Charlotte Perkins Gilman approaches attitudes regarding gender and mental health in her 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Through her diary entries, Gilman illustrates the life of a woman who we assume to be named Jane, who has traveled to a colonial mansion with her physician husband, John, in order to alleviate her illness. Jane’s self-perception of her health is slowly shattered by John’s arrogant and neglectful reactions. Jane’s mental state deteriorates as she becomes infatuated with the wallpaper in her room which permeates every facet of her mind. Jane is powerless in obtaining the mental and emotional support she needs due to the unquestioned patriarchal order that is sustained throughout the story. Gilman’s portrayal of Jane critiques this patriarchal order that was omnipresent in the late 19th century and serves as a message to women that they need to resist those who perpetuate gender inequality.
Throughout the story, it is obvious that John has little respect or care for his wife’s emotional wellbeing. Because he is a physician and a man, he believes that his opinion is worth more than his wife’s. From the beginning of the story, Jane is cognizant of her husband’s apathetic tendencies, yet is even more aware of her lack of power in her situation. She states, “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?” (pg. 2). Jane’s recognition of this power inequality combined with her demoralized reaction is evidence that the patriarchal standards were never to be challenged. Jane repeats the phrase, “what is one to do?” a few lines later when she writes, “Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?” (pg. 2). In a situation where she is desperate to be heard, the oppressive patriarchy silences her. Her question will never be answered so long as those who uphold gender norms dictate society.
John is excellent at using his position of authority to discard any and all of Jane’s self-perception. While Jane’s mental state is becoming increasingly unstable as she becomes infatuated with the yellow wallpaper, John manipulates her and exacerbates her mental crisis. He attempts to comfort Jane despite ignoring every objection of hers by stating, “I am a doctor, dear, and I know. You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better. I feel really much easier about you” (pg. 8). John and his proclaimed expertise contradict the very real and destructive deterioration of Jane’s mental health. His assertion of “I know” takes a toll on Jane as she is led to question what it is that she truly knows about herself. In a last attempt to protest that she is mentally unwell, she is instantly cut off by John who proclaims, “There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?” (pg. 9). This attitude of condescension is the breaking point for Jane. At this moment, any hope for Jane to receive the help that is necessary for her rehabilitation is shattered, as her mental state descends into a downward spiral.
As Jane’s fixation on the wallpaper becomes ever more acute, she begins to imagine that there are women trapped behind its surface. She ponders, “Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over” (pg. 11). The women that are locked in the wallpaper are those that have been oppressed by the severe inequality perpetuated by the patriarchy. Jane is present among these women and she knows that she must break out of the chains of oppression that have enslaved her. Jane compares the wallpaper to a prison cell when she writes, “in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard” (pg. 11). Gilman’s decision to portray the wallpaper as a prison cell expresses her feelings of confinement regarding society’s perception of women and their mental health.
The story concludes with the violent finale when Jane theatrically shreds the yellow wallpaper. At this moment, Jane is at the peak of her mental disarray, and when she has finally decided that she must break free from the chains that John has subjugated upon her. She yells at John, “I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” Gilman uses this act of violence and resistance to highlight the only solution that was left to Jane. After exhausting all of her resources, John left no choice for Jane but for her to violently shred through the wallpaper, freeing herself from the strangle of the patriarchy.
Through “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman is making a fervent and direct assertion: the patriarchy will never yield to the demands of women. Gilman uses Jane and her futile attempts to persuade John to listen to her in order to reach this assertion. The solution to this is present in the violent conclusion, where Jane rips through the yellow wallpaper in an attempt to free women from the oppressive patriarchy. Gilman is signaling to her readers that the structures in society that continue to oppress women must collapse. To achieve this, women must resist the patriarchy, even if violence is necessary. In essence, Gilman is proclaiming that women have nothing to lose but their chains.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Project Gutenberg, 1 Nov. 1999, www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1952?msg=welcome_stranger.
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