w Wallpaper essaysSuppression of Women in The Yellow Wallpaper “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, tells the story of a woman’s descent into madness as a result of the “rest and ignore the problem cure” that is frequently prescribed to cure hysteria and nervous conditions in women. More importantly, the story is about control and attacks the role of women in society. The narrator of the story is symbolic for all women in the late 1800s, a prisoner of a confining society.
Women are expected to bear children, keep house and do only as they are told. Since men are privileged enough to have education, they hold jobs and make all the decisions. Thus, women are cast into the prison of acquiescence because they live in a world dominated by men. Since men suppress women, John, the narrator’s husband, is presumed to have control over the protagonist. Gilman, however, suggests otherwise. She implies that it is a combination of society’s control as well as the woman’s personal weakness that contribute to the suppression of women. These two factors result in the woman’s inability to make her own decisions and voice opposition to men.
John, the narrator’s husband, represents society at large. Like society, John controls and determines much of what his wife should or should not do, leaving his wife incapable of making her own decisions. John’s domineering nature can be accredited to the fact that John is male and also a “physician of high standing” (1). John is “practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (1). He is scientific, factual, logical and rational, everything that characterizes a sane person in society.
He tells the protagonist that she is to take “phosphates or phosphites – whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and is absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until she is well again” (1). However, the narrator thinks otherwise: 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? (2) Clearly, the narrator thinks that a life void of any work or excitement will not be helpful or aid her on the road to recovery.
The question she asks herself at the end of this paragraph, however, exemplifies her oppressed stature in society. She asks herself not once, not twice, but three times what someone in her position is to do: “And what can one do?” (1), “What is one to do?” (1), “But what is one to do?” (1). Repetition of these questions demonstrates that the narrator cannot do anything to change her life because her husband – society – controls what she can and cannot do. The narrator’s writing also falls under this category because writing is looked down upon in society as a profession for women.
Because of society’s oppressive nature, the narrator is unable to write in the presence of other people, especially John and Jennie, his sister, who are great products of society (a “high standing physician” and an “enthusiastic housekeeper”), since she believes that people see her writing as contributing to her illness. The narrator says, “I verily believe Jenny thinks it is the writing which made me sick!” (5). Even though the narrator finds relief in writing, she says, “I must say what I feel and think in some way – it is such a relief!” (7), since writing is an improper occupation for women in societal standards, the narrator must not write publicly, but in secret.
Furthermore, John also tries to control how and what his wife should think, exemplifying society’s suppression of women. He tells his wife, “…you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not.
I am a doctor, dear, and I know. You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better” (9). Again, he uses the fact that he is a doctor to insinuate his “rightness” and hint that the narrator must be wrong because she is not a doctor. The fact that she is a not a doctor, however, does not mean she does not know how she feels. The narrator says, “I don’t weigh a bit more, nor as much; and my appetite may be better in the evening when you are here, but it is worse in the morning when you are away!” (9). The narrator tries to tell her husband otherwise but he simply does not listen.
In another instance, the narrator tells John that “there is something strange about the house” (2) but he simply negates her intuition and tells her that “what she felt was a draught, and shut the window” (2). John does not listen deeply to what his wife says; he hardly ever really listens to her at all. The narrator says, “I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia” (7) but John says that she “wasn’t able to go, nor able to stand it after she got there” (7). He is always making decisions for her based on his assumptions on what is best for her, and not what she really wants. To others, this may seem like John is showing care and affection, but even care and affection has its limitations. John frequently laughs at the narrator.
She says, “John laughs at me” (1). Moreover, John constantly says, “Bless her little heart!” (9) and calls the narrator “blessed little goose” (4), demeaning names that belittle women and make women seem childlike to men. Although John’s protectiveness is of good intentions, he oppresses her by trying to control what his wife thinks and ignoring what she says.
A personal weakness that contributes to the narrator’s suppression is her inability to communicate effectively and voice opposition. Most of the narrator’s suppression could be based on the fact that John truly does not listen to her all the time, but in the times when John is actually somewhat attentive, in the case where the narrator wants to go visit Cousin Henry and Julia, she fails miserably at getting her message across to John. She desperately wants to go, “I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day” (7), and she tries to carefully talk to John because she knows he does not truly listen to what she says and wants. Even then, she does not communicate to him effectively enough. She says, “I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished” (7).
By crying, the narrator displays her weakness and gives evidence to John’s claims about her being weak and in need of his control. Who is to say that if she did communicate effectively, John would let her go visit Cousin Henry and Julia? But the chance of John allowing her to go completely vanishes based on her presentation of the proposal, especially when she breaks down and cries. Because of the narrator’s inability to communicate effectively and voice opposition when needed most, she furthers her own suppression. It is not until the last scene that the narrator finally gains control of her life and becomes her own decision maker by standing up to her husband and society. In describing the climax of the story, the narrator describes John’s frustrations and her calmness: It is no use, young man, you can’t open it! How he does call and pound! Now he’s crying for an axe.
It would be a shame to break down that beautiful door! “John dear!” said I in the gentlest voice, “the key is down by the front steps, under a plantain leaf!” (15) It is in this scene where for the first time, John truly listens to her and it leads him to the key to the door. Perhaps it is the first time she effectively communicates with John and it shows she is finally getting through to him. But it is also in this scene where the narrator and John switch roles; the narrator has power now. After all, knowledge is power, and she is the only one who knows where the key is located. The narrator now becomes the more dominant figure in the relationship because while he is “crying,” she is speaking out in the “gentlest voice.” Her use of the description “young man” makes John seem very youthful and childlike, as if she was calling him a “blessed little goose” now. The narrator says, “I’ve got out at last in spite of you and Jane.
And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (15). At last, she thinks for herself and has the mental strength to “creep” around as she pleases, without having to do what others expect her to do. She successfully communicates to John and voices opposition to be put back into the wallpaper. Finally, she gathers the strength to be strong and keep from breaking down and crying. Societal control over what a woman should or should not do and a woman’s own personal weakness contributes to the suppression of women by leaving the woman without any say in regards to her own personal interests.
Often times a woman is incapable of effectively communicating to others what she wants. John faints in the end, after seeing his wife “creeping” along the floor. And amazingly, for a man who seems like he is such a protective figure, so masculine, so educated, it is very “unmanly” that he does such a womanly thing such as fainting when he sees his wife’s transformation. It shows that he still does not understand her, if ever he had. Otherwise, he would not have been so shocked and alarmed to see her behaving that way. She has to keep “creeping” over John, even in the end, and it shows that a woman is not much different from a man, in the aspect of being a self-governing individual. People need to have control over their own lives and the ability to make their own decisions, even women. People cannot always make assumptions for what is best for others.
We have learned this from John: John demonstrates that the best way to help someone is to have the patience to really listen and find out what that person truly wants, not simply making assumptions about what is right when its not in the other’s best personal interest. But until every woman is treated in this manner, she will be driven into her own world of insanity where she continues “creeping” over all who try to control her.