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The Yellow Wallpaper takes place in the late 1800s, and was published by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892. Whether you consider it a feminist text, it is important to understand this short story in context of its historical period. At this time the issue of feminism was predominant in society. By the early 1900s feminism started erupting in America. For the first time feminists spoke explicitly about identity as a woman and placed emphasis on the importance of rights and self-development. With leaders such as Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, women suffragists fought for the right to vote and equality in a male dominated society. By the turn of the century, magazines, art galleries, and novels were flooded with advice about how to be a proper woman in middle class society. Industrialisation and urbanisation were an evolving part of society and birth rates started declining while divorce rates rocketed. This shift away from the home scared Americans into thinking their families would fall apart, Therefore one of the most significant changes to American culture in the late nineteenth century was the transformation in the perception and representation of gender roles. However despite this new feminist activism, with the Temperance and Suffragist movements, women were still expected to embody the traditional values represented by the home. Women were aligned directly with the home, both seen as symbols of morality. The home therefore became a female gendered domestic space.
Women were exulted as morally superior members of society who should shelter the family from societys evils of commerce and modernity. They were expected to be pure, charitable, selfless, cultures, optimistic, supportive and frugal. This domestic/private sphere was hence dedicated to the female population, which excluded women from the public sphere, and economy, causing women to become dependant on their husbands for income. Barbara Welter highlights this idea about the roles of men and women in her book; The Cult of True Womanhood. She believes women were victimised by men, who perpetrated an ideological prison that subjected and silenced women. Welter explores the ideology of the Cult of Womanhood, and sees the Cult of Domesticity and the Cult of Purity as the central tenets. This separate female gendered domestic sphere was represented in the literature of the time. Throughout the nineteenth century, domesticity was romanticised in literature, particularly by women. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Toms Cabin, politicised the home by making it central to social action; many of the pivotal scenes occurred in the home, such as Mr and Mrs Shelbys discussions and Rachel Hallidays dinner. In Stowes novel, women are also a central part of making moral Christian-based decisions and choices. Once again, in 1869, we see this focus on the female in Catharine Beechers An American Womans Home. Here Beecher attempts to elevate womens positions in the home to the same level as professional men, because she believes that womens work in the home is essential to the preservation of morality and culture.
By the turn of the century women like Gilman, and Chopin began writing novels where the women in them actually started defying the traditional womens role in the home. In The Yellow Wallpaper, and The Awakening, the female protagonists fantasise about escape and freedom. In Gilmans novella, the woman rejects the commonly known code of true womanhood. The idea of women as docile, domestic creatures whose main concerns in life is raising children and submissiveness to their husbands is crushed. The Yellow Wallpaper portrays a woman who has rejected her expected role and is consequently suffering because of it. Gilman is subverting the original ideology of the Cult of True Womanhood and redefining the role of a woman. The novel depicts Gilmans struggle to throw off the constraints of patriarchal society in order to be able to write. Her husband John represents the patriarchal society and it could be argued that he is a great deal to blame for her condition. It has been argued that her husband Johns controlling oppression causes her illness, but I do think that this oppression comes from a genuine concern for his wife. Gilman I think tries to show John, not as an uncaring husband but as an ineffective and unaware doctor. In the story the ill woman does not chide her husbands character; He is very careful and loving, she does believe that he has her best intentions at heart even if his actions are not always effective; Dear John! He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. It is also clear that John cares for her; He said I was his darling. When she is ill, he does tend to her needs; dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bedsat by me and read to me till it tired my head. The focus is more upon his capabilities as a male physician; John is a physician and PERHAPSthat is one reason I do not get well faster. Despite her husbands oppressive nature almost forcing her into insanity, she does not feel angry or bitter towards him, she refers to him in a positive loving way, not judging him even at the end; dear John, this further elevates our pathos and empathy for her.
One can argue that Gilman was trying to express feminist views through the writing of The Yellow Wallpaper, because of its inspiration; the story is based on an episode in Gilmans life, in 1887, when she suffered from a nervous disease called melancholia. She was advised by the a noted specialist in nervous disease, the best known in the country, who told her to rest at home, stop writing and live as domestic a life as far as possible, with but two hours intellectual life a day. Gilman was advised by this male physician to never touch pen, brush, or pencil again as long as she lived.  Gilman believes that following this specialists advice was sending her insane and therefore rejected it, continuing her normal life and starting writing again. Inspired by her narrow escape, she wrote the short story of The Yellow Wallpaper, and sent a copy to the same best physician who had previously advised her. Gilman took the core storyline of her own experiences and embellished the story to dramatise it but she portrayed the same sentiment; an ill woman badly advised by her male physician; S. Weir Mitchell, who believed that the American woman isphysically unfit for her duties as a woman. She hoped her literature would save other women from the same fate and show that the male opinion was not necessarily correct. She had no response from her specialist but later found out that he had changed his methods of treating neurasthenia since reading her story.
The book is predominantly feminist because of the journey the woman in it takes. At the beginning the woman is helpless, it is clear that she is dominated by her husband and brother, who tells her she cannot work or write; Iam absolutely forbidden to work. This inactivity forces her into insanity, and she knows that it isnt right for her; Personally, I disagree with their ideasI believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. However in her society she is forced to be submissive to the male patriarchal society represented in John. Despite his supposed love for his wife, John patronises her and treats her as a lesser, intellectually inferior partner, shown in his use of phrases such as my blessed little goose and Bless her little heart. He does not listen to her views and opinions, and merely dismisses her silly fantasies treating her as if she were a child; I am a doctor, dear, and I know. His use of language could be seen as caring but is actually extremely patronising degrading and insulting. At this point in the story, the ill woman is helpless, she often says; But what is one to do, and what can one do. The repetition of this phrase shows the womans innocence and highlights how trapped she is in the Yellow Wallpaper. However as her journey into insanity continues she becomes more self-aware and almost escapes, she finds freedom in her own insanity. She detaches herself from the perception of others and in the final scene John faints and she creeps over him and says; Ive got out at lastAnd Ive pulled off most of the paper, so you cant put me back! She believes she is trapped under the wallpaper, which could be seen as a metaphor for the oppressive male dominated society she is living in, and therefore she triumphs over the wallpaper and consequently over John and her submission as his blessed little goose. By the end of the story, the ill woman; the representation of Gilman, has thrown off the expected constraints of her society and traded her sanity for her independence. This rebellion is reflected in the language Gilman uses; the woman becomes stronger and more authoritative and assertive; Ive got out at lastin spite of you and Jane. She is no longer the helpless little ill wife and this time her husband cant stop her!
Gilman once wrote; Womens subordination will only end when women lead the struggle for their own autonomy, thereby freeing man as well as themselves, because man suffers from the distortions that come from dominance, just as women are scarred by the subjugation imposed upon them. In The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman explores the topical issue of her time; feminism, and attempts to show that women can only gain independence by rejecting their traditional role in society, refusing to be submissive, and exercising their own minds.