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Social expectations in the nineteenth century encouraged a kind of pessimistic selflessness that could have resulted in a woman thinking of herself as nothing, as or worth less than nothing. Women of that time were controlled by "superiors" like their husbands or fathers and forced to lose their identity under repressing social system-- patriarchy. In "The Yellow Wallpaper", Gilman skillfully reveals this aspect that drives woman desperate by fabricating the plotline of her own story. Gilman's narrator is confined in a nursery and forced to do nothing because it's recommended for her mental illness. But by her patriarchal husband and the treatment without considering her as a being, the narrator's condition gets worsened. With nothing to stimulate the narrator, she becomes obsessed with observing the yellow wallpaper and imagining a crawling woman inside it. It becomes an inspiration for the narrator to find self-identity. Identifying herself with the crawling woman in wallpaper, the narrator completely descends into madness at the ending. Throughout the process of searching for a true identity of the narrator, Gilman begs the important questions to be asked: What deprives the narrator of her identity? What does the yellow wallpaper symbolize? And lastly, does her insanity record itself as a triumph or a defeat? In this paper, I will attempt to cover these answers from a feminist perspective with the theme of "searching for identity".
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Officially born into the prominent and well-known Beecher family in 1860 as Charlotte Anna Perkins, Gilman was eager and passionate for self-improvement from when she was a child. The overly critical circumstances in Gilman's life, however, forged impenetrable obstacles on the path to her utmost desires. In her childhood, for example, she underwent traumatic experiences, especially when Gilman's father abandoned the family high and dry, leaving them impoverished when she was only thirteen. Therefore, her family was sent to reside with relatives and relocated so often during her dim and lacking childhood. This could have been one reason that Gilman developed such an ambivalent opinion towards marriage and a factor that could have influenced her to not marry during her early adulthood. Of course, that chaste vow was severed when she married, but the couple's sweet oaths terminated when the two came down with a decision to divorce with one daughter left at the end of their unsuccessful relationship. Many years later, Gilman was remarried to her cousin and they remained happily married until his sudden death. Tragically, in 1935, Gilman discovered that she had an incurable case of breast cancer and committed suicide after serving years as an advocate for the right-to-die.
"Gilman used her energies and her gifts in an effort to understand the world and her place in it and to extend that knowledge and those insights to others." (Lane, 1990:229) Gilman lived at a time of great change and underwent events that had great influence on the development of the American society such as Industrial Revolution and Women's Movement. Not accepting these events happen without appropriate examination, she became an enthusiastic writer, commentator, social critic, and feminist. She criticized the limitation of social order, especially its effects on the status of women. In her works, Gilman devoted herself to inspiring women with her revolutionary ideas and raising the standard of life for women by pointing out severe problems in society.
Unfortunately, Gilman's work was buried in the archives of literature and temporarily forgotten amongst avid readers in the years following her death. In the 1970s, however, feminist writers and theorists rediscovered and reappraised Gilman's work for its accurate show display of social abuse. Many of Gilman's writings are read today as significant examples of feminist literature. "The Yellow Wallpaper" in particular has generated much attention as modern readers appreciate both its literary value and profound social commentary.
1.2 The Yellow Wallpaper and Social Background of the Time
When "The Yellow Wallpaper", was published in the 1892 edition of The New England Magazine, people only praised the story's exquisite imagery and chilling mood. However, this story was categorized as a chilling reminder that revealed powerful force of social norms after it was released once more in The Feminist Press at 1973 as a separate volume. Soon enough, "The Yellow Wallpaper" became the representative icon of feminist literature.
The storyline of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is simple. After giving birth, the narrator suffers from some undefined illness-- a kind of nervous fatigue or depression; therefore, her husband, a doctor, decides to take her into a colonial house off in the countryside for three months. For the ailed young wife, the entire family is expected to adjust to a rural lifestyle, and her sister-in-law takes over the tedious household chores and newborn infant as they may be detrimental to the wife's recovery. Additionally, she is kept from meeting others, writing, and enjoying any other activity that may require a so-called "harmful" level of concentration and effort. Even though she is pampered with her husband's attention and love, her mental health chances the opposite direction and descents into an irrevocable condition of insanity. Hence, the readers are able to peek into her own world of hysteria through the entries of her journal that she keeps away from her husband's prying view. Indeed, the suave method in which she executes her prominent use of syntax and sentence spacing clearly proves that there were several interruptions. Not only do the rhythmic passages elicit suspense and adrenaline-pumping fear, but it also allows the readers to sympathize with the main character and progressively understand the development of her immense discomfort. However, when it is ultimately revealed that she is finally insane, the readers undoubtedly fall into the same shock as does her husband.
Her pitiful story clearly exemplifies exactly how a woman may lose her freedom and self identity under the patriarchal social system. When "The Yellow Wallpaper" was written, the position of women was very different from what it is today. Women could not vote and they were destined to spend their lives only in domestic sphere. Though some could earn, the wages they got were legally owned by their fathers and husbands. They were just forcibly expected to fulfill their duties as devoted mothers and wives and be satisfied with the fact. Likewise, though their consciousness was gradually awakening, their legal and social statuses were still based on their dependence upon the men around them. This conflict and psychic discontinuity caused a sort of hysteria for many women of the time. In that sense, the nervous breakdown the narrator is suffering in this story is typical of that particular century. Under such social backgrounds, Gilman reveals women's limited and oppressed situation by putting the narrator against the conventions of those bleak days. Ironically, though the narrator's husband is seen as the clear villain through the whole story, he is only a reflection of the society he belongs to. The narrator's desire and passion to find more in her life do not agree with social expectations and they make her grow away from the idealized model of woman at that time.
1.3 Literature Review: Studies on "The Yellow Wallpaper"
After giving birth, Gilman herself suffered depression for three years and finally succumbed to the "rest cure" prescribed by the famous physician, Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. However, because she was forced to do nothing and see no one, Gilman's depression got worse and worse. She eventually refused those directions and returned to her daily routines and work. Then, she recovered and wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper." Here, she claimed that the short story was essentially a critical proposition against the doctor who had tried to cure her through ineffective means, and proudly stated the purpose of writing it, "It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked" (Gilman, 1992:53).
However, it was not easy for Gilman to publish "The Yellow Wallpaper" because editors and readers were unwilling and unready to accept it. When the story was sent to Scudder, an influential editor, the reaction was beyond bittersweet and overly critical. He refused the story as saying that "I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself" (Scudder, 1998:33). It is possible that the atmosphere of Victorian America and its high expectations for literature within their cultural and socially accepted range required that Scudder reject "The Yellow Wallpaper." The story did not suggest the kind of uplifting ending like typical stories of the time; moreover, the protagonist who became insane was an ordinary middle-class wife. Gilman's uncomfortable portrayal of such a normal female citizen descending into madness within the Victorian patriarchal social system caused Scudder to feel "miserable," and he may have rejected the story for the purpose of protecting his readers from the taboo shock factor of it.
Without a doubt, after its publication, "The Yellow Wallpaper" was greeted with strong but mixed reactions and commentaries. Readers of that sheltered time period criticized this work of literature harshly for its abnormal context and taboo storyline. On the other hand, for feminist critics, it was regarded as a literary masterpiece because it offered a feminist perspective on the social situation confronting sexual politics when most authors were frightened and preferred to stay in the safe zone to please the easily aroused audience. Hedges evaluated it:
For aside from the light it throws on the personal despairs, and the artistic triumph over them, of one of America's foremost feminists, the story is one of the rare pieces of literature we have by a nineteenth-century woman which directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship(Hedges, 1992:124).
And Gilbert and Gubar referred to the "The Yellow Wallpaper" as "a striking story of female confinement and escape, a paradigmatic tale which seems to tell the story that all literary women would tell if they could speak their 'speechless woe'"(Gilbert and Gubar, 1998:34).Warren also praised "The Yellow Wallpaper" as "a devastating portrait of a woman struggling to free herself from a conventional, personality-destroying marriage based on constricting sex roles" (Warren, 1984:259).
Through many feminist readings, "The Yellow Wallpaper" became not simply a horror piece, but a fictional arena in which Gilman questioned and challenged the submissive role forced upon women. The short story became an avant-garde work that still serves as an encouraging icon of female strength and perseverance even if they may be suppressed by male dominance.
In regard to the shocking and controversial ending, critics still continue to debate whether her descent into madness was either a triumph or a defeat. Relatively speaking, the earliest studies conducted in the 1970s deemed "The Yellow Wallpaper" as a victorious story of a woman attempting to free herself from a patriarchal society. Gilbert and Gubar gave the most optimistic interpretation about such a subject as saying that:
A supposedly mad woman has been sentenced to imprisonment in the 'infected' house of her own body; however, through identification with the double trapped on the other side of the wallpaper, the woman -whom society perceived as mad- escapes from her textual and architectural confinement into the open space of her authority(36).
Through Kennard's eyes, the narrator's madness was seen even more optimistically as "a form of higher sanity, as an indication of a capacity to see truths other than those available to the logical mind" (Kennard, 1992:180).
But some critics, on the other hand, emphasize the obvious limitations of the narrator's situation at the end of the story. In Hedges's perspective, the narrator achieves temporary freedom but "is destroyed" (Hedges, 1992:132) because she is completely mad, so she claims it cannot be a complete "freedom" (131).
Chapter Two Analysis of "The Yellow Wallpaper" with the Theme of "Identity"
2.1 Searching for Identity
2.1.1 Patriarchy and Identity
In the nineteenth century America, women were repressed, judged, and controlled by a patriarchal system of social order. Women did not share the same responsibilities and rights that men possessed as a natural gift, and were kept close only as "objects" rather than people. Similarly in "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator's identity is also forced down by such crude and oppressing social expectations and duties-patriarchy.
First, the narrator in this story is completely dominated by her husband, John, which is not an uncommon case when taking the background and historical context of the situation. The narrator says, "John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage. John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures"(13). As such, John is so "rational" and humbled by his gender superiority that he doesn't care for his wife's true emotional discomfort and merely believes that she is suffering from nothing more than a "slight hysterical tendency." Instead, as a physician, he prescribes the "rest cure," confining the narrator to the nursery and prohibiting her from using her imagination because he believes it would worsen her health. Throughout the story, John treats the narrator, his wife, like a child as he affectionately calls her either a "blessed little goose" or a "little girl." Also, when the narrator tries to talk about what troubles her to him, he ignores her desperation and refuses to view her as an equal and more as his line of responsibility. Though we can obviously see that he loves and cares for his bride, the way he expresses this sort of adoration and fondness is absolutely restricted, limited, and hypocritical. He doesn't listen or even attempt to feign interest at the face of her personal desires and respect her identity or existence at all. In doing so, the narrator is forced to become a submissive wife to her biased and highly sexist husband.
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At the same time, the narrator is compelled and tempted to live life accordingly as a devoted mother like Jennie, John's beloved younger sister. While the narrator constantly fails in her duties as "the angel in the house," Jennie cordially undertakes all the maternal duties that the nineteenth century views about the role of women typically suggests like finishing all the household chores, nurturing the family, negating her own desire for the sake of a stable marriage, and staying content to spend her life as a trophy mother and bride. The narrator almost enviously observes, "She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!"(17). Jennie symbolizes the happily domesticated woman, while the narrator is portrayed as being a part of an abnormal class for harboring a dangerous desire to break free from such domestic restraints. Writing is only way for the narrator to express herself, but Jennie agrees with John's evaluation and also prevents her from enjoying such simple activities that require no straining effort on the narrator's part. Jennie may be able to understand the narrator better than John as a woman, but she doesn't listen to her, either, and attempts to tame her to be a socially accepted mother and housewife like herself. This forceful expectation stifles the narrator and gradually deters her from discovering her own true self-worth.
The "rest cure" that is prescribed to the narrator when she is suffering from neurasthenia is also a symbol of patriarchy that demolishes her human identity. The treatment prioritizes her to linger in the confines of a nursery, partake in absolute rest, keep away from mental or social activities, and also requires a complete isolation from family and friends. Although John, the narrator's husband and doctor, means well to cure his mentally troubled wife, he eventually worsens her health by separating her from the outside world. The "rest cure" only narrows the focus onto the physical condition of the patient and not the emotional or mental, which later proves to be ineffective in curing her unidentified ailment. John only considers her as a passive subject of treatment and, in some cases, as a glorified but incapable overgrown infant. The patriarchal social system that forces a woman's submission in the domestic setting and her obedience in a doctor/ patient relationship is influential in this particular treatment.
Then, the narrator's defiant action of resistance for self-expression in the story escalates to the breaking point with the "writing" issue. The main character hides her journal because writing in it is profoundly against her husband's wishes. She attempts to hide her diary every time he returns from his business outings, saying each time: "There comes John, and I must put this away-he hates to have me write a word." Although John "absolutely forbids" her from writing by arguing that it would essentially interrupt her recovery , the narrator feels that writing provides her freedom and comfort because she truly believes that "congenial work, with excitement and change, would do good"(14). As Gilbert mentions and asserts, role of writing is for the narrator's personal expression rather than an action of resistance toward her husband in this story. For this reason, she keeps writing the secret journal and expressing her feelings on the pages because writing is the only accessible method she can take advantage of to free her independent opinions and uncover her own identity amongst the constricting levels of repression. In that sense, her enforced inactivity would have gradually led to her ironic and unexpected self-destruction and the act of writing actually represents a meaningful struggle for self-actualization.
All these facts also imply the real reason as to why the main protagonist should remain anonymous from the beginning to the end of this story. It is unusual that the main character has no name and fails to introduce herself while the other minor characters (even the nanny) appear to have a name. Gilman purposely deprived the narrator of a name to emphasize the fact that women of that historical era lose their identities, being forced to live only as ideal mothers or wives in the patriarchal society. This idea is so open-ended that presumably any wife, mother, or-in general, women-may have their own personal identity stripped from them amongst the workings of such a dehumanizing and male-dominated society.
2.1.2 Symbolism of the Yellow Wallpaper
While the narrator is confined in the nursery, she begins to pursue her ambitions to find out the mystical meaning of the wallpaper and fabricate imaginary stories stemming from it as she observes its picturesque designs and intricate patterns. Because she disobeys John's orders and suggestions after imagining the woman trapped in the yellow wallpaper, it has a symbolic significance as an inspiration for her to discover her true identity.
As she studies the wallpaper during her free time, she feels that she is breaking free from her oppression and exclaims, "And I know John would think it absurd. But I must say what I feel and think in some way-it is such a relief!"(19). While being prohibited to write and partake in such recreational activities, the yellow wallpaper becomes her greatest and only visual and mental pleasure as she proclaims, "Life is very much more exciting now that it used to be. You see, I have something more to expect, to look forward to watch" (22). Whenever the narrator attempts to converse about her repressed feelings to her husband, he would not hear of it, however, the wallpaper seems to listen to her frenzied thoughts and reflect her truest emotions. Thereby, the narrator's struggle to observe the stationary wallpaper symbolizes searching for her identity by the approach she uses to portray its significance throughout the story.
When the narrator "meets" the yellow wallpaper for the first time, she thinks that it is the "worst paper" that she has never seen in her life. As it takes on the role of mirroring her unconscious mind, she does not feel satisfied with herself and becomes even more and more confused and lost within the chambers of her own sanity. Consequently, the process that the narrator undergoes to find meaning in the pattern worsens her condition, yet she continues the search regardless of it being detrimental to her health. The longer the narrator admires the paper, the more definition she perceives in both parts of the paper, which reveals itself to be a front pattern of bars and a back pattern that resembles a woman. Continuously, the narrator dissects these odd shapes from the design, imagining eyes and other organic forms not native to its original pattern. The narrator notes with fascination and horror of "the shadow of the woman who is creeping in the wallpaper," (24) in which she also realizes that "the woman seems to shake the pattern to get out of the wallpaper" (25). The narrator parallels this vision of the caged woman to her own current state wherein she is confined in the nursery room, unable to practice her personal liberties to her own freedom of will. In summation, the unidentified woman trapped behind the barred pattern of the yellow wallpaper most obviously represents the narrator's social condition and her state of mind.
At first, the woman in the wallpaper appears to be calm during the daytime, but behaves wildly in the nighttime when she violently shakes the pattern to free herself from the bars. As time goes on, the woman in the wallpaper begins to be active both during the day and night; therefore, the narrator becomes absolutely obsessed with observing the formless figure. When she tries to uncover the buried secrets inside of her, the woman trapped in wallpaper inspires the narrator to listen to her own repressed inner voice. At the same time, she encounters uncomfortable truths that drive her to hopelessness; consequently, we can observe the narrator's transition from her acceptance to her gradual desire to escape.
Then, the narrator perceives the woman trapped in the wallpaper as a representation of herself that is trapped by the restrictive patterns of her own society. For this reason, she is determined to rip the wallpaper off the walls as if she attempts to overcome her situation and permanently eliminate the patriarchal forces that restrain her: "I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper"(25). Finally, the narrator liberates the woman captivated in the wallpaper by destroying it; furthermore, she identifies herself with the figure and ultimately becomes mentally unstable. The narrator is no longer an unpleasant or repressed woman as she declares, "It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!"(26).
And throughout the whole process, the color yellow has a significant symbol. The yellow color is usually associated with warmness and happiness; however in this story, it is linked to a malignant source that descends the narrator into insanity. As the "uncomfortable" yellow color, it not only symbolizes feelings of frustration and anger that the narrator feels under repressions, but also alludes the old and stuffy patriarchal society she faces in an ironic way. Gilman probably decided the dubious color "yellow" with a significant purpose to describe the unpleasant atmosphere, and I think it worked amazingly. From observing the wallpaper to destroying it, the entire process symbolizes the narrator's struggle to rediscover her self-identity in the midst of such "yellowed" social constraints.
2.2 Insanity: Triumph or Defeat?
At the chilling finale of this story, the narrator escapes in a way no one expected. When John discovers his wife crawling on her hands and declaring "I've got out at last," (27) he is so overwhelmed by her drastically changed condition that he faints. The narrator, by interacting with the wallpaper and the woman trapped within the intricate designs, and creating the subtle meaning of the wallpaper, projects her psychotic thoughts and tendencies to the object of her obsessions and thirsts for her liberty from a largely patriarchal society wholesomely embodied in her husband. At the breaking point, the limitations and restrictions set by her husband's actions are the very cause that drives her into utter insanity.
Then, does the narrator truly triumph and worm her way out of her supposedly inevitable doom at last? A few opinionated critics like Gilbert and Gubar argue that the story's conclusion is not based on mere madness; rather, they perceive the young wife's state of insanity as a trifling victory because she was able to escape her husband John's demanding clutches and break the suffocating bonds between her and a cruel, domineering patriarchal society (Gilbert and Gubar, 1998:36). They might see the "insanity" as a victory because the patriarchal and hypocritical husband of the narrator, John, is temporarily defeated, or at least momentarily stunned. John's feminine faint of surprise can be viewed as the least triumph that the mad woman achieves. Likewise, Schopp-Schilling also sees the narrator's final descent into madness as a supreme defiance "which ultimately enables her to creep triumphantly over her husband" (Schilling, 1992:143). By tearing the wallpaper off, the narrator feels that she has achieved a sense of self-expression that couldn't have been executed or carried out by other persons, and though the narrator loses her sanity in the process, she displays a stable resistance to such oppressive domestic restraints and makes an arbitrary decision, so the insanity is ultimately interpreted as a triumph or escape from her symbolic confinement.
On the other hand, some critics assert that her irrevocable condition in the end is more of a defeat rather than optimistic success. In contrast with Gilbert and Gubar's statements, Haney-Peritz argues that "the narrator does not move out into open country; instead, she turns an ancestral hall into a haunted house and then encrypts herself therein as a fantasy figure"(Peritz,1992:271). Presumably, it is only in her subconscious that the narrator can conquer her mental restraints. She seems to triumph in the end by creeping over John, but such an uncanny act is only summoned from the miserable depth and corners of her desire and depression. She is unable to overcome the impediments that confine her in sanity, and sequentially, her capricious insanity empowers her to find and express herself. Additionally, it is noticeable that John only fainted, which leaves the open-ended possibility of her husband waking up from his state of unconsciousness later on and oppressing her even more harshly for fear of her psychological health and rationality declining. Therefore, with her husband's suppression only suspended for a specific amount of time, the narrator is not exactly safe or truly free from her domestic ties.
Both sides of the debate are accredited. In various ways, the narrator both wins and loses. The narrator's brief triumph cannot be discredited because her horrific insanity had incredibly changed John's attitude: "John who was never nervous in his life" (15) cried. His transformation possibly paved the path and might have established the foundation for women's possible liberation. At the same time, the narrator could not have completely achieved such an overthrow because this liberation goes unfortunately hand in hand with her insanity. However, I would rather label her ending endeavors as a trifle of a triumph because at least it could become inspiration for every woman that was fighting against such persecuting social restraints. I guess this is what Gilman tried to appeal through this story. Gilman stated the purpose of writing this story like this, "It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked" (Gilman, 1992:53). She has shown what results will come when a woman is confined with no self expression, no rights to make her own decision, and no desire to stimulate her. By that, the ending not only just points out the severity of those problems but also inspires women to resist oppressive gender roles, to take back repressions, and especially to find their own ways to fulfill their desires.
Chapter Three Conclusion
Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is so amazing in that she not only skillfully created and fabricated the complex plotline of her own story, but she also incorporated the fundamental and significant causes that led women of that time to insanity as a result of their mental anguish and anxiety. Although this influential short story is apparently similar to Gilman's other works in its awareness of women's problems, it actually distinguishes itself from the rest. Even Gilman herself considers it different and special under certain circumstances. The author once claimed that she didn't expect the story to be categorized as a piece of "literature" in any way because she wrote the story for a "special" purpose. "The real Purpose of this story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the errors of his ways. I sent him a copy as soon as it came out, but no response. However, many years later I met someone who knew him who said he had told them that he had changed his treatment since reading 'The Yellow Wallpaper.' If that is fact, then I have not lived in vain" (Gilman, 1983:317). Despite this, "The Yellow Wallpaper" has been regarded as the best of Gilman's creative writing and masterpiece in American literature. Unlike many mainstream literary works at that time, "The Yellow Wallpaper" does not offer an uplifting ending or introduce a desirable female model; rather, through her depiction of a woman tumultuously descending into insanity by means of a corrupted patriarchy, it horribly accuses the extreme restrictions confronting women in their society by emphasizing the devastating results of social and physical confinement and the dangers of limited escape.
Ultimately, Gilman leads the reader to focus on the destructive powers of social restraints and the devastating tragedies that could be an offspring of such a strict system. I wholeheartedly agree with Gilman's implicated but strong opinion in "The Yellow Wallpaper." Today modern women have relatively more freedom of expression and enjoyment than women from previous eras; however, in our present society, there still exists anonymous victims of the patriarchal societies, suffering, like the story's narrator, from "John" and some kind of "wallpaper." I would humbly suggest that our society should continue its brandished efforts to abolish the remained domestic and sexist restraints lest another unnamed, repressed woman should go insane or become another victim to such social atrocities.
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