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Gilman’s story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ revolves around a protagonist who has been locked up by her husband in their leased house during summer vacation. The husband justifies his actions by pointing out that her wife needed a rest cure, especially now after the birth of their child. As the story unfolds, she (wife) reaches the threshold of a mental break down and insanity (Stetson, 1892).
She begins to experience hallucinations and becomes obsessed with yellow wallpaper that hanged on the wall. She associates everything in her environment with the yellow paper. Just before the vacation is over, she begins seeing nonexistent women creeping in her room. She looks at the paper and sees another woman entrapped in the picture. In an attempt to free her, she rips apart the wallpaper and locks herself in the bedroom. That was the only place she felt safe (Stetson, 1892).
When her husband returns, she refuses to open the door for him. Her husband gets the key and opens the bedroom, finding his wife in a severe mental condition, and faints. The protagonist continues to draw circles on her husband’s body. The story explores various themes and addresses numerous social issues. This paper will evaluate the theme of feminism in the story. Besides, the paper will highlight criticisms of the story and its impact on the audience.
The Theme of Feminism in the Story
Since its publication in 1892, many interpretations have come up regarding the story. Particularly, feminists believe that the story depicts the struggles and tribulations that women endured in a male-dominated society. Various illustrations in the novel assert the perception held by feminists.
At the outset, society undermined the role of women in households and during important decision-making processes (Stetson, 1892). As such, they played peripheral roles in society. In other words, the story portrays women’s opinions in society as irrational and irrelevant.
The protagonist is locked in a house for the sole reason of getting a rest cure. She has no alternative since she is unable to convince her husband that the rest break was unnecessary.
As Stetson (1892) elucidates,
‘…and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I finished.’ (p. 651).
According to the protagonist, her condition does not necessitate such medical and therapeutic intervention. She wishes she were a free woman who could write, care for her child and participate in the running of the society (Ford, 1985). Instead, she remains in isolation (Stetson, 1892). This illustration does not only provide important insights on gender disparities in medieval societies but also demonstrates hegemonic masculinity that had engulfed the entire medical profession.
Second, it is important to pinpoint that the yellow wallpaper represents barriers to gender equality. Notwithstanding the mental health of the protagonist, she rips the paper as a symbol of breaking the bondage of patriarchy. She frees a woman who, like her, had been entrapped in the male-dominated society. John collapses after opening the bedroom because of shock.
Literary, the story asserts that John collapses because of the level of insanity of his wife (Stetson, 1892). Symbolically, the collapse implies the shock and surprise that the male gender would experience after women freed themselves. The story portrays the protagonist drawing circles on the corpse of her husband. According to Ford (1985), it implies that women had risen above men in the fight for freedom and equality.
Further, the theme of feminism comes out clearly in the story. John is a medical professional. In the society depicted by the story, such high-flying careers were a reserve of men. Despite being a doctor, it is ironic that John does not recognize the impact of incarcerating her wife. According to many feminists, men were not performing their duties impeccably in spite of their gendered beliefs about women.
Failure by John to realize that her wife would say descent to insanity if she remained locked in the room represents a realization by women on their essential roles in the mainstream society (Stetson, 1892). It empowers women to believe in themselves and rise above submissiveness and innocence. This way, they are able to appraise the social system and challenge the negative effects of patriarchy and male domination.
Notwithstanding many interpretations of the story, many analysts hold the view that The Yellow Wall-Paper reflected Gilman’s experience in a medical institution (Ford, 1985). Gilman suffered from severe depression and was admitted to a hospital in 1890. It is in the medical facility that she experienced the same experiences as the protagonist portrayed in the story. As such, the story’s main aim was to challenge the prevalent methods of treating mentally ill patients as opposed to advancing the feminist agenda.
In essence, the story revolves around a couple spending summer vacation. The husband locks her wife in a room because of his beliefs that she needed a rest break. Throughout the story, the theme of feminism is apparent. From socially imposed roles to making decisions, women in the story suffer from the whims of patriarchy. However, many critics explain that the story is a true reflection of the experiences of the author.
Ford, K. (1985). The Yellow Wallpaper and Women’s Discourse. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 4(2), 309–314.
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Stetson, C. (1892). The Yellow Wallpaper: A Story. The New England Magazine, 11(5), 647-657.