Using a feminist approach, provide a detailed reading and interpretation of Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.


Home School : American and Canadian Studies

Module Title : American Literature 2

Word Length : 1500

Date : 21/03/04

I declare that I have written this essay, and all work from it is original if I have not given a detailed referenced.
The Yellow Wallpaper takes place in the late 1800’s, and was published by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892. Whether you consider it a feminist text, it is important to understand this short story in context of it’s historical period. At this time the issue of feminism was predominant in society. By the early 1900’s feminism started erupting in America. For the first time feminists spoke explicitly about identity as a woman and placed emphasis on the importance of rights and self-development. With leaders such as Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, women suffragists fought for the right to vote and equality in a male dominated society. By the turn of the century, magazines, art galleries, and novels were flooded with advice about how to be a proper woman in middle class society. Industrialisation and urbanisation were an evolving part of society and birth rates started declining while divorce rates rocketed. This shift away from the home scared Americans into thinking their families would fall apart, Therefore one of the most significant changes to American culture in the late nineteenth century was the transformation in the perception and representation of gender roles[1]. However despite this new feminist activism, with the Temperance and Suffragist movements, women were still expected to embody the traditional values represented by the home. Women were aligned directly with the home, both seen as symbols of morality. The home therefore became a female gendered domestic space.

Women were exulted as morally superior members of society who should shelter the family from society’s evils of commerce and modernity. They were expected to be pure, charitable, selfless, cultures, optimistic, supportive and frugal.[2] This domestic/private sphere was hence dedicated to the female population, which excluded women from the public sphere, and economy, causing women to become dependant on their husbands for income. Barbara Welter highlights this idea about the roles of men and women in her book; “The Cult of True Womanhood”. She believes women were victimised by men, who ‘perpetrated an ideological prison that subjected and silenced women’. Welter explores the ideology of the Cult of Womanhood, and sees the Cult of Domesticity and the Cult of Purity as the central tenets.[3] This separate female gendered domestic sphere was represented in the literature of the time. Throughout the nineteenth century, domesticity was romanticised in literature, particularly by women. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in ‘Uncle Toms Cabin’, politicised the home by making it central to social action; many of the pivotal scenes occurred in the home, such as Mr and Mrs Shelby’s discussions and Rachel Halliday’s dinner. In Stowe’s novel, women are also a central part of making moral Christian-based decisions and choices. Once again, in 1869, we see this focus on the female in Catharine Beecher’s ‘An American Woman’s Home’. Here Beecher attempts to elevate women’s positions in the home to the same level as professional men, because she believes that women’s work in the home is “essential to the preservation of morality and culture”.[4]

By the turn of the century women like Gilman, and Chopin began writing novels where the women in them actually started defying the traditional women’s role in the home. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, and ‘The Awakening’, the female protagonists fantasise about escape and freedom. In Gilman’s novella, the woman rejects the commonly known “code of true womanhood”. The idea of women as docile, domestic creatures whose main concerns in life is raising children and submissiveness to their husbands is crushed. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ portrays a woman who has rejected her expected role and is consequently suffering because of it. Gilman is subverting the original ideology of the Cult of True Womanhood and redefining the role of a woman. The novel depicts Gilman’s struggle to throw off the constraints of patriarchal society in order to be able to write. Her husband John represents the patriarchal society and it could be argued that he is a great deal