Space, Confinement, & Women in "The Yellow Wallpaper"
I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus -- but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad. So I will let it alone and talk about the house.
~The protagonist in "The Yellow Wallpaper"
Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" in 1899. In the western world, this time was a period of significant change in many areas of society. It was the turn of the 20th century, one of the most historic centuries in modern history. It was the eve of the industrial revolution, an event with consequences that would cascade for decades into the future. In countries such as the United States, this was also a moment in history when women began to organize and express their grievances with the imbalances the experienced as women and because they were women. Gilman writes a female protagonist that is, what we would call now, agoraphobic, but in that time was called nerves. The main character is a woman. Some of the more important men in her life, such as her husband, are doctors. They are doctors that seem emotionless and untrusting. For example, the main character's husband does not believe her when she tells him she is sick, yet he treats her for nervousness and hysteria, as if she is quite ill.
The female lead of this story is confined by her nervousness, confined by her husband, a figure for patriarchy, and she is confined physically within the space she occupies. She describes a lovely home, garden, and grounds. She spends a great deal of time in a particular room. The protagonist seems to go out of her way to convince readers that the room is quite lovely with great air circulation, yet the descriptions of the room contrast sharply to her declarations. It is as if she is not only trying to convince the readers that the room is lovely, but also she is trying to convince herself that the room is lovely and not some horrible room away from the main parts of the house where her husband keeps her locked away "treating" her for her "sickness." The harder she works to explain the room as nice, the more obvious it becomes that this room is miserable and that her husband is torturing her in some way. The use of space and spaces are figures for Gilman's perspective and commentary on the female experience at the close of the 19th century in the western world.
The premise of the story is quite interesting, and in a way, ahead of its time. The premise is that there is a woman with a physician for a husband. She claims to be ill and he does not believe her. He is a very dogmatic, practical, rigid man -- the stereotype of masculinity. He sees his wife, and in turn, she sees herself as the stereotype of femininity -- weak, dependent, and overemotional. The woman's brother and husband prescribe treatments insensitively and they do not work for her. She sees herself as ill. Her husband keeps her in a room in the house with very brutal ambiance. The room is deteriorating -- the walls, floors, paint, and wallpaper, for example.
The woman is writing of her experience, the content of the story, as she moves from place to place in the house until she remains in this room, the room with the yellow wallpaper. The story is aware of itself as a piece of writing that is being read. This is a characteristic of post modern texts. Post modernity was not present or a formal movement until the latter part of the 20th century. This aspect of the writing is decades ahead of other examples of literature of the time. The protagonist is writing about her life as she worries about getting well. In some ways, the story is an account of her life and it is also an account of her thoughts. This is an intentional strategy of Gilman.
Although this woman is confined in her marriage, in her house, and even in her body, the story is a raw expression of the female mind and the female experience. Even within the very constrictive context of this character's situation, there is hope for freedom in the act of writing. This is also a kind of post modern nod or acknowledgement to readers that Gilman herself, is a woman, who is a writer. We can infer that for Gilman, women writers are figures for rebellion, freedom, and expression, whether the woman is a fictional character in a story, or a real woman writing a fictional story.
As the story progresses, the protagonist becomes more and more dependent. It becomes more transparent that her husband perceives her as a child or at least as some kind of mental subordinate. Her sickness comes and goes, sometimes worsening. Her husband carries her around the house when she lacks the energy to be ambulatory herself. Further in the story, she becomes nearly bed-ridden, feeling as if she needs to lay down most of the day. The woman of the story, at one point, lacks the energy to eat, or to conjure enough of an appetite to sustain herself. She even loses the ability to laugh. What a sad and restricted life this woman leads; regardless, the language she uses insists that she is full of flights of fancy.
Her husband sees her as being barely able to control herself, especially her body and her imagination. The protagonist's husband, John, makes a point to stifle his wife's imagination and creativity in the name of improving her health. When she is able to laugh, she and her husband see this as a sign that her health is improving. Modern science would agree with that assessment as studies show how laughing engages the whole brain simultaneously and promotes positive physical health. The woman's health improves and she becomes fixated on the yellow wallpaper, particularly the smell of the wallpaper. She is convinced that the smell of the wallpaper is pervasive in her house and her body. She repeats in her writing about her creepy feelings regarding this wallpaper.
The protagonist grows more unstable and unhappy. She sees through the facade of her husbands fake expressions of love; she stares at a woman through various windows of the house; she contemplates suicide, partially compelled by her distaste for the wallpaper. This house drives an already nervous woman in an unhappy marriage, wherein among other things, she is condescended to and arguably poisoned, over the edge.
Her character arc has a trajectory that begins with a housewife, with perhaps a slight case of anxiety, into a paranoid, manic depressive. Most of her time is in the house. She comments about how one of the reasons why she will not commit suicide is because there are too many bars around the windows. Her home is a prison and in prison, prisoners often lose their minds. Without adequate space in the outside world and the social world, this woman loses her grip on reality and stable emotional health. She is too confined and is imploding.
Women at the end of the 19th century were ready to explode or implode from the restrictions on them in society. Women were about to become suffragists, cut their hair, go to college, and choose their marriage partners. This was a period of great change and transition for women of the western world. This story is a figure for this change and step in women's history. The story serves as a warning and an example. At the end of the version of…