Instant price

Struggling with your work?

Get it right the first time & learn smarter today

Place an Order

The Subordination Of Women In Marriage

2921 word (12 pages) essay in English Literature

09/05/17 English Literature Reference this

Disclaimer: This work has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional academic writers.

You can view samples of our professional work here.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman uses the conventions of the psychological horror tale to critique the position of women within the institution of marriage, especially as practiced by the “respectable” classes of her time. When the story was first published, most readers took it as a scary tale about a woman in an extreme state of consciousness-a gripping, disturbing entertainment, but little more. After its rediscovery in the twentieth century, however, readings of the story have become more complex. For Gilman, the conventional nineteenth-century middle-class marriage, with its rigid distinction between the “domestic” functions of the female and the “active” work of the male, ensured that women remained second-class citizens. The story reveals that this gender division had the effect of keeping women in a childish state of ignorance and preventing their full development. John’s assumption of his own superior wisdom and maturity leads him to misjudge, patronize, and dominate his wife, all in the name of “helping” her. The narrator is reduced to acting like a cross, petulant child, unable to stand up for herself without seeming unreasonable or disloyal. The narrator has no say in even the smallest details of her life, and she retreats into her obsessive fantasy, the only place she can retain some control and exercise the power of her mind.

The Importance of Self-Expression

The mental constraints placed upon the narrator, even more so than the physical ones, are what ultimately drive her insane. She is forced to hide her anxieties and fears in order to preserve the façade of a happy marriage and to make it seem as though she is winning the fight against her depression. From the beginning, the most intolerable aspect of her treatment is the compulsory silence and idleness of the “resting cure.” She is forced to become completely passive, forbidden from exercising her mind in any way. Writing is especially off limits, and John warns her several times that she must use her self-control to rein in her imagination, which he fears will run away with her. Of course, the narrator’s eventual insanity is a product of the repression of her imaginative power, not the expression of it. She is constantly longing for an emotional and intellectual outlet, even going so far as to keep a secret journal, which she describes more than once as a “relief” to her mind. For Gilman, a mind that is kept in a state of forced inactivity is doomed to self-destruction.

The Evils of the “Resting Cure”

As someone who almost was destroyed by S. Weir Mitchell’s “resting cure” for depression, it is not surprising that Gilman structured her story as an attack on this ineffective and cruel course of treatment. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an illustration of the way a mind that is already plagued with anxiety can deteriorate and begin to prey on itself when it is forced into inactivity and kept from healthy work. To his credit, Mitchell, who is mentioned by name in the story, took Gilman’s criticism to heart and abandoned the “resting cure.” Beyond the specific technique described in the story, Gilman means to criticize any form of medical care that ignores the concerns of the patient, considering her only as a passive object of treatment. The connection between a woman’s subordination in the home and her subordination in a doctor/patient relationship is clear-John is, after all, the narrator’s husband and doctor. Gilman implies that both forms of authority can be easily abused, even when the husband or doctor means to help. All too often, the women who are the silent subjects of this authority are infantilized, or worse.

Setting

The tangible setting of “The Yellow Wallpaper” reinforces all of the intangible feelings and the attitudes expressed in the story. What do we mean by this? Let’s start with this passage: “[The house] is quite alone standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people.” It’s a fancy house, yes, but more saliently, it stands back away from the road and contains many “locks” and “separate little houses.” Overall, this is a very isolating place. It’s separate from the road and therefore, we would argue, separated from society; the house itself is described as a place that binds and restricts. Now think about the narrator’s emotional position: isolated and restricted, her emotional position mirrors the house’s physical set-up.

Within the house itself, the narrator is primarily confined to a “big, airy room…with windows that look all ways.” In keeping with the themes of isolation and restriction, the windows that look out everywhere are barred, preventing any sort of escape. The narrator is able to see, but not participate in, what happens outside her room.

There is yet another connection to draw between the narrator and her physical setting, however. Do you notice how John tends to infantilize his wife? Calling her his “blessed little goose” is only the least of it. He treats her more like a child than an adult; it comes as no surprise that the narrator’s bedroom used to be a nursery.

Lastly, don’t forget that the story was written in the late 19th century, which anchors it in a very specific historical moment in terms of women and their perceived abilities. Except for the wallpaper madness at the end, the narrator’s story would have been rather typical at the time of publication.

Epistolary

An “epistolary” work of fiction takes the form of letters between characters. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a kind of epistolary story, in which the narrator writes to herself. Gilman uses this technique to show the narrator’s descent into madness both subjectively and objectively-that is, from both the inside and the outside. Had Gilman told her story in traditional first-person narration, reporting events from inside the narrator’s head, the reader would never know exactly what to think: a woman inside the wallpaper might seem to actually exist. Had Gilman told the story from an objective, third-person point of view, without revealing the narrator’s thoughts, the social and political symbolism of the story would have been obscured. As it is, the reader must decipher the ambiguity of the story, just as the narrator must attempt to decipher the bewildering story of her life and the bizarre patterns of the wallpaper. Gilman also uses the journal to give the story an intense intimacy and immediacy, especially in those moments when the narrative is interrupted by the approach of John or Jennie. These interruptions perfectly illustrate the constraints placed on the narrator by authority figures who urge her not to think about her “condition.”

Symbols

The Wallpaper

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is driven by the narrator’s sense that the wallpaper is a text she must interpret, that it symbolizes something that affects her directly. Accordingly, the wallpaper develops its symbolism throughout the story. At first it seems merely unpleasant: it is ripped, soiled, and an “unclean yellow.” The worst part is the ostensibly formless pattern, which fascinates the narrator as she attempts to figure out how it is organized. After staring at the paper for hours, she sees a ghostly sub-pattern behind the main pattern, visible only in certain light. Eventually, the sub-pattern comes into focus as a desperate woman, constantly crawling and stooping, looking for an escape from behind the main pattern, which has come to resemble the bars of a cage. The narrator sees this cage as festooned with the heads of many women, all of whom were strangled as they tried to escape. Clearly, the wallpaper represents the structure of family, medicine, and tradition in which the narrator finds herself trapped. Wallpaper is domestic and humble, and Gilman skillfully uses this nightmarish, hideous paper as a symbol of the domestic life that traps so many women.

Character list

The Narrator – A young, upper-middle-class woman, newly married and a mother, who is undergoing care for depression. The narrator-whose name may or may not be Jane-is highly imaginative and a natural storyteller, though her doctors believe she has a “slight hysterical tendency.” The story is told in the form of her secret diary, in which she records her thoughts as her obsession with the wallpaper grows.

John – The narrator’s husband and her physician. John restricts her behavior as part of her treatment. Unlike his imaginative wife, John is extremely practical, preferring facts and figures to “fancy,” at which he “scoffs openly.” He seems to love his wife, but he does not understand the negative effect his treatment has on her.

Jennie – John’s sister. Jennie acts as housekeeper for the couple. Her presence and her contentment with a domestic role intensify the narrator’s feelings of guilt over her own inability to act as a traditional wife and mother. Jennie seems, at times, to suspect that the narrator is more troubled than she lets on.

Character list in detail

Narrator

Modeled after Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a young wife and mother who has recently began to suffer symptoms of depression and anxiety. Although she does not believe that anything is wrong with her, John, her physician husband, diagnoses her with neurasthenia and prescribes several months of S. Weir Mitchell’s famed “rest cure.” In addition to being confined to the nursery in their rented summer home, the narrator is expressly forbidden to write or engage in any creative activity. The narrator desperately wants to please her husband and assume her role as an ideal mother and wife, but she is unable to balance her husband’s needs with her desire to express her creativity. While attempting to adhere to John’s wishes for the most part, the narrator secretly writes in her journal, seeking solace from her extreme loneliness and inactivity. Over the course of the story, the narrator also begins to find comfort in the hideous yellow wallpaper that covers the walls of the nursery. She gradually begins to see a female figure trapped behind the bar-like pattern of the wallpaper and realizes that both she and the figure are suffering from oppression and imprisonment. As the narrator becomes more and more preoccupied with the pattern of the wallpaper, she forgets her desire to become the perfect wife and mother and thinks only of a way to release the imprisoned woman from the wallpaper. Gilman’s increasingly choppy prose and disjointed stream-of-consciousness express the narrator’s growing insanity with each passing day. By the end of the story, the narrator has lost all sense of reality, and John discovers her creeping around the perimeter of the nursery, following the endless pattern of the wallpaper. While she discards her duty as a wife and mother, as well as her sanity, the narrator ultimately triumphs in her personal quest to release the woman in the wallpaper – and thus liberates herself.

In some editions of the story, the narrator declares her liberation from the wallpaper and the rational world by proclaiming, “I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane.” Some scholars argue that “Jane” is simply a misprint for “Jennie,” John’s sister and housekeeper. Yet, it is also possible that “Jane” is the actual name of the narrator, a character who remains a nameless stereotype of female social oppression for the entirely of the story. If this “Jane” is, in fact, the narrator, then Gilman suggests that the narrator’s liberation from sanity and the bars of the wallpaper also means an “escape” from her own sense of self.

John

The husband of the narrator, John is a practical physician who believes that his wife is suffering from nothing more than a “slight hysterical tendency.” He prescribes the “rest cure,” confining the narrator to the nursery and forbidding her to exercise her creative imagination in any way. His antagonism toward her imagination stems from his own rationality and personal anxiety about creativity; he scoffs openly at the narrator’s fancies and is incapable of understanding her true nature. Throughout the story, he treats her in an infantile manner, referring to her as his “blessed little goose” and “little girl.” Moreover, when the narrator attempts to discuss her unhappiness with the situation in a mature manner, he refuses to accept her as an equal and simply carries her back up to the nursery for more bed rest. He is fixed in his authoritative position as husband and doctor and cannot adapt his strategy to account for her opinion on the matter. He believes in a strict, paternalistic divide between men and women; men work outside of the home, as he does, while women like Jennie, his sister, and Mary, the nanny, tend to the house.

Although John is set up as the villain of the story, he can also be seen as a more sympathetic character. He clearly loves his wife and relies on her for his own happiness. Yet he is unable to reconcile her creative desires with his own rationality or the chauvinistic expectations of the time period. His wife is unable or unwilling to adhere to the ideal model of domesticity expressed by the 19th-century society, and John is at a loss as to what to do. His solution is to use Weir Mitchell’s rest cure to “fix” his wife, and he does not realize that his own actions push her over the edge of insanity.

Woman in the wallpaper

Although the narrator eventually believes that she sees many women in the yellow wallpaper, she centers on one in particular. The woman appears to be trapped within the bar-like pattern of the wallpaper, and she shakes the pattern as she tries to break out. The woman is most active by moonlight, a symbol of femininity and a sign that John’s strict daytime regimen is no longer applicable to the narrator.

Over time, as the narrator’s insanity deepens, she identifies completely with this woman and believes that she, too, is trapped within the wallpaper. As a ghostly counterpart of the narrator, the woman in the wallpaper also symbolizes female imprisonment within the domestic sphere. Unable to break free from the room, like the narrator, the woman in the wallpaper has only the symbolic option of tending to the house as a wife or mother. The woman’s habit of “creeping” suggests that she must still be secretive after she has achieved her liberation. Social norms will not accept her freedom from the domestic sphere, and so she must creep furtively and lie in wait in the shadows of the wallpaper.

Jennie

Jennie is the narrator’s sister-in-law and takes care of the house during the narrator’s illness. Although she does not play an active role in the narrative, she is a constant reminder of the narrator’s inability to assume her proper role as John’s wife and housekeeper. Always maintaining a passive position under John’s supervision, Jennie symbolizes the happily domesticated woman who does not find anything wrong with her domestic prison. However, Gilman also suggests that there may be more to Jennie than meets the eye: the narrator acknowledges that Jennie is aware of the narrator’s growing interest in the wallpaper and even discusses her future with John.

Mary

Mary takes care of the narrator and John’s baby. With her name a possible allusion to the Virgin Mary, Mary is the perfect mother-surrogate for the narrator, an idealized maternal figure whose only concern is her child. Like Jennie, she also symbolizes the happily domesticated woman. Although Mary is even less present in the text than Jennie, she still serves to remind the narrator of her personal failings as a 19th century woman, particularly in terms of her own child.

The mental constraints placed upon the narrator, even more so than the physical ones, are what ultimately drive her insane. She is forced to hide her anxieties and fears in order to preserve the façade of a happy marriage and to make it seem as though she is winning the fight against her depression. From the beginning, the most intolerable aspect of her treatment is the compulsory silence and idleness of the “resting cure.” She is forced to become completely passive, forbidden from exercising her mind in any way. Writing is especially off limits, and John warns her several times that she must use her self-control to rein in her imagination, which he fears will run away with her. Of course, the narrator’s eventual insanity is a product of the repression of her imaginative power, not the expression of it. She is constantly longing for an emotional and intellectual outlet, even going so far as to keep a secret journal, which she describes more than once as a “relief” to her mind. For Gilman, a mind that is kept in a state of forced inactivity is doomed to self-destruction.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Content

Featured review

Reviews.co.uk logo

“Thank you UK Essays for your timely assistance. It has helped me to push forward with my thesis.”

Tajeram M

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have the essay published on the UK Essays website then please request removal.

McAfee SECURE sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams Prices from
£124

Undergraduate 2:2 • 1,000 words • 7 day delivery

Learn More Order now

Delivered on-time or your money back

Each order includes
  • A fully qualified writer in your subject
  • Work is never re-sold or published
  • Standard 7 day amendment period
  • A paper written to the standard ordered
  • Detailed plagiarism report
  • Comprehensive quality report
Rated 4.5 out of 5 by
Reviews.co.uk Logo (52 Reviews)

Our Services

We have a range of academic services including essay writing, full and part dissertation writing, and our ever popular marking and proofreading service.

You can view our full service portfolio here