Escaping Unjust Gender Stereotypes in “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman once stated, “In a sick society, women who have difficulty fitting in are not ill, but demonstrating a healthy and positive response.” “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a revolutionary story for feminists in the 1900s working to exterminate negative gender stereotypes. In that time period, women were given little to no rights and expected to submissively fill the domestic roles of the household. Throughout the entire story, the oppressive gender roles are shown as the woman is controlled by the male authority figures of her husband and brother who hold high positions in society as physicians. Her husband, John, is extremely controlling and determines what she can do in her free time, where she can sleep, and who she can see with little regard to her opinion. This story gave a new perspective to women, demonstrating the ability of women to form their own identities and break away from suffocating restrictions. Overall, Gilman utilizes the comparison of light versus dark, uncomplicated syntax, and suffocating symbolism to demonstrate the entrapment felt by women in that era. This was done in order to enact change for future differences in society’s standards and to educate the readers on the unjust conditions faced by women.
First, the comparison of light versus dark acts as a recurrent theme throughout the story. As the woman lives in the house she becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. Following this, she begins to notice how the pattern of the wallpaper changes with different lightings and sees a woman in the wallpaper. When describing the difference in the wallpaper she states, “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” (para. 189). The difference in the movement of the women in the wallpaper in the light versus the dark depicts the need for women to hide in the light then becoming bolder in the dark. This is shown to be true in the late 1800s for women as they were not permitted to speak out against men or go against the social order of male dominance. This led to women working in secret and meeting at night to enact change. Also, as the wife starts to notice the increased activity of the woman in the wallpaper at night, it acts as a major turning point in the story as it solidifies her obsession with the wallpaper. She then ends up spending hours at a time staring and memorizing the wallpaper while looking for patterns.
Second, the simple syntax and diction hold an impactful role to the story as they solidify the lack of education held by women of that era. This is shown through the lack of complexity in the woman’s adjectives. She utilizes words such as, “great,” “bright,” and “shady.” Comparatively, Jon elicits more elaborate descriptions with words such as, “dangerous” and fascinating.” This demonstrates the priority held for men to be educated over women as it was seen as unnecessary for women to have an education. Additionally, when describing events in her journal, she uses very basic jargon and simple actions with little detail. For example, she states, “she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard” (para. 190). Furthermore, the uncomplicated diction fuels the childlike comparisons often given to the wife by her husband, John. For example, many degrading pet names are given to the wife such as, “little girl” and “blessed little goose” (para. 131, para. 56). Overall, the lack of complexity makes the reader question the reliability of the journal entries and cements women’s role in society as they were not offered opportunities to educate themselves.
Finally, the entire story is illustrated by the suffocating symbolism of the woman behind the yellow wallpaper. She is trying to escape which represents women trying to be free of oppressive gender standards created by society that men control women. Throughout the story the woman is shown to creep and crawl around, looking for a way to get out of the wallpaper. However, she is constantly obstructed by the top pattern of the wallpaper. For instance, at one point the narrator notes that “She is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern- it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside-down and makes their eyes white!” (paras. 191-192). This demonstrates the immobilizing effect that trying to escape has on women. If any woman tries to free themselves of men’s control they would lose everything, their family, reputation, and respect. Ergo, as women try to liberate themselves from restrictive gender roles that limit the abilities and identities of women, they are persecuted by masculine authority. The end of the story acts as an immense revelation made by the woman as she rips off all of the wallpaper. This symbolizes her going against what her husband wants and rejecting gender norms in order to be able to form her own personality and pursue her own desires.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” was able to initiate immense change for women of the twentieth century as they broke away from the patriarchal expectations. The story instigated the idea of women being able to express their individuality after escaping their forced, domestic lifestyles. Women of that era were expected to submissively obey their husbands while running the household. The contrast of light and dark throughout “The Yellow Wallpaper,” demonstrated the need for women to hide their true selves in the light from society’s judgment, limiting the personal growth of women. However, in the darkness, women were able to express themselves and work to break free from the dominating, masculine imprisonment. Additionally, the plain syntax illustrated the role of women in society as they were not offered education and expected to solely take care of their families. Finally, the smothering symbolism of the wallpaper highlights the entrapment felt by women as they are controlled by men and society’s standards. Then by tearing off the wallpaper, the woman asserts her freedom to express herself as an individual, instead of continuing to act as her husband’s property. “The Yellow Wallpaper” remains extremely relevant today as women continue to work to gain equal rights as men. The constant struggle for equality of women in the workforce and for equal opportunities is still heavily prevalent today. The story progressively promotes women to fight against gender oppression and find fulfillment in their unique identities.
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