“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman highlights Jane, a woman struggling with a nervous mental illness. Living with her egotistical physician husband, John, she spends her days disgusted by the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. As Jane’s mental health declines, she grows obsessed with the wallpaper, spending sleepless nights analyzing its patterns. Towards the middle of the story, Jane tries to explain to John that her health is not improving. Rather than accepting her concerns as fact, John undermines her intellect and claims that she is fine. John’s refusal to listen to Jane’s subtle cries for help results in Jane’s mental health declining so far down that Jane experiences a severe mental breakdown. Here, Gilman combines a husband’s condescending behavior with a wife’s inability to have her worries validated to highlight how traditional gender roles reinforce a neglect of women’s health concerns with disastrous results.
Gilman underscores the implications of traditional gender roles through the words and actions of John, whose condescending behavior results in him compromising Jane’s mental well-being. John’s behavior of referring to Jane as a “little girl” (Gilman 8) embodies the idea that the man in a relationship is the dominant, mature partner while the woman is unable to think for herself. By treating Jane like a child, he undermines her ability to take care of herself and judge her mental health properly, which leads to him not taking her worries seriously. John continues to take on a paternal role and treat Jane like a child throughout the story. As he tells her, “you really are better…whether you can see it or not,” he makes it seem as though Jane is too unintelligent to understand her own well-being (Gilman 8). Viewing Jane’s worsening depression as hearsay, John’s behavior grows patronizing disguised as tenderness. While he shouts, “bless her little heart,” (Gilman 8) he reinforces the notion that he cannot treat his wife as an equal. This imbalanced power dynamic is typical of traditional marital roles from the 19th century, when this story was first published. However, this imbalance is what directly causes a neglect of Jane’s mental health. John’s desire to be the primary decision-maker of the couple leads him to ignore the warning signs of Jane’s poor health. By the time John puts aside his condescending behavior to help Jane, she’s already ripping the yellow wallpaper to shreds, symbolizing her breaking point.
Alongside John’s condescending behavior, Gilman includes a wife’s inability to have her worries validated to express how the oppressive nature of a traditional marriage undermines women’s health concerns. In the story, Jane continually tries to tell John that she is “really not gaining here,” but rather than John meeting her worries with compassion, he brushes them off. John does not validate her concerns but instead expresses how he “feel[s]…much easier about” her (Gilman 8). John combats her claims by describing how she is “gaining flesh and color” and that her appetite is improving (Gilman 8). This brushing off of a wife’s worries highlights the pitfalls of traditional gender roles. Women must consistently raise their voices for men to hear them, and even when men listen to them, they are often shut down for being “too emotional” or “not as intelligent.” Such micro-aggressions in society can lead to women’s well-being declining, causing and worsening symptoms of mental illnesses (Stepanikova 5). Therefore, Jane’s inability to have her worries validated increases the harm that her worries cause in the first place. When Jane tries to correct John’s analysis of her appetite, expressing how “it is worse in the morning,” rather than John apologizing, he never brings up the worry again (Gilman 8). This ignoring of Jane’s concerns highlights how spouses in traditional marriages struggle to understand each other’s arguments. Because the man is the dominant partner in the relationship, he is the one responsible for final decision making. John’s final decision to ignore Jane’s worries and instead “talk about it in the morning” (which he never does) leads to the neglect of her worsening nervous depression (Gilman 8), which expands into a significant mental breakdown towards the end of the story.
Gilman’s portrayal of misogyny in marriage continues during one of Jane’s last-ditch efforts to have her concerns heard, which is unsurprisingly met with “she shall be as sick as she pleases!” (Gilman 8). Here, John does not even try to claim that her health is improving. Instead, he implies that her worsening symptoms are in her head, that she’s conjuring up the symptoms herself. John’s refusal to see Jane’s symptoms as real alludes to another aspect of gender discrimination resulting in a neglect of women’s mental health: gender bias in healthcare. Research shows that physicians are more likely to analyze men’s symptoms as organic and women’s as psychosocial (Bernstein and Kane 606). Because of this, medical professionals often misdiagnose and improperly treat women for their health issues. Jane is a clear target of this gender bias, as John, not only her husband but also a physician, fails to recognize the clear signs of Jane’s health declining.
Furthermore, John uses his dominance in the relationship to guilt-trip Jane into feeling like she is a bad wife for questioning his authority. John’s cries of “I am a doctor” and “can you not trust me as a physician?” (Gilman 8) reveal the outstanding ego he has, typical of men in marriages comprised of traditional gender roles. John cannot fathom being in the wrong, which leads to him neglecting Jane’s worsening mental illness. From his “stern, reproachful” looks to his allegations that Jane’s fake symptoms harm their child, John intimidates Jane to a point where she feels unable to speak up for her mental health again (Gilman 8). Jane’s sense of intimidation mirrors how women in today’s time feel unable to speak up against their male oppressors in fear of public backlash, leading to others neglecting their needs. Just as women in today’s time do not have their needs met, Jane does not have her health concerns met. When Jane skips sleep and “lay[s] there for hours trying to decide” (Gilman 8) how the yellow wallpaper’s patterns move, Gilman encapsulates the result of neglecting women’s health concerns. As Jane’s worries go unchecked, her situation worsens. By the time John wants to discuss her mental illness, she’s already demolished her bedroom, symbolizing the final culmination of the mistreatment she’s endured.
Through the conflict between John and Jane, Gilman urges readers to ponder upon the implications of traditional gender roles in marriage and how their oppressive roots exacerbate women’s health problems. The more Jane pushes for John to recognize her declining mental health, the more John asserts his male dominance by shutting her down. John places more value on his ego and superiority than his wife’s clear struggles, so much so that his neglectful behavior exacerbates Jane’s symptoms. Gilman highlights this marital struggle to emphasize the prevalence of misogyny in the 19th century. However, this misogyny still plagues society today. Men today deface women when they speak up against sexual assault, and male-dominated governments debate women’s right to autonomy over their bodies. These injustices are a result of traditional gender roles still plaguing society, in which men view themselves as the valid deciders of women’s well-being. As emphasized by Gilman, society cannot adequately meet women’s health concerns until men take accountability for their transgressions and see themselves as equals to women, not above.
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