The Portrait of a New Woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” was first published in the Forerunner, in 1913, and it aroused a lot of controversy among the readers. Those who read the story were totally confused and unable to understand the author’s intentions.
As Gilman writes in her essay Why I Wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”: “[A] Boston physician made protest in the Transcript. Such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.” [Gilman 1913:1] Why was the doctor so affected by Gilman’s story? What was so extraordinary about it?
First of all, the story was written at the time when women’s roles were solely defined by men. At the beginning of the twentieth century, women were mainly supposed to be devoted to the needs of their families. As stated in The Changing Role of Womanhood: From True Woman to New Woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Deborah Thomas, men created:
(…) an ideological prison that subjected and silenced women. This ideology, called the Cult of True Womanhood, legitimized the victimization of women. The Cult of Domesticity and the Cult of Purity were the central tenets of the Cult of True Womanhood. [Thomas 1998 :1]
Women attempted to reject the traditional model of behaviour their fathers and husbands imposed on them. However, most of their endeavours were doomed to failure. Thomas quotes Welter who states that: “If anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex virtues which made up True Womanhood, he was dammed immediately as the enemy of God, of civilization, and of the Republic.” [Ibid]
In the view of the above, the physician’s statement could be easily comprehended. The story portrays the emergence of an entirely New Woman who frees herself from the enslavement produced by male power. The protagonist of “The Yellow Paper” is unnamed.
It seems that the author did not bestow any name on the heroine in order to make the reader aware of the fact that she represents all the female world. Moreover, the frequent use of the pronoun “I” is worth mentioning. It may indicate an exceptional self-consciousness of the heroine, a concentration on her own needs and ambitions. What is more, it demonstrates an egoism in a positive sense. Yet, these qualities were not considered as favourable as far as female characterization is concerned. Such features were associated with the male world only and could be solely accepted in men. That is why, Gilman’s short story was perceived as a shocking one and the attitude her heroine represented was unthinkable not only for men but also for numerous women in her day.
The author contrasts two worlds. On the one hand, she describes a rich sphere of emotions, delicate feelings and intuition characteristic of womanhood. On the other hand, Gilman acquaints the reader with the male way of viewing the world. Logical reasoning, a sphere of intellect and science as well as masculine domination are presented in the story. A lack of understanding between a protagonist and her husband, John, is noticeable. The heroine suffers from a nervous disease. Nevertheless, her spouse does not treat her illness seriously: “(…) he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?” [Gilman 1913: 646] Furthermore, the man is a respectable doctor and in his view, what his wife ought to do in order to regain a good condition is staying in bed and steering clear of work. Yet, the treatment does not exert a positive influence on the patient. As far as her opinion is concerned, “(…) congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.” [Ibid] The heroine’s favourite activity is keeping a diary. Expressing her thoughts is a great relief for the protagonist but she is aware of the fact that she is compelled to keep it secret. Her husband is totally against her writing, which may indicate his willingness to deprive the woman of the right to express herself.
She must control her behaviour not only for the sake of John but also because of his sister, Jennie. The heroine’s sister-in-law represents a completely different type of womanhood. Although the protagonist appreciates Jennie’s concern for her, she is at the same time perceived as a rival and John’s collaborator. What is equally important, their names, John and Jennie, are worth mentioning. The fact that the names sound similar may also indicate another kind of resemblance between them – the brother and the sister illustrate the same way of thinking, they have identical mentality. Jennie is not prepared for a metamorphosis her brother’s wife is experiencing. She is a supporter of a tradition, according to which, women ought to be concerned with the needs of their husbands and children only. Jennie is depicted in a following way in the story: “She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!” [Gilman 1913: 649] John’s sister is a typical representative of the Cult of True Womanhood ideology. She has little chances of becoming a New Woman.
An impossibility of reconciling these two opposite worlds is not the only motif that attracts the reader’s attention. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is regarded as an ideal description of female insanity. The protagonist experiences a deep depression. Although her husband is an excellent doctor, he is unable to heal her. The heroine’s condition gets worse as she has little emotional support from John. At the beginning of the story, her state may be described as “[a] temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency (…)” [Gilman 1913: 646] Finally, as the result of the rest her spouse imposes on her, the protagonist suffers from serious hallucinations. At this point, a character of medical treatment she undergoes is worth mentioning. John’s wife is separated from the world. She is closed in a bedroom with a yellow wallpaper. The wallpaper fulfils a significant function in a story. At first, the protagonist simply dislikes the colour, the pattern and the general look of it. Yet, as time passes, the woman’s fascination with this item is gradually growing. She spends hours analysing the patterns of it and concludes that the object must have an important meaning. Watching the wallpaper becomes an engaging entertainment for the woman. Later, she discovers that there is a woman hidden behind it. As the heroine observes, this woman attempts to free herself from the wallpaper. Viola Garcia quotes Hume who states that the item symbolizes the protagonist’s “(…) repressed other or suppressed self.” [Hume in Garcia 1998: 1] What is equally important, the pattern of the wallpaper is highly symbolic:
[w]hen compared to gymnastics it presents her interest as a game and expresses a contrast between the rigidly mannered and socially acceptable behaviour of her husband (…) and her increasing dissatisfaction with such behaviour. [Ibid]
As for the yellow colour, Garcia quotes Lanser who claims that it may signify “inferiority, strangeness, cowardice, ugliness, and backwardness.” [Ibid] At the end of the story, the wallpaper is destroyed by the main character. This act indicates her desire to escape from the forms that determine her behaviour. She endeavours to abolish the stereotype that men are superior to women. The figure concealed behind the wallpaper stands for a rebellious part of her personality, which finally reveals itself. The yellow wallpaper is torn because the main character is willing to get rid of a sense of inferiority she possesses. The consciousness of a desire to change herself and her place in society is essential for her to experience a transformation. The heroine’s sickness is the “result of her alienation from the role society expects her to play, then her insistence that she is ill is an evasion of that reality.” [Ibid] In order to become a New Woman, the main character is compelled to face an intense suffering.
- Quote paper
- M.A. Anna Dabek (Author), 2008, The Portrait of a New Woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/284452