According to the societal norms of the time period, women in the nineteenth century were expected to carry out their duties as mothers and wives. They were to be content in these roles and nothing further. Men and women had not been only divided between the private and public sector but women were destined to spend their lives solely in the sphere of domesticity. Those women who dared to enter into the masculine world were viewed as low class citizens and were criticized by many. Charlotte Perkins Gilman became one who had been criticized because she rebelled against social expectations in which women, during this era, were to be submitted to their husbands and tend to their children. Contrary to these morals and expectations Gilman left her first husband and moved to California to write. Because Gilman did such a thing as this she would be considered or even deemed unfit to belong in a highly regarded society. In her short story The Yellow Wall Paper, Gilman presents the struggles that she faced as a woman in the nineteenth century. This short story provides an insight on how women were confined to gender roles as well as men being the dominant species. It illustrates a woman's struggle for the importance of self expression and freedom.
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In the beginning of The Yellow Wall Paper Gilman presents issues that deal with gender roles as well as male dominance. "If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression what is one to do? My brother is also a physician and also of high standing and he says the same thing" (p.1684). Here Gilman shows how careers, such as physicians/doctors, were held by men and not women. The narrator in this case believed that since all men had agreed upon the woman's condition then that was what it was supposed to be. During this time women had not been allowed to even speak their own minds, let alone disagree with what the physician has stated. Their marriages had been primarily based on the husband's perspective and what he thought would be acceptable. The type of marriage in which the narrator and her husband John shared was that typical of a puritan marriage. Within the puritan beliefs on marriage, the wife was not only to be submissive to her husband but she was to lose herself in the marriage. These wives were often times seen as the husband's property. Her life was not considered to be her own any longer and any life outside of the marriage was unheard of. This puritan belief is seen quite frequently throughout this short story. The Yellow Wall Paper also presents male dominance in dealing with isolation and control. The unknown narrator, who is the wife of a physician, was diagnosed by her own husband with a provisional nervous condition in which the husband prescribes "the rest-cure". The rest cure, as stated in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, consisted of total bed rest for several weeks and limited intellectual activity thereafter. In order for John to have total dominance and control over his wife he used this prescription in order to keep the narrator in isolation from not only the outside world but from her own mind. This rest-cure was merely a way to keep the narrator from becoming who she really was and to control her thoughts of freedom and self expression while being in total isolation.
The struggle for freedom and self expression had been a main issue within this short story. The narrator had been placed within an upper room that was located in a rented house. Within this room was hideous yellow wall paper that had been plastered throughout. This wall paper mimicked that of a mental institution in which the narrator had been confined to stare at the wall paper for many days and nights. She had been stripped of her freedom and self expression as she was to maintain self control, according to husband John, and was unable to write or do anything that caused her to stimulate her imagination. This lack of freedom and self expression had been the cause of a secret journal in which she kept. Because she longed dreadfully for an expressive and emotional outlet, the journal had become a relief to her mind and kept her from going completely insane." I don't know why I should write this/but I must say what I feel and think in some way" (p.1689). She used this journal to write down whatever she thought to be fascinating about the yellow wall paper. The yellow wall paper in which she stared and was fixated upon symbolized many different things. It symbolized something that not only affects the narrator directly but it represented tradition, societal morals, family and marriage in which the narrator felt trapped in. The author also uses the yellow wall paper to symbolize the domestic life that had trapped so many women during this time. "I really have discovered something last night/the woman behind shakes it! sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over" (p.1692). As the narrator becomes aware of her loss of self, freedom and individuality she begins to tear down the yellow wall paper in hopes of breaking out and becoming freed from the isolation and confinement in which her husband and society has bound her. She becomes angry when she finds out that she has allowed both John and society to imprison her and bind her to such ridiculous principles and values. "I kept on creeping just the same, but looked at him over my shoulder. I've got out at last, said I, in spite of you and Jane! And I've pulled off most of the paper so you can't put me back!"(p. 1695).
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The Yellow Wall Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was written in first person point of view allowing the reader to feel close to the narrator. It had been written during a time of immense transformation. Within The Yellow Wall Paper, the author presented to the reader issues that dealt with women in the nineteenth century. These issues placed women in the private sphere of the home, where she ought to carry out her set roles of wife and mother. On the other hand, men would rule and dominate the public sphere through employment, political affairs, and economics. She illustrates the struggles in which women had to face on day to day bases within a male dominant world. She uses the narrator within this text to show the importance of self expression and freedom while introducing gender roles among men and women. Gilman shows the struggles of the narrator to find and obtain her own identity in a society in which the prevailing odds were against her and many other women. The author presents issues reflecting the puritan beliefs as well as issues seen among the societies in the Victorian period. The Yellow Wall Paper had been a way for Gilman to tell her own story of her life struggles and to present to others the inequality that women faced around the world at this time.
Gilman believed that women should have the same/equal rights as men thus providing at the end of The Yellow Wall Paper a way for the narrator to break free from the chains of oppression that had bound and confined women to these gender and societal roles.