Yellow Wall-Paper A Commentary on the Social Term Paper

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Yellow Wall-Paper: A Commentary on the Social Conditions Facing Women in the 19th Century

The Yellow Wall-Paper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a story that is often considered to be one of the most influential pieces of literature of the 19th century. This influence is based on its ability to communicate issues that went against the conventions of the society of the time. These issues were related to the place of women and the treatment of women, especially in regards to women suffering from depression. Via the story, Gilman offers an insight into the social conditions for women, showing how women are repressed in society, how women are treated for depression, and the consequences of this. Essentially, Gilman presented and questioned the social conditions facing women in the 19th century. A consideration of the story and its effects will allow these social conditions to be understood. This will begin with a brief overview of the story and proceed to a consideration of why Gilman wrote the story. The social conditions highlighted by the story will then be described. This will be followed by a consideration of the impact the story had.

Before considering the social conditions illustrated by the story, it is first necessary to provide a brief overview of the story. "The Yellow Wall-paper" is the story of a woman who is confined to her role as wife and mother, and is experiencing depression. As the narrator describes in the story, her husband does not even believe she is sick. The narrator also describes how little personal power she has saying,

If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and family that there is nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency - what is one to do?" (Gilman, The Yellow Wall-paper 833).

The narrator then describes how her treatment is based on not doing any work at all. As the story continues, the narrator describes her increasing depression. As she narrates at one point, "I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time" (Gilman, The Yellow Wall-paper 837). The treatment for her condition is always based on her not doing anything at all, and especially not thinking at all. As the story continues, the narrator begins to descend into madness, as she stares at the yellow wall-paper. At one point this is described saying,

The front pattern does move - and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it. Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over" (Gilman, The Yellow Wall-paper 841).

This is a reference to the narrator's realization that women are trapped by their role in society. This madness continues to the point where the narrator tears off the wall-paper as a means of setting the woman, and herself, free. Overall, this is a story of a woman's depression and the way society ignores and trivializes her depression. Eventually, the narrator comes to realize that the real source of her depression is the way she is repressed by society.

Now that an overview of the story has been provided, the next step is to consider why Gilman wrote the story. Considering this question, it can be seen that the story is largely autobiographical. In "Why I Wrote "The Yellow Wall-paper" Gilman describes how she suffered from depression for many years. She describes going to a specialist in nervous conditions about her depression. Gilman describes the treatment given saying,

This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure... He concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to "live as domestic a life as far as possible, to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as I live" (Gilman, Why I Wrote "The Yellow Wall-paper" 844).

This treatment given is much the same approach captured in the short story, where it is based on the rest cure. This experience of Gilman's shows how her condition was trivialized and not taken seriously, just as it is in the short story. This experience of Gilman's also shows how her intellectual pursuits were considered to be the problem. The essential message Gilman was receiving was that the only thing wrong with her was that she was thinking, with this causing problems because women were not meant to think. This is the same message captured in the short story. In "Why I Wrote "The Yellow Wall-paper" Gilman goes on to describe the impact of the treatments given. As she describes, "I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the border line of mental ruin that I could see over" (Gilman, Why I Wrote "The Yellow Wall-paper" 844). Gilman then began to ignore the advice and resumed her intellectual activities. She describes how working again allowed her to regain her joy and to live a normal life. Gilman describes this as a "narrow escape" where she considers that had she continued to follow the physician's advice, she may have descended into madness like the character in the story. The story was written as a means of showing the physician's error and the potential consequences of that error. This was also not directed just at the particular physician, as Gilman recognized that society in general took this approach to women and their problems. Gilman wanted to illustrate what depression was like for women, how the treatment of rest therapy served to make the condition worse, and how women's intellectual activities should not be considered as the source of the problem. This includes that she was fighting for the right of all women to be treated as individuals with abilities and intelligence, and not to be confined to roles just as wives and mothers. As Gilman concludes, "it was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy" (Gilman, Why I Wrote "The Yellow Wall-paper" 845).

With the story and Gilman's reasons for writing the story now known, it is time to move on to considering the social conditions highlighted by the story. Since the story is largely autobiographical, the social conditions can be understood by considering both the story itself and the life of Gilman. The social conditions for women are related to two major aspects. The first is the health and medical aspect; the second is the role of women in society and how women are viewed by society.

The story's major focus is on the treatment of the woman's depression and the eventual madness that she descends into. As noted, this was written by Gilman as a means of warning physicians about the consequences of trivializing women's problems. At the time of writing the story, any nervous conditions like depression were treated with rest therapy. At the same time, physicians did not consider the conditions serious. This is something Gilman personally experienced, and something the character in "The Yellow Wall-paper" experiences. It is also worth noting that women in society were not expected to think for themselves or to be independent. Instead, they were expected to accept the ideas of men and of physicians and not question treatment options given. Gilman emphasizes this where the character in "The Yellow Wall-paper" narrates statements like,

If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and family that there is nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency - what is one to do?" (Gilman, The Yellow Wall-paper 833).

The character also narrates, "Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?" (Gilman, The Yellow Wall-paper 833). These statements express the lack of power that women have. The character in "The Yellow Wall-paper" may not agree with either the physician or her husband, but she is also not capable of questioning their decisions. This is an aspect that is not quite true for Gilman herself. Gilman did eventually question her treatment and decide to continue working, with this saving her from her depression. However, Gilman can be considered an exception to the rule, where she is more independent than most women of the time. This is reflected by the fact that she wrote the story, with this representing a rejection and questioning of the ideas and conventions of society. Overall then, the story captures the medical approach to treating women's depression, while communicating a warning about the potential problems of trivializing women's problems. Therefore, the story both highlights and questions the social conditions related to how women are treated for nervous conditions.

The second major focus of the story is on the roles of women in society, and the expectations placed upon women. This is seen first by the way that women's intellectual…[continue]

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