Table of Contents
Short biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Role of women in the 19th century
3.1 Analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman´s The Yellow Wallpaper in reference to the treatment of women in the mid and late 19th century
3.2 Social and medical attitudes toward women in The Yellow Wallpaper
Writing about the role of women in society can be a very widespread theme. Therefore, it is necessary to narrow this topic. The short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in 1892, mirrors the (American) role of women and their status in the 19th century. Even in this limitation one can concentrate on various subtopics which can be subdivided, such as political attitude, social attitude, medical attitude, economic attitude and educational attitude.
It took a very long time until women finally achieved their independence. For many centuries women were under men´s control, suppressed and underprivileged. Gaining freedom, independence and equality was the most important goal. Today we have the status of gender equality in most countries. Of course, one can say that in the course of time women´s role has changed. These shifts and effects can be observed in our everyday life. Women are able to educate themselves, choose their profession and they have equal rights to men. Nowadays, women can be elected for Head of State as for example in Germany. Unfortunately, there are still some areas in our world in which women have not been as successfully as women of the Western world. There are also people who still stick to these “old-fashioned” traditions and attitudes. In some businesses women are not high in number and earn less money than men do. So women are still subordinated to men. There has been established one term “men-made world”; it describes nicely how far men´s power has influenced former political, social, educational and economical attitudes. They have ruled the world.
This little term perfectly sums up Gilman´s main purpose of her short story The Yellow Wallpaper which contains all these themes.
This term paper will focus on social and medical attitudes towards women in Charlotte Perkins Gilman´s The Yellow Wallpaper. Until today the topic is still and often discussed. It plays a major role in today´s politics. The reader can identify or rather can understand the protagonist. Besides, it contains such a variety of interpretations and a high reflection of women´s position in the American 19th century. Interesting enough is that the short story includes autobiographical facts. This means the author interweaves her own life with the protagonist´s life. The background information of the author can be compared to the female protagonist of her story.
Showing how women in the 19th century were suppressed and underestimated by men as well as the rising emancipation will be the main aim of this term paper. Therefore, it will contain explanations and determines of the social and medical attitude towards women in the 19th century.
2. Short Biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 3, 1860 and is a famous author and feminist. She had a lonely, painful and traumatic childhood. Frederic Beecher Perkins, her father, deserted the family and left shortly after her birth (cf. Gilman, “Autobiography” 8). Her mother was not motherly because she withheld all physical expressions of love in order to prevent their later disillusionment over broken relationships (cf. Gothic Undercurrents, 2011).
Besides, she married very early in 1884. Gilman entered the marriage reluctantly so one can say that it was not a love marriage. Within her marriage she was dominated by her husband Charles Stetson (cf. The Literature of Prescription, 2009). Their marriage was conventional and was based on social expectancy with a clear role allocation. Katharina, their only child, was born after eleven months of marriage. Interesting enough is that Gilman refused to accept the role as a housewife which already underlines her feminist thoughts. Trying to be a good wife, housekeeper and mother prevented her from realizing her real dream of being a writer (cf. Gothic Undercurrents, 2011).
After her daughter´s birth Gilman became increasingly despondent and marital tensions increased. Her husband and her mother were convinced that Gilman needed rest to overcome her depression. Therefore, they send her for treatment to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell who was the most famous American neurologist and a specialist for women´s “nervous” disorders at that time. He usually prescribed a “rest cure” which consisted of total bed rest for several weeks and limited intellectual activity (cf. The Literature of Prescription, 2009).
In 1894, Gilman got divorced from her husband and left her daughter because she could not sustain the mental ruin and the domestic life (Sayre, “American Lives”, 516). Then she worked as a journalist for feminist audience. Moreover, she remarried her first cousin George Houghton Gilman (1900). They lived happily together until her husband died in 1934. One year later Gilman committed suicide after discovering that she is suffering from breast cancer (cf. The Literature of Prescription, 2009).
Gilman uses “aspects of her own personal life to inspire women to seek change” (Coogan, “Electronic”, 96). Her biography is to mention because her short story The Yellow Wallpaper is partly autobiographic. Her feminist thoughts can be found in all her literary pieces. Therefore, one can say that Gilman not only influenced but rather initiated women´s emancipation.
3. Role of Women in the 19th Century
3.1 Analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman´s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in Reference to theTreatment of Women in the Mid and Late 19th Century
Charlotte Perkins Gilman´s best-known piece is the short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) in which she dramatizes her depression and the rest cure that was forced upon her by her former husband (cf. Gothic Undercurrents, 2011).
Therefore, it is necessary to focus on the text itself and carve out examples which support the following thesis: The short story The Yellow Wallpaper is one example of the rising feminism because of women´s underprivileged role in society of the 19th century.
In the story John, the protagonist´s husband, represents the society in the mid and late 19th century which was dominated by men; rather it is a men-made world. The society determines the role allocation in which men have the whip hand over women. They can control women and so is John. Furthermore, he is rational, strict, factual and scientific. The protagonist seems to represent all women at that time who were inferior to and suppressed by men.
“John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage” (Gilman, 647). It seems that the situation is well known in which husbands laugh about their wives because of their childish ignorance. So men laugh about women´s “stupidness”. Men see women as childish and silly. The quotation shows that men in society are supposed to be wise and superior in contrast to women. Thus, men underestimate women and ignore their opinions and their needs. Especially John is supposed to be “wise” and “intelligent” in that story; because he is a physician of high standing (647). The story offers a reflection of the narrator´s state of mind and marriage. The marriage to John stands for the imprisonment by social expectations. The image of a structured marriage was part of society in which there is clear role allocation. One can clearly see how single-sided society was.
“John is a physician, and perhaps. . . perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.” (647). The expression “perhaps” underlines the insecurity of this woman to say what is on her mind rather to say what she really feels and thinks. This lack of confidence maybe triggered because of the fear of her husband’s negative reaction towards her. The narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman´s story is facing a kind of double oppression because her husband John is her physician as well. The treatment of her husband decreases her health and she is aware of that.
One can figure out the classical and traditional role allocation in which women/wives are forced to occupy with the domestic work and bringing up the children while men/husbands are working outside. This unfavorable position of women was also emphasized by the fact that only men had access to education (cf. Worell, “Encyclopedia” 30). No one could challenge the decisions of men, especially when he is of high standing like John. So the narrator´s opinion does not really count which makes her powerless. The protagonist already knows that being on a rest cure without any mental and physical activity neither helps her nor anyone else. She has two physicians in her family and none of them really understands or recognizes her real needs although both are of high standing (648). It also shows that almost every man has the same treatments of women in mind.
The protagonist repeats the rhetorical question “But what is one to do?” (648) thrice and they demonstrate that her husband and the society are trying to control her. She is in a helpless situation. There is no escape of their fortune. While reading this story one gets the impression women do what men want them to do even if they do not support their decisions like being on a rest cure. The narrator is “ absolutely forbidden to work ” (648). John controls everything (drink, food, medicine etc.) just like the society does. This quotation already foreshadows that her status of being on the rest cure could drive her mad. Rest cures lead to mental ruin because it prevents people from having intellectual activities.
“Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.” (cf. 648). In this quotation one can find a slight defense against society´s and her husband and physician´s treatment towards her. The protagonist is getting sick of doing the same, namely nothing at all. There is a routine in her life rather in women´s life. One can observe that she wants to change her everyday life. The anaphora underlines her personal view. The defense against her treatment exists but she is not able to speak it out; rather she is incapable to make her own decisions. This behavior underlines the inability of women to decide on their own because of their weakness which leads back to the suppression of women. The protagonist enjoys writing and reading which shows that she wants to think and decide for herself if society lets her (cf. 649). Still she has to follow her husband’s commands.
Men prevent women from using their brains by the means of writing or reading because this would lead to their self-determination. So, most women were uneducated; it is easier to keep someone down who is not educated then someone who has knowledge. Writing and reading are elementary bricks of education. So having educated women would “destroy” the society; women would realize their underprivileged role in the society and that would make them break through the men-made world and escape the domestic prison. As a result men´s superiority would not exist anymore. John ignores the real needs of his wife. It keeps him satisfied to have his wife doing what he has told her to do and being on a rest cure but that doesn´t help her rather it only increases the narrator´s real depression (cf. 649). The protagonist is in total isolation because it is part of the rest cure. She is not even allowed to see her daughter and that really drives her crazy. Still, she is powerless against the decision of her husband (cf. 649).
In the following quotation John talks to his wife as if he would speak to an infant who is not able to decide for oneself and therefore needs somebody who does it. “Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain.” (649). He treats her like a child and not like a self-determined adult. The narrator lives in a nursery. He always plays everything see noticed down and belittles her skepticism. The protagonist knows what she needs but she is under John´s control. She yearns for mental work; her desire to write rises (cf. 649).
Jennie, John´s sister sticks to the old fashioned society. To put her in comparison to the protagonist, one can see in how far they differ from each other. She accepts her underprivileged role in society and tries to do the “best” out of it. She dedicates herself to men´s order probably because of her fear of being publicly humiliated or dismissed if she is not. Therefore, she represents women who stick to social adaptation. She underestimated herself and all women at the same time by accepting her inferior role by believing education is nothing a woman should deal with (cf. 650). Furthermore, she controls her, too but only because it is John´s order. That is why the protagonist seems to be terrified of John and his sister because there are abrupt endings of her diary entries (650).