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“The Yellow Wallpaper”: Liberation in Madness

The Victorian era was governed by a system of rules for behavior and gender roles. Much has changed over the past century for women, largely owed to the women who challenged this system, however something in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” continues to ring true with women today.

The struggles over role conflict are possibly greater for women today because of the options that are now available, but the basic challenges of “how to be both a person and a wife and mother; how to live with acceptable passivity in a patriarchal culture while yet being aggressive enough to stay alive; and how to be both “good” and sensual, upportive and necessarily selfish, and, above all, sane” remain (Wagner- Martin). The theme of violent rebellion in the face of patriarchal oppression is common in literature about women.

Miss Emily in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Miss Emily” was persecuted in gossip for living a solitary life as mandated by her father’s strict social rules. He damaged her ability to have relationships to the point that she murdered her husband and this was not discovered until her death. Zora Neale Hurston’s narrator in “Sweat” suffers socially sanctioned mental and physical abuse at the hand of her husband. She is persecuted by the townspeople for her usband’s actions, but knows it would be worse to leave him completely.

She finds her salvation when she chooses not to help her dying husband. For her, it is better to watch the man die than to leave. Gilman’s narrator, Jane, in “The Yellow Wallpaper” cannot resolve her conflict over roles imposed upon her by her oppressive patriarchal culture, so she foregoes the roles of wife, mother, and woman to become a madwoman. Hysteria was as common in the Victorian era as its definition was broad, and its treatment narrow. Hysteria was epidemic, affecting ambitious women of the time such as Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton,

Virginia Woolf, and Jane Addams (Korb). Physicians lumped symptoms as varied as “paraplegia, aphonia, hemi-anaesthesia, and violent epileptoid seizures,” under the umbrella of hysteria, conditions that might “today be diagnosed as neurasthenia, hypochontriasis, depression, conversion reaction, and ambulatory schizophrenia” (Smith-Rosenberg 77). As the definition broadened, it became more aligned with a set of behaviors, values and role relationships.

In her paper on sex roles and conflict in nineteenth-century America, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg observes, “for centuries hysteria has been seen as characteristically female – the ysterical woman the embodiment of a perverse or hyper femininity” (78). That is to say that hysteria is inherent in being a woman. In “The Nervous Breakdown of Women,” Gilman challenges the assumption that the cause of nervous breakdown in women is different from that of men.

She asserts that any person who does the same work, day after day, which does not “maintain equipoise of soul and body,” will certainly suffer a nervous breakdown unless “the individual is consciously convinced that the work he is doing is necessary and right” (“Nervous” 68). In Gilman’s day, a woman’s “slow, ifficult, conscientious efforts to make the changes she knew were right, or which were forced upon her by conditions, [had] too often cost her man’s love, respect and good will” (Gilman, “Nervous,” 75). At the time, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who treated Gilman and her contemporaries, strongly influenced treatment of hysteria.

In her research, Smith-Rosenberg found “it is evident from their writings that many doctors felt themselves to be locked in a power struggle with their hysterical patients” (93). Reclaiming full power from the patient is the apparent goal of Dr. Mitchell’s “rest cure. ” He cautioned that “the man who esolves to send any nervous woman to bed must be quite sure that she will obey him when the time comes for her to get up” (Mitchell, “Fat,” 106). His patients are treated as infants insofar as they are not allowed to do anything for themselves so basic as attending to personal hygiene and eating.

Dr. Mitchell “insist[ed] on the patient being fed by the nurse, and, when well enough to sit up in bed, [… ] that the meats [would] be cut up, so as to make it easier for the patient to feed herself” (Mitchell, “Fat,” 106). In his own words, Dr. Mitchell’s efforts “conspire to make most patients contented and tractable” (“Fat,” 107). Sufferers of hysteria are unable or unwilling to resolve their role conflicts as women, mothers, and wives. There was a significant discontinuity between what defined the ideal woman and the ideal mother. The ideal woman was emotional, dependent and gentle – a born follower,” protected and discouraged from taking interest in activity beyond the home. Her purpose is to obey her father, then her husband; her needs and wants in life are irrelevant as they were dictated and provided for (Smith- Rosenberg, 80). “She was, in essence, to remain a child-woman, never developing the strengths and skills of adult autonomy” (Smith-Rosenberg, 0). “The ideal mother, then and now, was expected to be strong, self- reliant, protective, an effective caretaker in relation to children and home” (Smith-Rosenberg, 80).

In “Through This,” Gilman’s narrator sums it up well in saying, “Through this dear work, well done, I shall reach. I shall help – but I must get the dishes done and not dream” (53). In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman’s narrator’s “bizarre mental journey appears most directly associated with the [… ] demands placed upon her by the gender biases inherent in the rest cure treatment and her roles as wife and mother in American Victorian culture” (Hume). The rest cure prohibits Jane from performing all activity and “it weighs on [her] so not to do [her] duty in any way” (Gilman, “Yellow,” 33).

She seems genuine in writing, “I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already,” and she absolves herself of relegating the care of her child to Mary, presumably the nurse or nanny, by praising her work and explaining her nervousness about the child (Gilman, “Yellow,” 33). John is unable or unwilling to accept that her writing does not diminish her role as wife, since he is of the belief that Jane’s urpose should be raising their child and attending to household matters.

Jane, however, needs to write in order to retain sanity while playing a part for which she has been sorely miscast. Jane’s resentment of John, the baby, and Jennie is reinforced by their roles in upholding and reinforcing the social rules at the root of her unhappiness. John is controlling and condescending, just as he has been taught to be as the husband, father, and head of household. He downplays her mental illness; “he knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him” (Gilman, “Yellow,” 33). Both John and Jane concur that the allpaper in the room he has chosen for her quarters is of the worst taste.

When Jane requests to have the wallpaper removed or to move to another room, he trivializes it, claiming “that to do so would be dangerous for ‘nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies'” (Shumaker, 128). He treats her like a child, scolding her for walking barefoot, carrying her to bed, reading to her, and calling her a “blessed little goose,” among other condescending terms of endearment (Gilman, “Yellow,” 34). John believes he is acting in her best interest, which as far as he is concerned, is to return her to domestic life. When Dr. Mitchell wrote, “Wise women choose their doctors and trust them.

The wisest ask the fewest questions,” he summed up their relationships as husband/wife and doctor/patient (“Doctor,” 110). Jane goes along with this rest cure because John is a “physician of high standing,” and she thinks he has her interests in mind (Gilman, “Yellow,” 30). He insists that she is not sick, but is treating her by fairly extreme measures. She has a “tendency to assume that [John] is always right despite her own reservations” (Shumaker 131). As Shumaker points out, “the narrator understands John’s problem yet is unable to call it his problem” (130). In accordance with her conflict with motherhood, the baby is strikingly absent.

Jane mentions the child, but it is not clear where the child is. She claims to love her “blessed child,” and takes comfort that her “baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy [the] nursery with the horrid wallpaper” (Gilman, “Yellow,” 39). But she “cannot be with him, it makes [her] so nervous” (Gilman, “Yellow,” 33). It is possible that the “it ” in that statement refers to her child, which would reflect how she generally views children. By assigning children the emotions that she truly feels throughout the story, she describes them as hateful, estructive creatures.

If we take this narrator at her word, ‘children’ not only need to be kept behind bars to be controlled, but are capable of ‘ravaging’ wallpaper with the same kind of perseverance as well as hatred’ which she eventually displays toward it” (Hume). Jane is not content to accept her assigned role as a woman and, therefore, Jennie is Jane’s antithesis. Jennie represents the ideal woman, obedient, subservient, accepting of her role in society. The Jennies of the world contribute to the dismal state of women’s affairs, and directly to the state of the narrator, by reinforcing the power of men.

The night efore they would leave the house, Jane tears off a significant amount of the wallpaper. When Jennie sees this she reacts in amazement but seems dismissive of Jane’s confession of having done “it out of pure spite for the vicious thing” (Gilman, “Yellow,” 47). Beverly Hume speculates that, Although the narrator believes Jennie has here “betrayed” her interest in the wallpaper, Jennie’s amazed laughter, if the narrator is reporting it accurately, might just as easily betray Jennie’s sullen indifference to the narrator’s plight or even this “perfect housekeeper’s” own felt helplessness at being able to disobey John’s rders. Hume).

Jennie reports her observations to John, making her an accomplice to Jane’s imprisonment in the rest cure as well as society at large; she is not trusted. The rest cure is the proverbial nail in Jane’s coffin. Limited in activity and forbidden to “express her artistic impulses, [… ] her mind turns to the wallpaper, and she begins to find in its tangled pattern the emotions and experiences she is forbidden to record” (Shumaker, 127). She starts secretly keeping the journal at the beginning of her stay at the house, knowing “[John} hates to have [her] write a word” (Gilman, “Yellow,” 2).

The longer she is in the house, the more obsessed she becomes with the wallpaper. She projects all of her rage and frustration it. “She describes [… ] the wallpaper when it reflects her impression of herself as somehow sinning, dull, irritating, repellant, unclean, and suicidal” (Wagner-Martin). She sees in it, “‘strangled heads and bulbous eyes’ and the ‘faint figure’ of a mysterious woman behind the ‘florid arabesque’ of the yellow wallpaper” (Smith). She studies the wallpaper, trying to understand it, to find some clue as to how to liberate the woman within the paper, and within herself.

The more she writes, the more she describes the damage done to the room and its furnishings. Early in the story, she notices the paper is “stripped off [… ] in great patches all around the head of [her] bed, about as far as [she] can reach,” but perhaps this has replaced the writing paper she has been deprived (Gilman, “Yellow,” 32). She blames the damage on the children she imagined lived there in the past, but does not acknowledge that the damage is new. The damage becomes more severe in direct relation to the depth of her conflict with John. She assigns her hatred for John to the children in their supposed hatred for the wallpaper.

She refuses to own her rage. Her attitude towards the paper changes over time. “Though at first she says of it, ‘I never saw a worse paper in my life,’ as she loses her slim hold on sanity, she gets ‘really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper,'” (Korb). She becomes increasingly secretive, never “mention[ing] [the wallpaper] to them anymore,” stating, “there are things in that wallpaper that nobody knows but [her], or ever will” (Gilman, “Yellow,” 39). She identifies with the woman behind the wallpaper, seeing her in the window as she looks out, her eflection.

Jane chooses the last night in the house as her last night of internment, tearing down the wallpaper that traps the woman, joining her and leaving herself behind. When John discovers her “creeping” on the floor along the wall, she exclaims, “I’ve got out at last, [… ] in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back! ” (Gilman, “Yellow,” 50). In this declaration, she renounces her old identity. She “thwarts the harrowing and resists patriarchal liberation, preferring perhaps to remain within the domain of her newly discovered Self” (Smith).

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