How exactly does Gilman go about using an epistolary story to make the point that denying women their rights and humanity is dangerous to society, family life, and women?

Expert Answers info

Jennings Williamson eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseTeacher (K-12)

calendarEducator since 2016

write6,749 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Arts

Gilman's use of the epistolary form means that the narrator is a first-person subjective one. The protagonist, a woman being treated for what we would now likely call postpartum depression, is narrating her own story as the events are taking place. This means that we know what she is thinking, but we can also use some of the information she provides us to understand that she is actually becoming much more ill than she realizes.

For example, the woman believes that she lives in a room which used to be a nursery for children, but she provides several clues that do not seem to support this idea. She says there are "rings and things in the walls," and the large, heavy bed is "nailed down." Children don't hang from rings in walls, and they sleep in cribs. There are also bars on the windows and a gate she cannot open at the top of the steps to her room. She sounds like a prisoner.

At one point, she says, "How those children did tear about here! This bedstead is fairly gnawed!" and she blames those supposed children for the ravages to the room. Just a few lines later, she says that she "got so angry [she] bit off a little piece [of the bedstead] at one corner." She doesn't seem to realize that she is the one who is tearing apart her room and damages the furnishings.

The narrator is not given any opportunity to weigh in on her own medical treatment, and her husband/doctor "does not [even] believe [she is] sick!" He denies her company and tells her that she is not even supposed to think let alone read or write. He tells everyone that she only has a "temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency," which undermines her own experience of her feelings; he even laughs at her and "scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures."

Soon, however, the narrator says that he only "pretend[s] to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn't see through him!" She begins to conceive of John, and even Jennie, his sister, as antagonists. In the end, when she insists that she is actually the woman she has "freed" from the wallpaper, the narrator says, "I've got out at last [...] in spite of you [...]. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!" She now sees John as the one who imprisoned her (which, in a way, he was) and she "creep[s] over him" as she crawls around the room.

Their family is ruined; the woman has had such a severe psychological breakdown that she cannot even recognize her identity anymore. It is not only her life that is destroyed but her husband's and child's too, and if families are the building blocks of society, we can infer how society will be negatively affected if this is the lot of many wives and mothers.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial