Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper

An unfair treatment of the narrator?

Essay, 2010

7 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. Marriage in the 19th century
II.1 Role as mother: Demand and responsibility
II.2 Role as wife: Relationship between the narrator and her husband

III. Treatment by doctor

IV. Conclusion

V. Works Cited

I. Introduction

When you read The Yellow Wall-Paper, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the first time it gives you on one hand a feeling of compassion for the narrator; and on the other hand you feel anger for the rude way she is treated by her husband and doctor and for the injustice the narrator has to bear. Nowadays, where it would be unimaginable for a woman to accept this “destiny” you cannot understand why the narrator does not defend herself against her medical therapy and the way her husband is treating her. In the 19th century, when this story probably takes place, it was the most usual way to cure women with mental problems. To analyze the story it must be related to the context of the 19th century and not of these days. The medical knowledge and the relationship between husband and wife were just absolutely different than today. By looking on marriage and medicine in the time Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wall-Paper” it becomes clear that neither her husband nor her medical therapy can be called “unfair” or “unjust” - at least not in the historical context.

II. Marriage in the 19th century

“Men perpetrated an ideological prison that subjected and silenced women” (Thomas). When you ask people today what an “ideal marriage” means, most of them would answer that the perfect partnership is a balance between both of the partners. They should be equal and everyone should give and take. The personal fulfillment applies to women equally to men. But for women in the 19th century marriage meant something different. Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stow write in their book “The American Woman’s Home” that “The family state then, is the aptest earthly illustration of the heavenly kingdom, and in it woman is its chief minister” (Golden 53). This sounds like a big responsibility, but nevertheless “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage” (Gilman 29).

What was marriage for woman really like and have they been victims?

II.1 Role as mother: Demand and responsibility

One basic part in the marriage was - and maybe still is - becoming parents. And in the 19th century the wife had the responsibility for raising the children. An illness like postnatal depressions was first of all not well-known in this time, and it also was not an apology for refusing to have or raise babies.

In “The Yellow Wall-Paper” the first time the narrator mentions her own baby is not until her second diary entry. From this subjective perspective you would not think about a serious problem the narrator has. She writes: “It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous” (Gilman 31). Even though she admits that she cannot have her baby, she does not make a big thing of it. She sees her depression only as being “nervous” (Gilman 31). This shows that the narrator is aware of her demand to be a good mother. Some entries later the baby gets some attention linked with the room, a former nursery, the narrator and her husband are staying at. Surprisingly it sounds like the narrator is really caring about her baby:

“There’s one comfort, the baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy this nursery with the horrid wall-paper. If we had not used it, that blessed child would have! [...] Why, I wouldn’t have a child of mine, an impressionable little thing, live in such a room for worlds. [...] I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see” (Gilman 35).

But she does neither call her baby a name nor does she actually take care about it. It is even not clear if the baby is a girl or a boy. Both times she is writing about her baby are the only ones in the diary. She is not completing her duty at all, so how could John be pleased with her skills as a mother? Especially in a time, when the standard for a mother was really high, as you can see in Sylvanus Stall’s book “What a Young Husband Ought to Know”: “The perfect mother is nurturing, patient, selfless, self-effacing, uncomplaining - virtually an angel on earth” (Golden 57). The narrator disappoints her husband in not achieve this aims. “Gilman’s traditional Doctor John seemingly shares Stall’s expectations of a young wife and mother” (Golden 57). The role of the wife as mother was clearly defined in the time this story probably takes place: “The duty of the mother is first to produce children as good as or better than herself [.] but also to educate her children properly - It is then the duty of the mother .to educate her children as to complete what bearing and nursing have only begun” (Davis 105). Therefore John could expect her to be a good mother with good cause: It was the normal way a wife had to be; for him there was no way to accept that she cannot take care of their child. Probably John adopts Sylvanus Stall’s opinion about such a bad mother: “Many otherwise excellent women find the nursery a prison, and the care of their own children irksome, simply because they have a perverted mother sense” (Golden 57) and is angry about her “perversion”. So it is not a surprise that sometimes he is a bit rude and strict, for example when he tells her to “use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me” (Gilman 35) or when he “looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look” (Gilman 36). She is even “getting a little afraid of John” (Gilman 37). This is not an unfair treatment; it is just a consequence of his position towards motherhood and family. In this context he actually acts very gentle and understanding: He lets his sister help to care about the baby (Gilman 31).


Excerpt out of 7 pages


Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper
An unfair treatment of the narrator?
University of Tubingen
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
432 KB
Yellow Wallpaper, Perkin
Quote paper
Julia Esau (Author), 2010, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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