Read "Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper" and at least one additional article from the literature resources center about Gilman. How much do you think Gilman's period and the cultural assumptions...
Read "Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper" and at least one additional article from the literature resources center about Gilman. How much do you think Gilman's period and the cultural assumptions about women in the nineteenth century were responsible for her creating the narrator in the story? How much is simply due to her creativity? To her own feminist agenda?
After reading "Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper," and taking note of the fact that Gilman's short story is a fictionalized memoir, I'd have to say that the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is based on Gilman herself. Gilman clearly states that the story is an embellished version of her own experience, and that her purpose in writing it was to convey to the mental health professionals of her day the damage that the "resting cure" was inflicting upon women.
The assumption in the 19th century was that too much intellectual activity was taxing on the fragile female mind, and that it was thinking too much or writing too much that was the cause of hysterical conditions. As Gilman notes in her brief article, work is an important part of life for all people, regardless of gender. Working gives us the feeling of productivity, which in turn can help us feel like our life is valuable and necessary. It was resuming work that allowed Gilman to gain a measure of recovery.
Like all creative non-fiction, the essential core of the story is true and the gaps, like scenery and dialogue, are filled in creatively by the author. Gilman admits that she never had hallucinations, which is such a central part of the story that adding them moves "The Yellow Wallpaper" into the category of fiction. As Gilman indicates though, her ideal was achieved through the writing of the story. People, especially physicians, started to recognize that women aren't so wholly different from men that work harms them.
As a result, treatment of women for hysterical disorders began to change, and women were at times given the courage to advocate on their own behalf. Personally, I don't see that this is directly a feminist agenda, although it can be read that way. A more plausible interpretation (at least in my opinion) is that after Gilman's personal experience with mental health treatment, she wanted to help both patients and practitioners realize the harm that was being done by the treatment standards of the time. This goal can be seen as aimed at advocating the personhood of women, but only indirectly, since the point may have been more the ineffectiveness of treatment rather than the injustice of treatment as it was offered to women at the time. Many scholars, however, do read "The Yellow Wallpaper" as a feminist critique, and would argue that advocating the personhood of women and calling attention to the injustice of the rest cure could be described as Gilman's central aims.
Gilman's period and the cultural assumptions about women in the nineteenth century greatly influenced her creating the narrator in the story. She used herself, a woman who suffers from a mental condition, as the character in a story in which a woman endures great suffering while following a prescribed treatment for her condition. This not only exposes the reality of women in an oppressive society, but also brings up a true conversation of the reality of mental illness.
The main character of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is Gilman herself. The treatment that she speaks about in the story was based Gilman's own experiences trying to deal with depression. It is described as a "rest cure" that limits any intellectual activity to less than 2 hours per day. Moreover, upon getting cured, women would have been asked (like Gilman was) not to ever do anything involving brain activity "for the rest of [their] lives."
These suggestions would have been a horror to someone with the intellectual acumen of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In fact, that is exactly what happened, which is one of the reasons why, after hitting an all-time depression low, Gilman took back her paper and pen and wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper." In her own words,
the little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has[...] saved one woman from a similar fate--so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.
She also adds, responding to criticism by two male physicians who attacked and insulted the story:
It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.
Therefore, more than advancing a uniquely feminine agenda, Gilman is also doing the unthinkable for a woman of her generation: she is putting herself out there and openly confessing to being mentally ill; she is admitting that mental illness is real, misunderstood, and open to affect just about anyone. A mentally ill woman who admits it would have been a shock that would have broken with every expectation of perfection bestowed upon the gender. As such, these factors are the real reason behind creating the main character of "The Yellow Wallpaper."
After reading the "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper," I have come to the conclusion that the protagonist in the story is actually a surrogate for Gilman herself, as both women, the character and the writer, experienced periods of depression for which they were not appropriately treated.
The "resting cure," as it was called, was common during Gilman's time, and treatment and acknowledgment of mental illness was not a common practice, especially in regard to treatment of female patients. Because the study of mental health was not very developed, doctors and lay-people alike would come up with their own ideas to support the reason for one's behavior or "illness."
Women suffering from post-partum depression—like the woman in the story—and in fact women suffering from any mental illness, largely were disregarded as having a female strength of mind that is feeble in comparison to their male counterpart. Post-partum depression was specifically troubling for this time period, as the popular opinion was that women were best suited as mothers and homemakers rather than doctors, lawyers or writers. So, the conclusion was that a women who "thinks too much" or who attempts to step outside of the confines of the female gender role will become mentally sick, as her mind cannot "handle" a role that is traditionally male and thus goes against her nature.
Gilman admits in "Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper" that she suffered from depression or, as she calls it, "melancholia" for three years. When it became too much for her to bear, she looked to a specialist to help. He prescribed her one of these "rest cures." The specialist advised Gilman to live as domestically as possible and limited her to only two hours of "intellectual" thinking per day. Taking the specialist's advice in stride, Gilman followed orders until her mental condition deteriorated to "mental ruin." Gilman returned to her "intellectual" way of life and was able to somewhat recover.
"The Yellow Wallpaper," though embellished, accounts for Gilman's own experience with how women suffering from mental ailments were treated during the early 1900s. Over time, doctors and other specialists started to change their prescribed treatment of women suffering from mental ailments.
The agenda of "The Yellow Wallpaper" definitely acts as a plea for the feminist agenda as a move toward gender equality at least in one regard, even if it was not Gilman's sole intention to do so. As Gilman puts it, "It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate—so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered."