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The Yellow Wall Paper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Short Story

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In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," the reader is treated to an intimate portrait of developing insanity. At the same time, the story's first person narrator provides insight into the social attitudes of the story's late Victorian time period. The story sets up a sense of gradually increasing distrust between the narrator and her husband, John, a doctor, which suggests that gender roles were strictly defined; however, as the story is just one representation of the time period, the examination of other sources is necessary to better understand the nature of American attitudes in the late 1800s. Specifically, this essay will analyze the representation of women's roles in "The Yellow Wallpaper" alongside two other texts produced during this time period, in the effort to discover whether Gilman's depiction of women accurately reflects the society that produced it.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" features an unnamed female narrator who serves to exemplify the expectations placed upon women of the time period. As we are told early on, she is suffering from a "nervous condition" (Gilman 1). While we are not told the specific nature of this condition, we do discover that the cure prescribed by John, the narrator's husband and doctor, entails taking "phosphates or phosphites--whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise" while intellectual "work" is "absolutely forbidden Ö until [she is] well again" (Gilman 1). This poses a particular problem for the narrator, due to her desire to write, which she continues to do "in spite of them," and causes her to hide her writing to avoid facing "heavy opposition" (Gilman 1). The treatment to which the narrator finds herself subjected clearly defines her subservient position in relation to John, but is the subservience based solely upon John's position as her doctor, or does it extend to his position as her husband?

A glance at a few of the conversations between John and the narrator will help clarify the roles of husband and wife as the story represents them. Rather than see the husband and wife as equals, the story clearly places the wife in the role of inferior. Nowhere is this made more explicit than in the use of condescending names when referring to his wife. Early on, when the narrator complains of the unsettling décor in her room, John "called [her] a blessed little goose" (Gilman 2); later, when she cannot sleep, he calls her a "little girl" (Gilman 5). When the narrator protests that she is not improving under her treatment, John patronizingly states: "'Bless her little heart!' said he with a big hug, 'she shall be as sick as she pleases!'" (Gilman 5). Such language use suggests that the narrator is akin to a child, rather than an adult partner of the speaker. Even the narrator herself, within the confines of her own writing, notes that one of her biggest disappointments is that she is unable to fulfill the obligations that come with marriage and motherhood: "It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way! I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!" (Gilman 2).

To summarize, "The Yellow Wallpaper" presents the reader with an understanding of gender roles that places men above women, the latter of whom are reckoned the intellectual and emotional equals of children. In response to this assumption, Gilman shows us the unfortunate results of this power relationship when taken to extremes. As the narrator faces continual confinement at the hands of her husband, she begins exhibiting the symptoms of paranoia: "[John] pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn't see through him!" (Gilman 8). The control exerted over her has finally pushed the narrator toward insanity, seeing her husband's behavior as a sinister plot to keep her from deciphering the mystery of the wallpaper. While not explicit, the narrator's reaction to her husband suggests not just paranoia, but also the recognition of the (probably unintentionally) destructive effects of his treatment. The lack of power and the absence of autonomy within the narrator, brought about by means of her husband's well-meant "treatment,"

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