Essay, Research Paper: Yellow Wallpaper And Women

Literature: Yellow Wallpaper

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For the women in the twentieth century today, who have more freedom than before
and have not experienced the depressive life that Gilman lived from1860 to 1935,
it is difficult to understand Gilman's situation and understand the significance
of "The Yellow Wallpaper". Gilman's original purpose of writing the
story was to have gained personal satisfaction if Dr. S. Weir Mitchell might
change his treatment after reading the story. However, as Ann L. Jane suggests,
"The Yellow Wallpaper" is "the best crafted of her fiction: a
genuine literary piece…the most directly, obviously, self-consciously
autobiographical of all her stories" (Introduction xvi). More importantly,
Gilman says in her article in The Forerunner, "It was not intended to drive
people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked"
(20). Therefore, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a revelation of Charlotte
Perkins Gilman's own emotions. When the story first came out in 1892 the critics
considered "The Yellow Wallpaper" as a portrayal of female insanity
rather than a story that reveals an aspect of society. In The Transcript, a
physician from Boston wrote, "Such a story ought not to be written…it was
enough to drive anyone mad to read it" (Gilman 19). This statement implies
that any woman that would write something to show opposition to the dominant
social values must have been insane. In Gilman's time setting "The ideal
woman was not only assigned a social role that locked her into her home, but she
was also expected to like it, to be cheerful and gay, smiling and good
humored" (Lane, To Herland 109). Those women who rejected this role and
pursued intellectual enlightenment and freedom would be scoffed, alienated, and
even punished. This is exactly what Gilman experienced when she tried to express
her desire for independence. Gilman expressed her emotional and psychological
feelings of rejection from society for thinking freely in "The Yellow
Wallpaper," which is a reaction to the fact that it was against the grain
of society for women to pursue intellectual freedom or a career in the
late1800's. Her taking Dr. S. Weir Mitchell's "rest cure" was the
result of the pressures of these prevalent social values. As Gilman came from a
family of well known feminists and revolutionaries, it is without a doubt that
she grew up with the idea that she had the right to be treated as anyone,
whether man or woman. Not only did this strong background affect her viewpoint
about things, it also affected her relations with her husband and what role she
would play in that relationship. From the beginning of her marriage, she
struggled with the idea of conforming to the domestic model for women. Upon
repeated proposals from Stetson, her husband, Gilman tried to "lay bare her
torments and reservations" about getting married (Lane, To Herland 85). She
claimed that "her thoughts, her acts, her whole life would be centered on
husband and children. To do the work she needed to do, she must be free"
(Lane, To Herland 85). Gilman was so scared of this idea because she loved her
work and she loved freedom, though she also loved her husband very much.
"After a long period of uncertainty and vacillation" she married
Charles Stetson at 24 (Lane, Introduction x). Less than a year later, however,
"feelings of ‘nervous exhaustion' immediately descended upon Gilman, and
she became a ‘mental wreck'" (Ceplair 17). In that period of time, she
wrote many articles on "women caught between families and careers and the
need for women to have work as well as love" (Ceplair 19). The stress that
Gilman was under of rejecting the "domestic model" of women led to her
breakdown and caused her to meet Dr. S. Weir Mitchell. She attempted to express
the tensions she felt her work, her husband, and her child in her writing. She
did her best to fight against the depression but finally "she collapsed
utterly in April 1886" (Ceplair 19), forcing her to turn to Dr. S. Weir
Mitchell, a nationally renowned neurologist in women's nervous diseases. He told
Gilman that "she was suffering from neurasthenia, or exhaustion of the
nerves" the diagnosis required his renowned "rest cure" (Lane, To
Herland 115). The treatment required for the cure involved "1) extended and
total bed rest; 2) isolation from family and familiar surroundings…"
(Lane, To Herland 116). The treatment was basically a version of how to be
submissive and domestic according to the dominant social values outside of the
sanitarium. After being treated for a month Gilman was sent home and was told to
"live as domestic a life as possible…and never touch pen, brush or pencil
as long as you live"(Lane, To Herland 121). Having a strong love for her
work and being a free thinker and writer, Gilman would naturally consider this
way of treatment a cruel punishment. In her diary she wrote, "I went home,
followed those directions rigidly for a month and came perilously near to losing
my mind" (Lane, To Herland 121). In the late 1800's women did not have the
opportunity to have both a career and their families. They have to give up their
families if they waned to pursue a career. Despite the great controversy she
created, Gilman decided to choose her work over her family when she divorced her
husband in 1887 and moved to California. A few years later, she gave her child
to her ex-husband in order to lecture across the country. In1890 she wrote
"The Yellow Wallpaper" in reaction to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell's
"rest cure". In her "Why I wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper'?"
in The Forerunner, Gilman portrays the "years I suffered from a severe and
continuous nervous breakdown" and goes on to talk about the doctor who
treated her and how in reaction to treatment had "sent a copy to the
physician who so nearly drove me mad" (Gilman 19, 20). And she says,
"the best result…years later I was told the treat specialist had admitted
to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since
reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper'" (Gilman 20). Despite what Gilman said, we
can sense a tone of this work being close to her emotional and psychological
reality. Many studies have been carried out to find what Gilman's intent was in
writing "The Yellow Wallpaper". Joanne Karpinski says, "one theme
that seems to run through all her works…is a desire for order and coherence in
lived experience" (3) while Lane suggests, "(it) is an intensely
personal examination of Gilman's private nightmare" (To Herland 127). This
implies that she wrote this story to sort through her emotions and fears in her
own life. If her revenge for Dr. Mitchell is part of the reason in writing this
work, it is also true that her creation of this story allows her to reveal her
emotional and psychological state of mind. Although "The Yellow
Wallpaper" is just a story that is most probably fictitious, there are
amazing similarities between Gilman's real life experience and what is depicted
in the story. Lane describes one of Gilman's diary entry where she wrote,
"I made a rag baby…hung it on the doorknob and played with it. I would
crawl into remote closets and under beds to hide from the grinding pressure of
that profound distress" (To Herland 121). This is amazingly similar to what
is described of the narrator in the story, who crawls and creeps in the corners
of the room. Gilman showed her emotions in the story and tried to discover
"what happens to our lives if we let others run them for us" (Lane,
introduction xviii). The attempts to discover was hard for her "(it) must
have haunted Gilman all her life because it answered the question: what if she
had not fled her husband and renounced the most advance psychiatric advice of
her time?" (Lane, Introduction xviii). "The Yellow wallpaper" is
a testament to Gilman's own life experience. We can feel the tough decisions she
made and how those decisions affected her emotionally as Lane puts it,
"perhaps the emotional truth and intensity of ‘The yellow Wallpaper'
drained her; perhaps it frightened her" (To Herland 127). Gilman delved
deep into her emotions and feelings in "The Yellow Wallpaper" and that
is why it is Gilman's best-know work today (Charters 318).

Berkin, Ruth Carol. "Self-Images: Childhood and Adolescence."
Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ed. Joanne Karpinski. New York: G.K.
Hall, 1992. Ceplair, Larry. "The Early Years." Charlotte Perkins
Gilman: A Non-fiction Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. 5-19. Charters, Ann.
The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction (Compact Fifth
Edition). Bedford/St. Martin's, Boston, 1999 Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.
"Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper'?" The Forerunner (Oct. 1913):
19-20. Karpinski, Joanne B. Introduction. Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins
Gilman. New York: G.K. Hall, 1992. Lane, Ann J. Introduction. "The
Fictional World of Charlotte Perkins Gilman." The Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Reader. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. X-xviii. Lane, Ann J. To Herland and
Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Penguin, 1990.
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