Looking at the minor characters in "The Yellow Wallpaper," analyze the view of women during this time period. Use the text to support your ideas, supplying specific examples.

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amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jane's husband, John, is a physician and yet he does not believe that Jane has a legitimate illness. He thinks that Jane's problem is a "hysterical tendency." Such a flippant diagnosis reveals a biased opinion of women in this (19th) and previous centuries. That is, women were thought to be less reasonable and less rational than men. Women were incorrectly believed to be more rash, emotional, and unstable. John is of this opinion even though he is a trained physician. That shows that these notions of male and female were embedded in scientific doctrine as well as in social roles. These beliefs stem from an historically patriarchal way of thinking. Jane's brother is also a physician and shares John's opinion. So, Jane is at the mercy of this culturally institutionalized way of thinking. She concludes that she must simply follow their directions:

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? My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing. 

Jane's brother and John think that Jane should avoid work, creativity, and any activity that requires effort. Jane, however, thinks work would make her better. John's prescription for Jane to remain inactive and in the home is indicative of the role women were taught to perform. Men were to go out into the public world and work while women were to stay home.

Jane also feels that she must hide her writings. It's as if she's afraid to reveal to her husband that she has her own thoughts. This illustrates the notion that women might have felt pressured to hide their individuality:

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

At first, John's sister, Jennie, helps him monitor Jane. Jennie looks at the wallpaper but inevitably sides with John's opinion of Jane. Jane describes how Jennie takes an interest in the wallpaper:

She didn't know I was in the room, and when I asked her in a quiet, a very quiet voice, with the most restrained manner possible, what she was doing with the paper—she turned around as if she had been caught stealing, and looked quite angry—asked me why I should frighten her so!

Jennie is caught looking at the wallpaper. This is symbolic. Jennie looks at the paper and perhaps, on some subconscious or symbolic level, she determines that the paper and/or the walls of the room are a prison that is making Jane's condition worse. However, Jennie retreats to the indoctrinated way of thinking (which she shares with John) and dismisses the subject, concluding that the only thing wrong with the wallpaper is that the color wears off and stains their clothing.

Then she said that the paper stained everything it touched, that she had found yellow smooches on all my clothes and John's, and she wished we would be more careful!

Weir Mitchell is mentioned in the story. He was an actual doctor who treated Gilman for a nervous condition. His treatment was a similar "rest cure" and this was more harmful than helpful to the author. So, the story is partly based on a real physician's practices. This rest cure simply did not work for Gilman. Mitchell told her to be as "domestic" as possible, and although this was part of his training, we can safely assume that he would not prescribe, in the same wording, the same directions to a man.

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The Yellow Wallpaper

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