For the longest time throughout history, women were seen as second class citizens in a male dominated society where they were expected to fit the mold of what society dictated as the ideal woman. They were expected to pursue roles such as taking care of the household and bringing up children. However, anything outside of that realm as far as exercising their freedom of speech and having the right to vote, was seen as stepping out their role. They were not given the right to do so until the 1920’s. Moreover, mental illness was a big conversation of the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, but at the same time, largely misunderstood. Women oftentimes fell prey to being diagnosed with mental illnesses of the time. Hysteria was a common medical term of the time that doctors used when they unable to come up with a diagnosis for symptoms that women were experiencing. Fortunately, today with the advancement in technology and medicine, the use of the term is obsolete and is not longer considered an ailment. In addition, it was also used as a political mechanism to hinder the women’s rights movement, which was used as a tool to refute women’s fight and aspirations for equal rights and a greater role in society. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”, they write to demonstrate and draw parallels between mental illness and how it was used in such a way to oppress them and how it could have exacerbated their current conditions. Moreover, they write to give an outlet for women who otherwise would not have been able to communicate their frustrations and anger that they had against the nature of society during their generation.
Within Gilman’s piece, one can conclude that she utilizes countless symbols to bring her message across to her readers. Firstly, the wallpaper would have to be the most significant symbol in “The Yellow Wallpaper” representing her confinement both personally as wife to a controlling husband and the sense of imprisonment that is being put on women based on the norms of the time. The yellow wallpaper was described as chaotic and hideous, but most of all, portrayed the pattern of “bars”(Gilman, 851). The narrator goes on to describe how individuals who previously stayed in her room had torn off broad stips of wallpaper in certain areas of the room, and nothing has been done to restore it. The narrator symbolically drew parallel to societal values the she lives, which she considers to be complex and illogical sets of regulations that continue to persist regardless of their lack of justification and actual order. Moreover, the wallpaper alludes to what is inside of the narrator’s head. Upon arriving to the house, the narrator’s state of depression was to be treated by S. Weir Mitchell’s rest cure where she is denied any form of distraction such as writing (Hume). With no outlet for the narrator to alleviate her suffering, the narrator ends up resorting to the yellow wallpaper. Similar to her mind, the pattern of the wallpaper is disturbed and has suffered damages created by outside forces. Due to the fact that the narrator has no form of helpful resources that she can utilize to confront her thoughts, she has no other option but to search for her own logic in the pattern of the wallpaper. Furthermore, she uses gruesome language such as “It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard contradictions” (Gilman, 845). The use of morbid language hints at the narrator’s depressive nature. This shows how the rest cure forced on by the doctor, her husband, actually magnified her existing condition with depression.
The women in the wallpaper was internally manifested due to the narrator’s illness; however, in spite of it, it ends up mirroring her reality. Gilman writes, “Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard”(Gilman, 853). At this point in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the narrator begins to descend into a vicarious experience of madness where she imagines that during the day the woman in the wallpaper remains frozen, and by night, she tries to break free from the wallpaper (Quawas). The narrator and the imprisoned woman can be regarded as one and the same being. Gilman writes, “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper” (Gilman, 854). The act pulling and shaking between the narrator and the woman under the patterned wallpaper demonstrate their sense of connection. The woman behind the wallpaper represents the repressed woman within a patriarchal society, and the narrator’s action to strip the paper from the wall served as an act of defiance.
Similarly in Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”, she uses grotesque images and makes references to the Holocaust to convey her level of frustration and anger about the pressing issue of oppression. Lady Lazarus makes it clear that she is directing her hateful and aggressive feelings at the male populations when she states “So, so, Herr Doktor. So, Herr Enemy” (lines 74-75). In English, “Herr” would be translated to sir from German, which makes it clear that she is referring to men. Moreover, when she discusses the “peanut-crunching crowd” (line 26), she opens up to the audience by saying “Gentlemen, ladies” (line 30). Most know that the correct syntax of this phrase is ladies and gentlemen, but this order puts emphasis on the fact that she is addressing the men.
Furthermore, Plath transforms the name of the biblical character Lazarus who was resurrected from the dead by Jesus, to Lady Lazarus. As an act of defiance and a change in norms of protagonists being males, she makes the main character of her story a woman. She has the same characteristics of rising from the dead like the original and “like the cat [she has] nine times to die” (line 21). Plath clearly is trying to give a voice to women and in the poem, each time Lady Lazarus dies, she will come back stronger like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Relating it to the patriarchal society that she was living in, she communicates to the women that every time they are oppressed by the irrational rules of society, they need to fight back harder.
In conclusion, these two strong female writers were suffering with mental illness and were living in a society where their freedom was oppressed by male dominance. However, with these hurdles working against them, they turned it around and used it as a pedestal to give a voice to their thoughts and feeling and overall stand as a representative for women. For example, in Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, she demonstrates how in fact the rest cure that she forced upon her by the orders of her husband the doctor, actually compounded her existing condition of depression. Additionally, the woman who was trapped behind the bar patterned wallpaper drew a parallel to the self-imprisonment of women within a patriarchal society, unable to fully express themselves and exercise certain rights. At the end of Gilman’s piece, the act of the narrator and the mentally manifested woman in the wallpaper fully ripping yards of the patterned paper from the wall, serves as and act of defiance. In Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”, it may seem like a suicide note at first gland, however, after looking deeper into her piece, it can be concluded that the concept of being resurrected from the dead is similar to the idea of the phoenix rising from the ashes. When Lady Lazarus dies, she comes back to life stronger than the previous time.
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