Gilman was a social activist and herself experienced mental illness. These elements infuse her story "The Yellow Wallpaper" with greater meaning and urgency for Feminism and for plight of females then and now.
Gilman as social activist
Gilman advocates for woman. The woman owned by males and disallowed by husband, male physician, and brother from leaving the room becomes mad.
The woman is imprisoned -- locked in. Males stunt and kill her life. In the end she steps over them; Gilman is telling females to do so too.
Gilman's experience with mental illness and its treatment
Description of Gilman's experience
Elaboration of the haunting description of the wallpaper. Gilman's familiarity with the psychosis
E. Typical 19th century views/treatments of mental illness.
Description of contemporary treatment
b. Treatment of the character. It matched social beliefs and was created by males
How this knowledge enhances our understanding of the story and its purpose.
Gilman lived and experienced the facts that underlay the writings of this essay. This makes the essay all the more poignant and real. We understand the motives for Gilman's social activism and, knowing the author's experience, better legitimize and appreciate the misery of not only the woman in the story but the woman of that time and females everywhere.
Charlotte Gilman's the Yellow Wallpaper is a haunting semi-autobiographical article of mental dementia where a woman is imprisoned in a room by her male guardians -- her doctor, her brother, and her husband -- allegedly for the sake of her health. Forced to stare for hours on end at wallpaper in her room, the woman sinks into mental psychosis. The story comes alive particularly because Gillman herself experienced mental dementia. She lived during that period, suffered from contemporary medical advice that proffered to 'cure' the problem, and angered at chauvinist anti-female bias that reduced women to male ownership capturing and killing them, poured all in her story. Gilman was a feminist and social activist. Knowing these facts about her can help us appreciate the Yellow Wallpaper all the more. This essay is an exploration of these details.
Born on July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut, Gilman's father abandoned her mother when Charlotte was young leaving Charlotte's mother to raise the two children on her own. Consequent travelling from placed to place unsettled Gilman even more.
Charlotte married an artist Charles Stetson in 1884 and bore Katherine. Sometime during her marriage, Charlotte began to suffer severe bouts of depression for which she sought unusual and futile treatment.
Charlotte wrote and lectured widely. One of here greatest works of nonfiction, Women and Economics, (1898) urged woman to seek financial independence. This was followed by The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903) and Does a Man Support His Wife? (1915) which amplified Charlotte's reputation as social theorist. One of her books even became used as textbook.
Gilman also established The Forerunner, a magazine that expressed her views on Feminism and social reform via essays, opinion pieces, fiction, poetry, and excerpts from novels.
In 1900, Gilman married her cousin George Gilman, suffered from inoperable breast cancer, and committed suicide on August 17, 1935. (Bio.com).
Gilman was an inveterate fighter for woman's rights, declaring them to be person in their own rights and condemning the fact that woman was owned and imprisoned by male. Women too she said had a brain not only a liver and her brain equaled that of man. Woman worked for man; she had to get paid accordingly and earn her own wages.
One of her wittiest quotations on the subject is the following:
The labor of women in the house, certainly, enables men to produce more wealth than they otherwise could; and in this way women are economic factors in society. But so are horses (Brainy Quote)
Gilman perceived females as being captured and imprisoned by man. The man in her story, John, is seemingly dedicated to his wife and cares for her comfort. He wants her to get better and wants her to relax; he even rents out a summer house for her to do as much. Closer analysis, however, indicates that the character of the story is imprisoned by her husband. She wants to write; her headband and the doctor disallow her. John forbids her from going out in the garden. He disallows stimulating visitors to visit her. He wants to send her to a convalescent home that she dislikes. He enjoins his sitter to follow her each and every movement.
John is condescending; he treats the woman as a child: "Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose."
Locked in the bonds of her socialization, the woman berates herself for her 'selfishness':
Of course it is only nervousness. It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way!
I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!
She has no ownership over her own body; she is captive of her husband, his sister, his brother, and her own brother.
If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency - what is one to do?
My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.
So I take phosphates or phosphites - whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But the males in her society say otherwise and she is condemned to listen to them.
The woman exists as object for her husband's pleasure, and the husband, moored in his ego-centeredness, comes across as jail warden. He has chained the woman to captivity, regulating her every movement and disallowing her from her room. Unable to escape the woman creeps increasingly more into the ghoulish wallpaper until she merges with the imaginary women in the wallpaper.
This part of the story is interesting. It is as though Gilman is telling us that woman has been enslaved by males but can escape by using her internal, mental resources and by banding together.
The women in the wallpaper are alive. They are like the women outside the wallpaper -- alive and trying to shake off their bond: "she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. She is all the time trying to climb through"
The heroine thinks socialization is too entrenched; male captivity is too strong: "nobody could climb through that pattern - it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads."
Could the women 'shaking the bars' of the wallpaper and throttled by the many patterns climb though? They do! But in daytime, and the women need help form the character herself
As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her. I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper
Women, Gilman seems to tell us, can free herself. But it takes immense will and effort to do so since socialization and convention has been so strong. It needs the combined effort of womanhood in general to help females free. And once free, women can crawl around the room as she pleases.
I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!
It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!
The end of the tale relates how the woman forces John to go look for the key. He is slave to her demands. She has also managed to frighten the housekeeper and John. She now dominates them telling them:
"I've got out at last," said I, "in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!"
And most telling of all, the woman steps over the man. Mad though she may be, the female has emerged the victor.
Charlotte Gilman's experiences with mental illness come out loud and clear in the story.
Gilman herself describes that, "For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia -- and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded that there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to…