How is oppression portrayed in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is based on the author's own experiences with a faulty system for people who suffer from psychological conditions; a system devoid of knowledge about the true needs of female mental health sufferers.

According to the article by Gilman titled "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper," she once visited a physician who advised her, upon learning of her issues with depression, to abandon all intellectual activity 

[...] a noted specialist in nervous diseases[...] put me to bed and applied the rest cure, [...] and sent me home with solemn advice to "live as domestic a life as far as possible," to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again" as long as I lived....

The result of this treatment was that Gilman completely broke down, reverting to one of the worst depressive episodes of her life. Hence, she wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper," in her own words, 

to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked

This being said, let's explore how many different examples of oppression, all of which Gilman experienced in her own skin, we can find in the story:

1.  "He does not believe that I am sick" 

Jane, the narrator, explains that her husband is a physician but that he does not believe in the reality of her feelings. 

If [...] 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?

The oppression here is caused by the utter disregard to the needs of this woman. She has been sending signals that she needs help, and she continues to be ignored, even by her own husband. The oppression comes in the form of pushing onto her the belief that "she is OK."

2. Jane's brother is also a physician who agrees with Jane's husband that there is nothing wrong with her. They both advise that she stops working—that her stimulation is taken away to rest. Still, she senses that there is something very wrong with that. 

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?

Again, she feels helpless: "What is one to do?" The oppression from the men in her life comes from demanding that she stops finding succor in work. They are also downplaying her emotions in the process. She is not free to be herself or to apply the treatment that she feels is needed. 

3. John, the husband, seems to want to take away everything that causes any inspiration in Jane. He closed the window of her room when he decided for Jane that something she felt was a draught. As a result, she became angry with him. Still, she doubts her right to be mad. 

I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition. But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself—before him, at least, and that makes me very tired.

She is trying too hard to comply with whatever her husband tells her to do. She does not realize that she is neglecting her own needs during a very delicate time and that her condition is truly serious. 

4. John, the husband, is so overbearing that she is starting to confuse his meddling with "caring." He is oppressing her to the point of causing her hide her writing from him. He is driving her crazy. 

There comes John, and I must put this away,—he hates to have me write a word.

5. John's disregard makes her feel unimportant. He refers to his other patients as "serious cases." That is a form of oppression because it shows that he is imposing upon her a false label of "wellness."

John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no REASON to suffer, and that satisfies him.

6. Not only does John disregard his wife, but he also pushes her to snap out of her current state with the threat of sending her to a doctor that deals with cases of nervous breakdowns. She is scared, so she is forced to hide her condition even more.

John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.

But I don't want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!

It is no wonder that she starts seeing a woman in the yellow wallpaper of the room, and it is no surprise that she breaks down completely trying to "liberate" the woman.

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Outside of the feminist perspective provided above regarding the oppression in Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper", one could look at the oppression both the environment and mental defect have upon the unnamed protagonist of the story.

First, the room alone oppresses the protagonist. She finds it impossible to become well again (she is suffering from Post-partum depression) in a room as littered with evidence of past horrors. The scratched floor, marks in the bed posts, and (above all else) the wallpaper. The room alone oppresses the protagonist.

Outside of the environment, the post-partum depression oppresses the protagonist. Her inability to pull herself out of this mental deficiency adds to her oppression. No one really helps her overcome the PPD. Instead, she is left to fight against it on her own. The fact that the PPD oppresses her mentally speaks to the fact that she is driven even further into insanity.


neneta | Student

In order to answer this question we should consider the feminist approach in literature. According to the feminist methodology, the traditional roles of women are constrained to the patriarchal order, in which masculine ways of thinking are privileged. Furthermore, this approach allows us to identify the misrepresentations of women’s role in society and helps us to look for social misconceptions that treat masculine behavior as a norm and feminine viewpoint as a deviation.

In the case of “The Yellow Paper”, in order to treat her wife’s postnatal depression, the narrator’s husband, John confines her to a room in a certain summerhouse. He also forbids her to execute any task, including reading or writing. This attitude exemplifies two distinct roles: the narrator’s husband, who personifies order, authority, and law, and the narrator who has no other choice but to be restraint to the role of good mother and wife, or as the feminists would call the angel in the house.

However, the narrator seems to defy the traditional feminine roles and becoming hysterical is her way to revolt. The wallpaper is full of symbols reflecting the narrator’s wish for defiance of the patriarchal order. For instance, the woman she sees behind the wallpaper is her own image trying to free from the oppressor, in this case, the husband, John.

Conclusion, if we place John at the discursive centre, as someone who represents the patriarchal authority, we consider the narrator as being ill. However, taking into account the narrator’s point of view, as a possible victim of the patriarchal system, we may say that her illness is a way to defy the traditional women roles in society.


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The Yellow Wallpaper

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