2015

Historical Analysis of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman

Gender roles have endured many changes throughout history, especially in recent years.

Before the feminist movements in the U.S., women were viewed and treated very differently

than they are today. While controversy about women’s rights still remains an issue, it is evident

that the treatment of women in all aspects has improved greatly since the 19th century. Women’s

treatment during the 19th century is portrayed in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The

Yellow Wallpaper”. Gilman’s full motives of writing this short story are questionable, other than

she was a feminist seeking equality. The full meaning of the text is difficult for one to conclude

by simply reading it one time with no outside research. This is because contemporary individuals

do not have full knowledge of what historical events were taking place during the time of this

writing, which causes their interpretations to be quite limited. Since my understanding of “The

Yellow Wallpaper” was vague, I researched two outside sources that contained both historical

evidence and close reading of the text. The articles written by Paula Treichler and Conrad

Shumaker helped me to acquire new knowledge and understanding of the short story, giving it a

deeper meaning than the broad feminist approach. The historical and cultural events that

influenced the story and the contemporary response to the text amalgamate to shape my

understanding of the central purpose of the story: a symbol of women’s harsh domestic and

medical treatment during the 19th century.


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Treichler’s excerpt, titled “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The

Yellow Wallpaper’” reveals an alternative interpretation of the story. She attempts to convey the

message that she believes the author of short story, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was trying to send

to readers. At the beginning of Treichler’s article, she explains the feminist approach theme of

the story in depth. A broad approach would be that the story is about a woman that faces

patriarchy, which was common in the 19th century. Treichler does not dismiss that idea, but

instead categorizes the two specific types of patriarchy that the narrator experienced: the stigma

that a female’s discourse was inferior to a male’s and the poor medical treatment women

received. Treichler uses examples from the story to propose her argument. She explains that from

the very beginning of the story, the narrator’s opinions in general, including those about her

illness, are not even considered by her husband. Her husband forces her to practice his

“treatment” for her illness and he forbids her from making any decisions or having any part in an

intellectual conversation (Treichler 61). Then, Treichler ultimately portrays the linguistic

superiority that the narrator’s husband holds over her by revealing that he even took away her

privilege to write. Because of this, the narrator must write her thoughts in a hidden journal, a

“dead paper” (Treichler 61). After she uses the text of the short story to substantiate her

argument, Treichler provides historical evidence as a second source. She explains that Gilman’s

story is actually based on her own experience in which she faced stigmas against women and

received unfair treatment both medically and domestically. Treichler explains this by claiming

that Gilman had visited a neurologist to seek treatment for depression. When she brought a

historical analysis that she had researched to the physician, he dismissed it by saying that the

research “proved her conceit” and left her with a faulty prescription to follow (Treichler 68).

Treichler then goes on to display that Gilman actually used the name of the physician that
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dismissed her studies in “The Yellow Wallpaper”: S Weir Mitchell. After her short story was

published, Gilman personally sent a copy of it to the physician (Treichler 68). Aside from the

story being based on Gilman’s own life, influences of women’s treatment as a whole in a

patriarchal society played a key role in her writing. She was not the only woman that faced unfair

treatment in a marriage and/or by a physician. Because so many women during the time period

were disrespected in the light of speech and health, Gilman combined the two objectives in her

short story. Evidence of her combination is conveyed by the fact that the narrator of the story is

the wife of a physician, which amalgamates medical patriarchy with domestic patriarchy

(Treichler 69).

Treichler’s excerpt gave me a very clear and deeper interpretation of the short story. She

provides a historical background on the treatment of women in the 19th century that allows

modern readers to have a better understanding of the story. Treichler’s evidence of the author’s

influences outside of the text justifies her proposal and gives a notion of reality to the short story.

My new knowledge of the historical conventions during the time period in which “The Yellow

Wallpaper” was written helps me to understand why Gilman chose to convey that certain

message.

The other article that sparked my interest and contributed to my understanding of the

short story is titled “Realism, Reform, and the Audience: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Unreadable

Wallpaper” and is written by Conrad Shumaker. Shumaker’s article explores the contemporary

reaction to “The Yellow Wallpaper” after it was published in the 19th century. In today’s times,

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is highly renowned and respected. However, just like many other

famous works of art, it did not become the prominent story it is known to be today until long

after it was first published. The story was, although, praised by influential critic William Dean
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Howells for its “innovative brilliance”, but even he could not convince audiences to accept it

(Shumaker 81). Shumaker explains that the reason Gilman could not reach her audience as

she had wished is because the people were true to the conventional roles of that time period

were not familiar with the feminist literature perspective. Because contemporary individuals

did not understand what message Gilman was trying to send, many accused her of “trying to

drive women crazy” through her story (Shumaker 82). Gilman’s objective was to simply

combine realism and reform, which was undeniably a difficult approach (Shumaker 82).

Shumaker then transitions to the text and symbolism of “The Yellow Wallpaper” in order to

validate his stance on the difficulties in combining reform with realism. He proposes that the

narrator of the story is actually a general symbol of married women as a whole. He substantiates

this by giving the example of the narrator’s shifting from “me” to “one” in her statement “John

laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage” (Gilman 208). Shumaker then uses

marriage between the narrator and the physician as a symbolism of comparison to a doctor

and patient: meaning that the female is inferior to the male just as the knowledge of a

patient is inferior to that of a doctor. He explains more symbols in the story such as the “front

pattern” of the wallpaper, which “represents, among other things, the conventions that imprison

her” (Shumaker 90). Then, towards the end of the story, the narrator speaks of “creeping by

daylight”, which is “the act of acknowledging opposition to the conventions” (Shumaker 90).

Shumaker explains this as Gilman’s main objective: that the women that decide to “creep by

daylight”, will be free. Shumaker makes an input that if many women of that day had “crept by

daylight”, Gilman’s message would have been realistic, and, moreover, better understood.

Shumaker’s writing was very beneficial to my understanding as a modern reader because

it displays historical evidence of the rejection of “The Yellow Wallpaper”. He gives reasoning as
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to why it was not accepted by using explanations made by Gilman’s associates and other

scholars of the time period. The fact that the story was rejected and the reasons why reveals a

greater understanding to the modern readers of how serious the conventional gender situation

was during the 19th century. Because individuals were indoctrinated by society of patriarchal

conventions, feminism ideals were deemed as unrealistic and improbable.

After I first read “The Yellow Wallpaper”, I was perplexed about its central meaning.

The two articles that I researched contributed to my full understanding of the story. The articles

influenced my stance that Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s purpose in her writing was indeed to

reform the patriarchal society to equalize women’s speech and medical treatment with that of

men’s by using a realistic approach. While Gilman could not successfully reform her

contemporary society on her own, she will now forever be regarded by society for her

attempt to do so.
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Works Cited

Shumaker, Conrad. "Realism, Reform, and the Audience: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's

Unreadable Wallpaper." Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture,

and Theory 47.1 (1991): 81-93. Project MUSE. University of Arizona. Web. 15 Oct.

2015.

Treichler, Paula A. "Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow

Wallpaper’" Jstor. University of Tulsa, 1984. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.