How the subordination of women is depicted in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

By Nethmie Dehigama

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a short story published in 1892 and is regarded as an important work of American feminist literature. It is epistolary fiction – i.e., the entire book is written as journal entries, representing the point of view of a mid-19th century woman. The book appears to be a straightforward story at first glance but the reader will quickly realise that it not only depicts a case of postpartum psychosis but also the pitiful subordination of women of the time.

A quick summary

The story begins with the unnamed narrator marvelling at the grand summer house her physician husband John has taken her to for the summer. During her stay, her husband has prescribed her the “rest cure” – where the woman must do nothing. No house chores, no taking care of her baby, and no writing! The narrator believes that activity, freedom, and interesting work would help her condition, and begins writing in a secret journal to “relieve her mind”. But she must listen to her husband because “he knows best”.  
She stays in an upper-floor room that was previously a nursery but also insidiously seems to resemble a room in a mental asylum, with “rings and things” on the wall. This room is completely covered by a patterned yellow wallpaper – and over time, she begins to notice that there appears to be a woman trapped behind the wall (look away now if you do not want spoilers.) As the three months at the house wear away, the narrative voice becomes increasingly obsessed with the wallpaper, and on her last day, she tears it down to help the woman escape – except she has now become one with this escaped woman, “creeping” around the room over and over again. The book ends with her “creeping” repeatedly over her husband who has fainted after seeing her condition.
Side note: The rest cure was a treatment introduced by the American physician Silas Weir Mitchell, who is considered the father of medical neurology. Feminist scholars such as Gilman and Virginia Woolf argued that this cure reinforced an archaic and oppressive notion that women should submit unquestioningly to male authority because it was “good for their health”. Gilman herself seems to have been prescribed this by Mitchell, leading to her writing the Yellow Wallpaper and referring to him in the story.

The woman does not know best

At the outset, while the narrator questions why a house so grand has been left untenanted, she writes: “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.” She lays the foundation for the gender role theme of the novella here and explains that John is practical and scoffs at any talk of things not to be felt, seen, and “put down in figures.” This line perfectly explains why, when the narrator tries to tell him she thinks something is wrong in her mind, he does not want to hear of it. He just believes it is “temporary nervous depression” – because she has no reason to suffer. Her brother – also a physician – believes the same. The narrator disagrees, but says: “What is one to do?” It is clear that the women of a household really had no say, not even with what is best for themselves, and neither was women’s mental health taken seriously during that day and age.
The old nursery-like room John chooses for her and the odd terms of endearment he uses such as “silly little goose” and “little girl” all allude to him viewing her as a child who cannot think for herself. When she tries to explain that something may be wrong with her mind, he answers with: “It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?” The narrator then resorts to keeping all these things to herself as her own little secret.

Madness as an escape

From the mid to the end of this short story, we see the narrative voice descending into madness. She begins to “smell the yellow” wherever she is and thinks of ways to help the trapped woman escape. It can be suggested that the woman she is seeing confined behind the “bars” of the wallpaper is an externalised understanding of her own internal situation. During the daytime, the woman in the wall is silent – just like how the narrator pretends that everything is fine while getting her “rest cure”. But at night is when the woman in the wallpaper becomes active, looking for a way to get free, just like the narrator, who finds some sort of purpose in her life only at this time when everyone else is asleep.
She sometimes sees many women in the wallpaper or “creeping around in the garden” – this is a critique on how most, if not all, women of her time, were going through some form of subordination due to the strong gender roles prevalent at the time.
In the end, the narrator finds her happiness – but only in madness did this woman find her escape. As psychiatrist R. D. Laing puts it: “Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” And how insane is a world where a woman has no autonomy?
I recommend reading this book! It can be found online and is a half-hour read at most. 

Author bio:

Nethmie is a digital marketer, writer, songwriter, and literature enthusiast. She has a BA (Hons) in International Communications.