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The short play, The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is based on the lives of a chauvinistic husband and a sick wife. The over-dominating nature of the husband called John makes the environment unbearable for the mentally ill wife Jane. The wife is involuntarily imprisoned by the chauvinistic nature of her husband who would not listen to any of her suggestions. Moreover, John is quick at relating any of her ‘weak ‘ideas to mental illness. This paper presents a critique of the play The Yellow Wallpaper from a feminist perspective by applying symbolism to understand the 1800s society.
Feminist Critique of the Yellow Wallpaper
Detained in a mental prison as a result of the machination of her husband, the main protagonist Jane is deeply embodied in an unending struggle that women seeking freedom in their thoughts and actions face. The short play The Yellow Wallpaper is written figuratively to connote the gender struggle between men and women, especially in the institution of marriage. Although an open interpretation would denote a psychological thriller, it is apparent that the play was mainly a commentary on the unfortunate conditions of the women population in the 1800s. Especially, it captures the views of the author of how the then patriarchal society was hurting female freedom. For instance, the character of Jane’s chauvinist husband connotes an over-controlling person who cares very little about the thoughts of his wife. He proceeds to confine Jane in an oppressive environment against her will and would not listen to any of her suggestions (Schroder 39). In the conversations, John’s decision is final and cannot be debated by Jane. Although the wife has attempted on several occasions to confront John to change his stand, the conversations often end with the husband reaffirming an antagonist stand (Schroder 41). From a feminist perspective, John’s dominance in the conversations and decision-making on behalf of Jane is representational of female imprisonment and control by men against their will.
From the interaction between John and Jane, the husband is a typical illustration of a spouse who has mastered the art of absolute control. Specifically, he treats Jane as an inferior partner. The wife says that “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in a marriage” (Gilman 1). In the view of the husband, Jane is a partner with weird, laughable, and inconsistent ideas which should not be taken seriously. Moreover, the mockery directed at the sick wife conforms to the expectations of the patriarchal society. However, the dominance is challenged when Jane decided to take command of her thoughts. As a result, the authoritative male figure was trimmed down and he became ‘as weak as a woman’. Jane confesses, “Now why should that man have fainted” (Gilman 17). When John saw the transformation of his wife to an independent thinker, he passes out. He could not believe that a woman could challenge his decision. In this scene, Jane reversed the traditional expectations characterized by male control of the thoughts of women (Golden 23). The shock and eventual fainting of John are triggered by the desire to overexert control over his wife. The husband is determined to conform to the expectations of patriarchal society through exerting dominance in his household.
The ideas and thoughts of Jane are representative of the feminist perspective. For instance, she desires to freely express her thoughts against the barriers imposed by society. Jane is defiant and confesses that “I did write for a while in spite of them” (Gilman 1). As a woman, Jane is depressed until she regains the ability to express her feelings in the hidden journal she is writing. Although she can continue scripting in hiding, Jane is depressed by the need to conceal her activities away from the chauvinistic husband. Specifically, Jane is struggling to remain in the full care of her husband. For instance, she says “he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful to value it more” (Gilman 2). Though the actions of the husband to pay the bills are good, Jane’s resentment is figurative of the resulting feeling of uselessness and imprisonment of the female gender (Tischleder 13). Just like other women, Jane feels the negative pressure imposed on her by society to worship the husband as a primary provider.
The entire plot of the play is exposed in a room that reminisces insanity and scorn from the perspective of a feminist. The empty and dull room is accentuated through the surrounding of Jane in thoughts and actions. For instance, her description of the room is emblematic of a prison-like environment where Jane’s requests cannot be heeded. When she requests the husband to consider repainting the walls, Jane gets a negative response from John. The husband says “that after the wall-paper was changed, it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on” (Gilman 3).
The unwillingness to change Jane’s environment is figurative of the desire of John to continue imprisoning her from free expression. Moreover, the description of the wallpaper is also symbolic of a psychological prison. Jane confesses that “at night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars” (Gilman 10). Across the play, Jane’s thoughts are concentrated on the wallpaper, and only gets relief when she removes it from the wall. Jane is captivated by the wallpaper to a point that she is unable to ignore the strange pattern on it. She later connected to the perceived image of a trapped woman in the background of the wallpaper (Goodman 18). Jane only gets relief after she gets rid of the paper. From a feminist perspective, the actions of Jane aimed at regaining control over thoughts and actions are representational female emancipation from the yoke of male dominance.
The Yellow Wallpaper story portrays a patriarchal society where men control the actions and thoughts of their wives. In this relationship, women are expected to take orders from men whose decisions are final. The author has expressed underlying feminist perspectives to illustrate the mental and physical hardships encountered by women during the 1800 era. These perspectives are hidden in the dominating actions of John, hidden thoughts of his wife Jane, and the room where the plot is played. However, Jane is determined to escape this prison by directing her thoughts in a hidden journal. Gilman has reflected on the psychological and physical imprisonment of the women through the symbolic use of the wallpaper, poorly painted room, and mental illness.
Gilman, Charlotte. The Yellow Wallpaper. Virago, 1981.
Golden, Catherine, editor. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition. Routledge, 2013.
Goodman, Lizbeth. Literature and Gender. Routledge, 2013.
Schroder, Marie. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s the Yellow Wall-Paper from a Feminist Perspective. A Woman’s Place in a Patriarchal World. GRIN Publishing, 2016.
Tischleder, Babette. The Literary Life of Things: Case Studies in American Fiction. Campus Vergal, 2014.