Gilmans short story characterization and plot development, explores her diagnosis and treatment to express a womans perspective and frustration with eras prevailing definition of gender roles in a biased society where stereotypes equated femininity to weakness. The difference in intellect between men and women is accepted across the society hence women are denied the power and opportunity to exercise their choices in the community.
Compared to their male counterparts, female members in Gilmans community are classified as the ?other gender. In this power relationship, women are excluded from education, philosophy, politics and any other activities that required an expression of intellect (Carey, 2011). The place of women in ?The Yellow Wallpaper is besides their husbands who demand total obedience reducing their wives to mere spectators forced to confirm to every whim of their husbands at the expense of their happiness and well-being. The Yellow Wallpaper is a womans way of challenging these cultural settings of in patriarchal community.
While she is genuinely suffering in hands of the medical professions and her husband who accuse her of engaging her ?obsessive fantasies, Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses her story to expose the rigidity of the masculine dominated society where women are no different to infants. In a culture dictated by gender roles and identities, the author champions a far gender equality by shedding a light to the unhealthy extremities of cruel power imbalances between the men and women. Based solely on gender, males wield all the authority and intellectual capacity while the females have to trust in their judgments without question. The cultural context of The Yellow Wallpaper denies women power and control over their lives in a masculine dominated society where patriarchy enforces the notion that any expression of female self-interest is unreasonable, childish and disloyal.
In response why she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilmans story behind the story begins with the criticism and negative publicity her narration of events presents. The men in the society opposed to women empowerment feel threatened hence choose to take a defensive stand and label to the poor woman mad. According to a Boston Physician, such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it (Gilman, 1914).
In the same of reasoning, another physician labels Gilmans work as the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen (Gilman, 1913) which is an attempt to invalidate her opinions. Incipient is the direct translation of the Latin word incipere which refers to a beginning or start. The physician deliberately chooses to use this word to insinuate that the authors mental problems were triggered by her decision to engage in a task reserved for men. The views and ideas of Gilman are rejected by the medical profession but this is a profession comprised of men. Just like her husband, all men agree that the authors health problems are directly related to her mental involvement which is unaccepted in women.
This extreme level of criticism and ridicule coming from the medical profession has nothing to do with the quality of her story but the gender of the author. Due to the fact that they incapable of understanding the female psyche, the professionals already feeling threatened by a woman disregard the underlying issues and blame her writing for the ongoing mental problems.
The experiences of the author represent the cultural context of a society where women are forced to play second fiddle to clueless men based solely on the anatomical differences (Treichler, 1984).
This community relies on gender roles to subject women to oppression and enforce the notions of a weaker gender requiring women to subscribe to the concept of ?womanliness which reduces them to willing subjects. The authors descent to madness in the short story explores the feminine perspective of the womens powerless, gender inequality and an attempt at challenging the social structure through personal experiences. Gilman attacks these oppressive cultures and uses her unfortunate experience with mental illness to achieve the desired effect. In the masculine dominated society, men have the need to remain in control which invalidates women. To maintain this power structure, stereotypes and gender biases become the order of the day complicating the life of women at every turn. In her marriage, Gilman is reminded of her inferiority through belittling names like blessed little goose or little girl (Gilman, 1892) by her husband because he believes she is no different from a helpless child.
While Gilman already knows that women are capable of more than their male counterparts are willing to accept, she is powerless and incapable of expressing her wishes without becoming an outcast in the society.
The desire to retain and exercise this authority determines the fate of women in the society. In marriage and other social institutions, men disregard women and refuse to accept their input because they believe they are incapable of making any decisions. Gilman and other women in the Elizabethan Era are forced to accept and confirm to this oppressive power structure because they have no platform or voice.
When her mental illness presents, Gilman seeks the help of
a wise man who concludes that she is sick because she is free to engage her obsessive tendencies. Rather than accept the fact that he does not understand the complexity of her mental illness, Silas Weir Mitchell, prescribes ?rest treatment which has no medical value to the patient.
This is similar to the misguided notion discussed by John Harvey Kellogg in The Ladies Guide in Health and Disease where a patriarchal male figure in the masculine dominated community equates womanhood to motherhood (Kellogg, 1883) and directs women on acceptable mannerisms to perfect the baby production process. Just like Mitchel, Kellogg explores a mixture of medicine and gender assigned roles when approaching women mental issues. The only value these perspectives attach on members of the female gender is tied to their ability to produce healthy babies.
These two professionals agree that behold childbearing, women are unreliable hence they have no business engaging in physically or mentally demanding activity because their weak bodies and minds are incapable of dealing with these pressures.
Gilman is, therefore, sent home with a prescription of living a domestic life. Domestic living in the prescription sums up the cultural context of The Yellow Wallpaper. The physician implies that Gilman health complications are as a result of her failure to confirm to the defined gender roles.
The educated doctor thinks that doing things behold her domestic life is exposing her to the mental problems because women are incapable of nothing behold motherhood. To return to her docile state and operate at her mental level, Gilman should have less than two hours of intellectual life and refrain from touching a pen, pencil or brush again (Gilman, 1982). The doctors views imply that a woman is feeble minded and incapable of intelligent activities like reading or writing because such activities are strenuous and only reserved for the male members of the community. Kelloggs work focuses on the mind calmness of women in society which is important for their fickle minds. Explored as simple and mentally weak, women should be allowed only pleasant and harmless diversions to overcome Puerperal Mania which is a form of mental disease.
In the treatment of Puerperal Mania, Kellogg advices complete seclusion from family and visitors which is the exact form of treatment prescribed to Gilman after her diagnosis. The seclusion according to these assumptions prevent women from experiencing great excitements which are assumed to hinder rationality. Women mental issues in this culture are completely ignored by the men who only require them to produce babies thus women are blamed for inviting the mental illness by taking on more than their feeble minds are capable of handling.
Mitchel in his speech extraction From the Evolution of the Rest Treatment, argues that the domestic life prescription was based on his understanding of nervous excitability related to extreme weakness when women over exert themselves. Mitchel, therefore, diagnosis the patient and prescribes rest because of what he thinks she has been through physically and mentally.
In his speech, he describes another female case as follows; she was a lady of ample means, with no special troubles or annoyances, but completely exhausted from having had children in rapid succession and having undertaken to do charitable and other work to an extent far behold her strength (Mitchel, 1904). Basing his argument on charity work and other work, the physician is absolutely sure the patient suffered from handling responsibilities that were not appropriate for women. Similar to the case of Gilman, the doctor simply assumes that mental and physical exertion was responsible for the mental complications implicating women because this was not a part of their gender assigned roles.
By woman of ample means and devoid of any annoyances, the physician uses culture as a guide to describe women as the property of men. They have no business venturing outside the comfortable cocoon of marriage where husbands assume all the responsibilities of providing the psychological, mental and material needs. Those presenting with any mental problems in this category are prescribed rest cure because the physicians believes engaging in more activities only resulted in a mental strain to the women because they lacked the level of intelligence that made men capable of handling such activities.
Gender roles and cultural norms, values and traditions in a community where womanhood is confused to motherhood enslaved women in marriage using biased gender assigned roles. Women in this community are considered incapable of making any intelligent decision which has impacted her relationship with her husband and the rest of the community. While men are required to be the rational thinkers in the community, women are forced to confirm to these cultural views by playing the role of obedient and dutiful ideal woman who confirm to their husbands every whim. The narrator becomes a victim of the oppressive cultures and suffers silently because she cannot engage in anything forbidden by her husband.
While she loves reading and writing, Gilman is forced to remain imprisoned in her lifeless home because her husband and his doctor agreed that she was in need of rest to overcome her mental problems. Even when she is actually sure that the treatment approach if failing, Gilman cannot challenge the authority of her husband who is a doctor and the intelligent one in their marriage. Kept in a state of ignorance by a culture that prevents females from attaining their full development, Gilman has to confirm to his husbands assumption of superior wisdom that the patriarchal society has employed to dominate and patronize women.
The cultural context of The Yellow Wallpaper denies women power and control over their lives in a masculine dominated society where patriarchy enforces the notion that any expression of female self-interest is unreasonable, childish and disloyal. Gilman is forced to preserve the image of a loyal and dutiful wife at the expense of her health and wellbeing. To confirm to the oppressive cultural demands, Gilman has to endure the seclusion of the silent and idle cure because his husbands commands it. Women in this community are completely passive because culture demands it hence the author is unable to expresses her imaginative power which leads to insanity.
When locked in her room that has been decorated like a childs nursery or play room the author longs for intellectual and emotional outlet but the powerless woman has no power to disagree with or question the wishes of her husband. The cruelty and inefficiency of resting cure is, therefore, enforced by the oppressive gender roles defined relationship that infantilizes wives. Through gender roles, husbands in the society abuse this form authority and demands subordination even when dealing with female things that they do not understand forcing women to accept and uphold their position as victims in the society. Through culture, Gilmans physician and husband drive her to mental agony because they equate her to a child with no mind of her own. Just like all women of her time, Gilman is forced to behave like an infant and stick to domestic duties while leaving all the important decision making process to the intelligent and mentally capable masculine members of the society because no one trusts her opinions and views.
Carey, E. (2011). Controlling the Female Psyche: Assigned Gender Roles in The Yellow Wallpaper. Magnificat.
Gilman, C. P. (1892). The Yellow Wallpaper. The New England Magazine.
Gilman, C. P. (1913, Octobar). Why I Wote The Yellow Wallpaper. The Forerunner.
Kellogg, J. H. (1883). Ladies’ guide in health and disease: Girlhood, maidenhood, wifehood, motherhood. New York: WD Condit & Company.
Mitchel, S. W. (1904). From the Evolution of the Rest Treatment.
Treichler, P. A. (1984). Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 3, No. 1/2, Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship, 61-77.
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