Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” depicts a heroine who confronts the expectations of woman and hopes to influence the assumptions about women’s health during the nineteenth century. During this time period, Dr. Fordyce Baker makes assumptions on Gilman’s specific social class, Prudence B. Saur declares that “home is the kingdom of woman,” and S. Weir Mitchell forces the rest cure upon the invalid woman. In response, and with complete disgust, Gilman creates “The Yellow Wallpaper” to depict the falsehood of these assumptions of the nineteenth century, and sets out to bring voice to a woman with goals and a purpose. As a middle class female, Gilman rejected gender division and roles and promoted social change. Throughout the story the husband-doctor of the narrator is seen as dominant and the “one reason [she] does not get well faster” (41). From the start of the story, Gilman’s depiction of a subordinate female, dominated fully by the husband-doctor suggests strong feelings of opposition on the expectations of the woman, as well as the treatments prescribed for mental illness. As the narrator is forced to become idle and invalid, the only power she holds is that of her imagination.
It appears that throughout the story, Gilman depicts the subordinate female in order to make mockery of the false treatment she withstands. During this century the female was inferior in the home, as well as to the doctor. Dr. Fordyce Barker mentions the “curious fact that has occurred [….] since 1855” (184). This fact reassures the reader that Gilman is entirely in touch with the happenings of her time, noting that “thirteen cases of puerperal mania in wives of physicians” have occurred (184). Barker suggests the reasoning behind this is that:
All of these were ladies of education and more than usual quickness of intellect, and beginning a new experience in life, and having access to their husband’s books, they probably had read just enough on midwifery to fill their minds with apprehensions as to the horrors which might be in store for them, and thus developed the cerebral disturbances, just as any other moral emotions may. (185) The writing of this book suggests that Gilman was aware of the statistics and intended to show her own explanation as to why this one special class had a high rate of mental illness diagnosis.
Gilman’s narrator suffers from mental illness, is confined to boredom in a bedroom with windows “barred for little children” (43) and becomes warped into a world in her imagination. Evidence shows that Gilman intended to oppose the assumptions about woman and specifically their mental health. Her focus remained on the authority of the narrator’s husband and the inability to influence that authority. In fact, the narrator has a “scheduled prescription for each hour in the day” (43) and on one occasion he gathers her “up in his arms” (49) and carries her upstairs to bed. The husband-doctor has taken on a parental role in which he prevents his wife from escaping her current childish state of ignorance. The narrator notes that, “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” (42). John (the husband- doctor) has complete control over the narrator’s health and life, mirroring a husband-wife relationship that is notably seen during the nineteenth century.
The husband-doctor, who seemed to be following the influences and theories of the time, prescribed his wife the rest cure, rather than listening to her opinions. The narrator states that her husband is “a physician, and perhaps – ([she] would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is a dead paper and a great relief to my mind) – perhaps that is one reason [she does] not get well faster” (41). Inevitably, the husband is a main source of stress upon the narrator and could be worsening her condition due the fad cure of the time for mental health. She also mentions that in her “condition if [she] had less opposition and more society and stimulus” (42) it may help to improve her mental state. Moreover, while Dr. Barker assumed that mental illness in this social class increased due to being exposed to information, Gilman seems to suggest that the narrator’s illness worsened not because of her intelligence on mental health, but because of the fact that she was reduced to a childlike dependency upon her husband and his false, unfailing dominance over her decisions.
The rest cure, developed by S. Weir Mitchell was the main treatment for the narrator. Developed during the civil war, the rest cure was intended to treat shell-shock victims and then later to treat over exhausted men and women. In 1887 Gilman underwent this treatment prescribed by Mitchell, and later claimed in her autobiography that “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written to “convince [Mitchell] of the error of his ways” (4) and perhaps to insist that an idle, irrelevant life leads on to insanity, rather than good health. Nonetheless, Mitchell was well known for his work and developments. In one of his cases where he was treating a young women in 1874, he noted how “distressed [he was] that a woman, young, once handsome, and with every means of enjoyment in life should be condemned to what she had been told was a state of hopeless invalidism” (147). “Invalidism” referred to a “state of being afflicted” during the nineteenth century, typically in regards to white, middle-class women. While suffrage in an invalid state seemed to take over the lives of many women during the nineteenth century, Mitchell prescribed the continuation of this worthlessness (or so Gilman may suggest). The narrator in her story remains in a blank state:
I lie here on this great immovable bed – it is nailed down, I believe – and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we’ll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to come sort of conclusion. (48)
The creation of this character proves that Gilman is attempting to represent a female who is not being treated to escape her invalidism, but instead is being prescribed an invalid treatment that continues to lessen her existence. Gilman seems to take a stand against the treatment of women, and specifically against the rest cure that seems to slam the door at any chance of life a women may have had in the nineteenth century.
In attempt to maintain control over her life, Gilman’s narrator continues to write in her diary to revamp her intelligence and use her mental energy. This was frowned upon during this time period, perhaps because of the continuous need to maintain a male dominated society. In fact, “many of Gilman’s contemporaries would have taken her heroine’s commitment to writing as a distortion of cultural prescriptions about women’s primary duties” (7). Within the story, the narrator notes that her husband “says that with [her] imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like [hers] is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that [she] ought to use [her] will and good sense to check the tendency” (46). Moreover, the husband suggests that using her mental energy will cause her more weakness, when the narrator (and Gilman) believe that it would “relieve the press of ideas” (46) upon her mind. In terms of mental energy and the educated female, S. Weir Mitchell questions, “Does any physician believe that it is good for a growing girl to be so occupied seven or eight hours a day? Or that it is right for her to use her brains as long a time as the mechanic employs his muscles? But this is only part of the evil” (138). Moreover, in a time when the overall agreement rests on women only flexing themselves as far as the home duties entail, Gilman seems to recommend that women write and express themselves, rather than only focusing on the monotony of housework and maternal instincts. The story becomes a symbol of the common cultural expectations versus Gilman’s opposition.
Prudence B. Saur wrote “From Maternity; A Book for Every Wife and Mother,” and seems to have some common ground with Gilman. Although Saur may stress the female’s role in the household, while Gilman suggests equal division of responsibility, the two agree on the falsehood of the invalid woman. Moreover, Saur states that,
Some persons have an idea that a wife, for some months after child-birth, should be treated as an invalid- should lead an idle life. This is an error; for all people in the world, a nursing mother should remember that ’employment is Nature’s physician, and is essential to human happiness (154).
This standpoint differs from S. Weir Mitchell who declares that “exercise without exertion” is the key to women health. Nonetheless, Gilman is very in touch with the opinions during her time period and seems to acknowledge the points of views of others within her story. The narrator longs for walks, and visits from guests who will maintain substantial, intelligent conversations. Although her pessimistic standpoint may not agree with Saur that the “home is the kingdom of woman, and she should be the reigning potentate,” she does seem to recognize the need for activity after childbirth.
In comparison to Saur is the character of Jennie, who is seen as “a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession” (47). Jennie, who is John’s sister, takes over and helps manage the household because of her womanly responsibilities and the superiority of her brother. She takes over and helps organize the household for the sake of her brother’s marriage and womanly duties. As a nineteenth century woman, it was expected that one make the home a kingdom for the men to return to each day. Gilman creates Jennie to show a comparison on whom the narrator should be. However, the narrator is an independent mind who longs to reach out further than what her home can offer, and see her kingdom not in the home, as Saur would insist, but outside, elsewhere. Moreover, the narrator is depicted in order to show what happens to a woman with dreams. Rather than being treated with respect and understanding, she is condemned to a life in her imagination, and shut off from the world without any chance of escape.
The purpose of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is to show opposition to the leading assumptions and theories of the nineteenth century. In a time where woman were beginning to have dreams that no longer only consisted of laundry, their husband’s dinner and their babies nursing schedule, Gilman set out to bring truth to the reality for these woman. The rest cure, the expected kingdom of the women and exaggerated illness caused by intelligence were all reasons that diminished who a woman could be. Moreover, Gilman took a stance to show that it was not the woman who should be seen as invalid, but instead the treatment of woman.