How far can a feminist reading be applied to The Yellow Wallpaper? Essay

Feminist criticism of literature reflects the period, social status and equality of women involving ‘a thorough examination of gender roles… how they are culturally constructed’[1] . These roles, ‘culturally assigned to countless generations of women’1 generally connoted them ‘naturally timid… sweet… intuitive… dependent… self-pitying’ or ‘how the speaker wants to see them’1. The Yellow Wallpaper refutes the prevailing nineteenth century perception of the subordinated, helpless woman whilst indirectly upholding the prevalent ‘social and cultural domination by males. 1 Conversely, authoritarian masculinity was traditionally represented through ‘strength, rationality, stoicism, and self-reliance’.These attitudes encouraged ‘gendered stereotyping’ with ‘helplessness and dependence… endearing and admirable’1 representing women’s social roles. Bertens’ structuralist term ‘binary opposition’1 attracted positive, pragmatic meaning for masculinity but negative connotations for feminine representation. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s innovative autobiographical short story, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) invites a feminist reading: Gilman, the literal protagonist, discusses her personal subordination within marriage.

Her linear stream of consciousness narrative contrasts the microcosm of the woman’s mind with the macrocosm of a patriarchal society with ‘critical social pressures imposed on women’[2]: Gilman’s story provides a feminist and historical perspective into psychiatric health, sexual and social oppression and limited female personal freedoms within late nineteenth century male dominated society. The Yellow Wallpaper is an extended metaphor and bildungsroman, a journey of emancipation: the suffering character empathises with a metaphorical woman within the wallpaper, finally acknowledging identity and independence.Gilman’s persona precipitated women being ‘heard… understood… acknowledged’[3]: the triad of past participles, reinforce Gilman’s determination for social justice through syntactic parallelism. The Yellow Wallpaper figuratively addressed female subordination. Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1970) exposed ‘denigrating, exploitative and repressive… relationships with women’1, demonstrated by D.

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H Lawrence and Henry Miller creating female ‘negative stereotyping’.The pyscho-analytic critic Julia Kristeva supported women’s individual identity noting their ‘multiple subjectivities’ threatened by ‘sexist oppression’. 4] Millet ironically discussed how ‘the private sphere’ resembles ‘the public realm, (being) thoroughly political… an… arena where the same power based relations exist’[5].

Gilman’s protagonist sees repetitive wallpaper patterns moving ‘together or separately’[6], symbolically suggesting incipient insanity and emphasising conflicts between Gilman’s private and public personas. An early trade-unionist, Gilman promoted equality for women, domestically and publically just as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1848) campaigned for ‘equality in education, marriage, suffrage and property laws’.A feminist reading is applicable to Gilman’s story; she explored unequal marital ‘power relations’1. 1970’s feminist criticism explored ‘the cultural mind set in men and women that perpetuated sexual inequality’[7].

The Yellow Wallpaper’s protagonist gave Gilman a powerfully distinctive female voice. However, in 1980 feminist criticism ‘became… more eclectic’7 considering Marxist, structuralist interpretations and ‘exploring the nature of the female world… reconstructing the lost or suppressed records of female experience’.Thus, Barry analyses ‘a female language, an ecriture feminine’4 exploring whether this form ‘is also available to men’4. Whilst, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1984) dramatized career women’s social and personal sacrifices, female oppression is represented through Lady Nijo and Patient Griselda, the latter systematically abused within marriage. Nineteenth century fiction often depicted women as generally unemployed: ‘the heroine’s choice of marriage partner’ prescribed ‘her ultimate social position, her happiness and fulfilment in life’.Interestingly, Bronte’s Jane Eyre promoted gender equality; the protagonist declared ‘women feel just as men feel’ requiring ‘exercise for their faculties… a field for their effort’ resisting conventional domestic roles involving ‘making puddings and embroidering bags’[8]: whereas Jean Rhys’ prequel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), featured Bertha, a feminist protagonist, controlled by an arranged marriage and tragically condemned to madness and death. For Barry, The Yellow Wallpaper demonstrates the ‘psychodynamics of female creativity’ because Gilman personally identified her repressed self with the wallpaper’s patterns.

Undeniably the symbolism of The Yellow Wallpaper creatively addresses feminist issues and women’s empowerment. Gilman suffered ‘a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia’[9] following severe post-natal depression. In 1887, Silas Weir Mitchell supported by Gilman’s husband, Charles Walter Stetson, dismissed Gilman’s serious post-partum depression, recommending ‘as domestic a life as far as possible’9 with ‘two hours intellectual life a day… never to touch pen, brush or pencil again’.Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper ‘to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked’9: cloistered women could become mentally disturbed as a self-fulfilling prophecy through domestic boredom, being denied individual original thought.

For Gilman, work was ‘joy… growth… service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite’ indicating marginalisation. 9 Disadvantaged and misunderstood as a writer, the repressive specialist rest cure pushed Gilman, ‘near the borderline of utter mental ruin’9 culminating in her passionate self-expression within The Yellow Wallpaper.The realistic and figurative language, showed Gilman’s battle against confinement and gender stereotyping, ultimately altering neurasthenic treatment ironically challenging sexist prejudices. This was Gilman’s context of production: her feminist approach exposed the Boston physician’s biased attitudes, labelling such literature as ‘deadly peril’9.

When Gilman’s brother agreed with her husband, Gilman responded by using anaphora and a rhetorical question: ‘personally I disagree… personally I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.But what is one to do? ’9 Although Barry acknowledges that the 1960’s women’s movement initiated ‘feminist… literacy criticism of today’7, the feminist movement commenced during the American Revolution (1775-83), when the President’s wife Abigail Adams, ironically commented concerning the draft Declaration of Independence that ‘whilst… proclaiming peace and good will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining absolute power over your wives’.Abigail Adams subsequently remarked upon on women’s equality: ‘…to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, we should have learned women’ warning against ‘depriving women of access to education’4. Proleptically, Adams used modality: ‘you must remember that arbitrary power is, most like other things, that are very hard, very liable to be broken’4. Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1792), subsequently addressed discriminatory gender stereotyping.Gilman overcame marital oppression by divorcing her first husband (1894) subsequently joining The Women’s Alliance, promoting women’s employment rights.

Kate Chopin’s contemporary tragic A Story of an Hour (1894), explored marital entrapment or ‘what women might do in the absence of their husbands’ and society’s oppressive expectations’[10] thus addressing feminist issues. The subordinated wife experiences short lived liberation from male domination, ironically before dying from shock upon realising that her presumably dead husband is alive.Misinformed, the wife looks out of the window seeing ‘the tops of trees… all aquiver with new spring life’ evoking her mistaken response of ‘self-assertion’, ‘Free! Body and soul free! ’10.

Gilman also uses pathetic fallacy reinforcing strong feelings. Gilman envisages the wallpaper’s woman ‘in the open country, creeping as fast as a cloud shadow in a high wind’6: the simile suggests transitory freedom. Both writers use pathetic fallacy, reinforcing women’s independence.In contrast, the symbolic Yellow Wallpaper has feminist connotations through the metonymic associations of the persecuted Gilman’s bedroom. Personifying escape from confinement, Gilman depicts internal and external settings: the isolated ‘colonial mansion’ is superlatively the ‘most beautiful place’, but paradoxically uses barrier imagery in the triad, ‘hedges… walls… gates that lock’6 realistically reflecting Gilman’s domestic imprisonment.Despite Gilman’s ‘big airy room… the windows are barred for little children’ analogous to John’s overprotective, patronising, quasi-parental role, addressing his wife as ‘blessed little goose… little girl’6. However, the wallpaper’s ‘uncertain curves… suddenly commit suicide- plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions’6; metaphorically the patterns parallel Gilman’s desperation when grappling with her husband’s need to keep her ‘cute and helpless’7, reinforcing Berten’s unequal gender power relations.

The wallpaper’s ‘strange, provoking, formless sort of figure’ symbolises Gilman’s throttled creativity. The wallpaper’s pattern, is ‘torturing… like a bad dream, a florid arabesque, a toadstool in joints budding and sprouting in endless convolutions’ : the simile, noun phrases and present participles figuratively demonstrate Gilman’s repressed desires for self-expression. The visual imagery and extended metaphor are developed with the wallpaper’s onomatopoeic ‘yellow smooches’ on Gilman’s clothes reflecting her staining feminist influence.

The all-pervasive wallpaper smell, reminiscent of ‘old foul, bad yellow things’6 resonates with Gilman’s husband’s prejudice. Gilman, identifies with the metaphorical woman, ‘trying to climb through the pattern’ who also ‘shakes it! ’ The exclamation sentence figuratively emphasises feminist women challenging social norms. Gilman’s extended metaphor ‘so many… creeping women’ relates to feminist struggles for emancipation.Gilman herself ‘kept on creeping’ before her cathartic release, ‘I have got out at last’6. For Plato catharsis purifies, ‘a process… by which the soul can exist alone for itself, freed from the body as from fetters’.

[11]Having ‘pulled off most of the paper’6, Gilman escapes John’s sexual discrimination. The story concludes with the question and answer technique: ‘now why should that man have fainted? But he did. ’ John’s role reversal, necessitating Gilman’s need ‘to creep over him every time! 6 proleptically symbolises women’s struggle for social justice. The female protagonist overcomes her husband’s biased attitudes, by shocking him into fainting. Therefore a feminist reading is applicable to Gilman’s allegorical story.

In ‘The Athenaeum’ a feminist was defined as a woman with ‘the capacity of fighting her way back to independence’. [12] Gilman’s figurative account of female empowerment subsequently freed women from sexism and stifling misinterpretation.


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