In "The Yellow Wallpaper," what are the expectations of 19th century women?
Under the feme covert [literally, a covered woman] laws of the Victorian Age, a married woman is protected by her husband. The extended meaning of this term is that wives had no legal control over their own property, earnings, or children. In some states of the U.S. husbands could dictate where the family would live and take any earnings that the wife made. In short, wives were subservient to their husbands.
As a femininst, Charlotte Perkins Gilman argued that women were only inferior in the sense that they were placed in a socially inferior position. Her short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a reaction to this oppressed position of women. This narrative portrays the psychological as well as emotional and physical repression of a wife that is so stringent that she loses her mind in the struggle to maintain her sense of self.
Having given birth recently, Gilman's protagonist suffers from normal postpartum depression; however, the husband, a physician himself, hires Dr. Weir Mitchell, who diagnoses her as suffering from a nervous condition and proscribes complete bed rest with no stimuli. This proscription is the worst thing for the creative person that the protagonist is; in addition, she is subjected to being in a room that repulses her. John, her husband dictates that she must not complain about the unsymmetrical wallpaper, or ask for walks in the garden. Instead, she must rest in bed and do nothing. Obedience is expected of her; John tells his "blessed little goose" not to "give way to such fancies." The protagonist/narrator relates that he tells her
with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency.
Later, when the narrator tries to tell her husband what a mental strain she is under, he stops her,
"My darling,...for my sake and for our child's sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!"
The narrator concludes, "So of course i said no more on that score." But, she lies awake beside him, trying to determine whether parts of the pattern of the yellow wallpaper moved together or separately. Thus, her obsession with the wallpaper begins as an outlet for her troubled mind. When she eventually locks her husband out and he forcibly enters to find her crawling along the baseboards of the walls, he faints in his comprehension of the woman's complete breakdown from her depression and oppression.