How does "The Yellow Wallpaper" reflect Marxist theory?

Quick answer:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a story that reflects Marxist theory. The main character finds herself stripped of her humanity and reduced to a mere tool for use by her husband. This can be seen as paralleling Marx's concept of how capitalism reduces people to tools in the hands of those who control the means of production (in this case, the husband). Collier, Mary Ann. "Gilman and the Feminization of American Reform." American Quarterly 24 (1972): 543-61.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Origins of Family, Private, Property, and the State, Marx and Engels argue that in earlier societies women were treated equally to men. Women had power, as well, because lines of descent were matrilinear. Under capitalist modes of production, however, which are male-controlled, women are reduced to the status of slaves. This is because women, on the whole, own no property and have little access to capital except through husbands or fathers—and inheritance is patrilinear, passing from father to son. As Marx and Engles wrote

The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex.

The only way to rectify this, according to Marx and Engles, is to reorganize society on communist principles, in which the sexes would be treated equally.

We can see how, in "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator is completely dependent on her husband and at his mercy. She longs to be with her young son and to be freed from imprisonment from the room with the yellow wallpaper but she has no access to the economic resources of her own with which to enact her own will. She is reduced to a childlike state of dependency through law and convention: she has no right to demand her child or her freedom. Because of this powerlessness, she is driven to madness.

Gilman herself was a socialist and wrote in favor of women being given a wage as homemakers in order to achieve some independence from men.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One could interpret John's relationship with his wife as reproducing the prevalent norms of bourgeois morality. This is no love match; this is a power relationship in which John is firmly in control. He treats his wife like an object, in much the same way that a capitalist treats his workers. At no point is he prepared to allow his wife any degree of autonomy or control over her life, and this could be said to reproduce the attitude of the bourgeoisie towards the proletariat.

Despite his domination and control, however, John's grip on power, like that of the bourgeoisie, is ultimately not destined to last. When his wife sees a woman in the wallpaper (the promised land of Communism?) John tries to take charge, but is unable to do so. He collapses, mirroring the collapse of the bourgeoisie in the face of a socialist revolution.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The best way to approach "The Yellow Wallpaper" in terms of Marxist theory is by relating it to socialist feminism. Mostly, the story explores the oppressiveness of class relations felt by women in the 1900s. While the woes of the protagonist are most directly a product of the sexist machinations of her husband, it's not as though it was an isolated incident. Women were demanded by society to be obedient and subservient, and it could be better or worse based on your social class. Women of higher birth, though afforded more comforts, were often more constrained in their choices and more beholden to societies expectations of them.

One could even go as far as to see the unnamed woman as an allusion to class struggle. One strong piece of evidence for this is the fact that the protagonist of the story remains nameless while her husband, her oppressor, is given a name. The protagonist cannot even imagine life beyond the barrier between herself and her oppressor, because in this case, the barrier is literally a wall.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial