Charlotte Perkins Gilman used her personal bout with postpartum depression to create a powerful fictional narrative which has broad implications for women. When the narrator recognizes that there is more than one trapped, creeping woman, Gilman indicates that the meaning of her story extends beyond an isolated, individual situation. Gilman’s main purpose in writing The Yellow Wallpaper is to condemn not only a specific medical treatment but also the misogynistic principles and resulting sexual politics that make such a treatment possible.
The unequal relationship between the narrator and John is a microcosm of the larger gender inequity in society. Gilman makes it clear that much of John’s condescending and paternal behavior toward his wife has little to do with her illness. He dismisses her well-thought-out opinions and her “flights of fancy” with equal disdain, while he belittles her creative impulses. He speaks of her as he would a child, calling her his “little girl” and saying of her, “Bless her little heart.” He overrides her judgments on the best course of treatment for herself as he would on any issue, making her live in a house she does not like, in a room she detests, and in an isolated environment which makes her unhappy and lonely. John’s solicitous “care” shows that he believes the prevailing scientific theories which claim that women’s innate inferiority leaves them, childlike, in a state of infantile dependence.
Gilman makes John the window through which readers can view the negative images of women in her society. In Gilman’s lifetime, women’s right to become full citizens and to vote became one of the primary issues debated in the home, the media, and the political arena. As women’s reform movements gained the strength that would eventually win the vote in 1920, the backlash became more vicious and dangerous. Noted psychologists detailed theories that “proved” women’s developmental immaturity, low cognitive skills, and emotional instability. Physicians, who actually had little knowledge of the inner workings of the female body, presented complex theories arguing that the womb created hysteria and madness, that it was the source of women’s inferiority. Ministers urged women to fulfill their duty to God and their husbands with equal submission and piety. In indicting John’s patronizing treatment of his wife, Gilman indicts the system as a whole, in which many women were trapped behind damaging social definitions of the female.
One can see the negative effects of John’s (and society’s) treatment of the narrator in her response to the rest cure. At first, she tries to fight against the growing lethargy that controls her. She even challenges John’s treatment of her. Yet, while one part of her may believe John wrong, another part that has internalized the negative definitions of womanhood believes that since he is the man, the doctor, and therefore the authority, then he may be right. Because they hold unequal power positions in the relationship and in society, she lacks the courage and self-esteem to assert her will over his even though she knows that his “treatment” is harming her. Deprived of any meaningful activity, purpose, and self-definition, the narrator’s mind becomes confused and, predictably, childlike in its fascination with the shadows in the wallpaper.
In the end, the narrator triumphs over John—she literally crawls over him—but escapes from him only into madness. As a leading feminist lecturer and writer, Gilman found other options than madness to end her confinement in traditional definitions of womanhood. Eventually, Gilman divorced her husband, who married her best friend, and her husband and her best friend reared her child. The public, friends, and family so sharply censured Gilman for her actions that she knew many women would stay in unhealthy situations rather than risk such condemnation. By having the story end with the narrator’s descent into insanity, Gilman laments the reality that few viable options exist for creative, intellectual women to escape the damaging social definitions of womanhood represented by John. In her horrifying depiction of a housewife gone mad, Gilman attempts to warn her readership that denying women full humanity is dangerous to women, family, and society as a whole.
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Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Significance of First-Person Narration in “The Yellow Wallpaper"The central character in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper" narrates her own life; however, the reader never learns her name. Gilman has cleverly taken the reader into the inner-most realms of a woman’s mind and experiences, yet the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper" remains anonymous, a reflection of her status in society. Narration, of course, is an important element of any story or novel, and as readers, we are always evaluating whether the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper" is credible and reliable. The narrator of “The Yellow Wall-Paper" appears credible as the story opens, but as her mental state deteriorates, does her narrative follow suit? As you read this story, consider the role that narration plays in the development of the plot and the theme. How might the story of “The Yellow Wallpaper" have been different, for instance, if it had been told by the woman’s husband? Other important questions include: Why is it important that the woman narrator have the agency and the voice to tell her own story? What effects does this particular choice of narration have on establishing a connection with the reader and eliciting certain emotional responses.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: “The Yellow Wall-Paper" as a Feminist Story
“The Yellow Wall-Paper" was written in 1892, and is often referred to as a feminist short story. Given that the woman in the story goes mad because her role in society is limited and her ability to express herself creatively is constricted, can the reader assume that the author is making a feminist statement? This topic could take at least two different approaches. You could either situate the story within a larger sociohistorical context (i.e.: What was happening in 1892 that made this particular story so relevant and resonant, and why does it remain so important today?), or you could take the story only on its own terms: What does Gilman seem to say about “the female condition" in general by writing about the life of this one woman and her descent into madness in “The Yellow Wall Paper"?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Relationship Between Creativity and Madness in “The Yellow Wallpaper"
It is often said that artists and writers are touched by a bit of madness, but might this story make the argument that madness springs from the inability to be expressive and creative? For this essay on “The Yellow Wallpaper", consider the development of the mental disorder that increasingly consumes the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and identify her symptoms and their possible causes. Look for textual evidence in the narrator’s description of her own condition. What differences do you observe in her opening insights and those which can be gleaned from the conclusion? Can you make a case that the narrator decompensated in “The Yellow Wallpaper" because she could not find a creative outlet?
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4 Victorian Gender Roles in “The Yellow Wallpaper"
While the female narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper" gains the most critical attention in essays on “The Yellow Wall-Paper," what is the reader to make of the narrator’s husband, John? He is a physician who recognizes his wife’s compromised state, but he does not seem to realize just how severe her condition is, nor does he have an adequate way of treating it. Instead, he insists that country air will restore her senses and that isolation from others will give her room to breathe and think. The textual evidence from “The Yellow Wallpaper" suggests that John is a caring husband and that he does have positive intentions for his wife; however, he is bound by traditional gender roles. Look to the text for examples of John’s positive intentions, and find ways to support the argument that despite his best intentions, the fact that he was constricted to a particular gender role limited his ability to truly prevent his wife from slipping into insanity.
Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: The Symbol of the Yellow Wallpaper
The story is titled “The Yellow Wall-Paper," and indeed, the dreadful wallpaper that the narrator comes to hate so much is a significant symbol in the story. The yellow wallpaper can represent many ideas and conditions, among them, the sense of entrapment, the notion of creativity gone astray, and a distraction that becomes an obsession. Examine the references to the yellow wallpaper and notice how they become more frequent and how they develop over the course of the story. Why is the wallpaper an adequate symbol to represent the woman’s confinement and her emotional condition?
This list of important quotations from “The Yellow Wallpaper” will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “The Yellow Wall paper” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics for “The Yellow Wallpaper” above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned. All quotes from “The Yellow Wallpaper” contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of “The Yellow Wallpaper” they are referring to.
“John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind–) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster." (74)
“So I take phosphates and phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good." (74-75)
“I never saw a worse [wall]paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye…, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves…they suddenly commit suicide…." (76)
“It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work." (77)
“I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy store." (78)
“It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight. Just this nervous weakness I suppose." (80)
“There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will." (81)
“It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so." (81)
“I really have discovered something at last….Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind [the wallpaper], and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over." (85)
“I have found out another funny thing, but I shan’t tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much." (86)
Reference: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wall-Paper." In Great Short Stories by American Women. pp. 73-88. Candace Ward, ed. New York: Dover, 1996.