How are motherhood and maternity represented in Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Written as a critique of the conventional medical treatment prescribed by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell for women of the Victorian Age who suffered from a condition known as "neurathenia," Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" portrays the subjugation of married women under a patriarchal medical profession.   Gilman's narrator, a young mother who suffers from what today is know as postpartum depression, a condition which prevents her from caring adequately for her baby, is deprived of all mental, physical, and social activities.  Unfortunately, the patriarchal husband John as well as Dr. Mitchell refuse to acknowledge the narrator's desires and needs, feeling instead that they are the proper judges of her condition. 

The narrative of Gilman's story expresses a concern with the repressed role of women as wives and mothers in the patriarchal nineteenth century.  With the femme covert laws of the Victorian Age, women had many domestic limitations placed upon them and were permitted little or no creative self-expression.  This situation itself was often cause for repression and its resulting mental illness in many a wife and mother.  In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the hideous wallpaper itself becomes symbolic of this feminine oppression.  It contradicts symmetry and color--the aesthetics that the narrator loves.  Without being able to walk in the garden or draw or write, locked in the room with the detestable paper that her husband refuses to change, the narrator becomes increasing ill, perceiving the "hideous paper" as an antagonist to her aesthetic desires and needs.  Finally, in a desperate effort of the mind to free itself from its repression and agonies, Gilman's narrator attempts to free the "woman" who is behind the narrator--her symbolic self.  She has seen other women behind the paper and asks, "I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?"  Yet repressed, however, she adds, "I suppose I shal have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!"


kiwi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We are able to distance the narrator from motherhood - in fact it is possible to read the story without realising that she is a new mother. As readers we are as disassociated with her role as a mother as she is: there is no mention of normal contact or any sort of relationship between the mother and baby. This technique assists us in seeing how deep the depression of the narrator is, and how mentally traumatised she has been by recent events.

The fact that her husband treats her as a child explains also how she is struggling with her own identity, and it is unsurprising that she eventually creates an image of herself trapped in the wallpaper. The room she is confined to was the nursery, and its 'hideous' paper and barred windows do not suggest a warm regard for child-rearing.  

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The Yellow Wallpaper

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