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The historical context and theme of women's oppression in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman


"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman reflects the historical context of the late 19th century when women's roles were limited and their autonomy suppressed. The story illustrates the theme of women's oppression through the protagonist's confinement and lack of control over her own life, symbolized by the oppressive wallpaper in her room, leading to her eventual mental breakdown.

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What is the historical context of women's oppression in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman?

"The Yellow Wallpaper" was printed in 1892, when women were still oppressed.  In fact, even though they earned the right to vote in the 20th Century (1920), they were still oppressed.  Things did not start to change until the 1960s with the Women's Rights Movement and the hippie movement.  Birth control was first approved by the FDA in 1961.

Even after the 1960s, women were not treated fairly in the home or in the workplace.  In 1967, President Johnson issued an executive order requiring federal employers to take affirmative: equal treatment and opportunities for employees regardless of gender, race, color, or religion.

In this story we see how a woman is controlled by her husband, a male doctor, and a sister-in-law who is under the control of her domineering brother.

Our protagonist suffers a mental decline which is promoted by the neglectful ignorance of her husband and her doctor.  She would have received no sympathy from the police had she complained; for many years, and in some cases still today, women were considered property; in the past women were subject to whatever treatment their husbands saw fit, however the laws today provide more protection for women in abusive situations.  It was not at all unusual for women to be institutionalized in lunatic asylums (whether insane or simply "inconvenient"), which were inhumane places until there was reform in the mental health industry in the 1900s.

There is no question that our protagonist was victimized in the story.  Her treatment was not therapeutic, but drove her into complete madness.

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What is the historical context of women's oppression in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" was published in 1892, but it was not given scholarly attention until 1973 after Elaine Hedge's afterward in one publication.  Then, the story was recognized as an indictment against the subjugation of women. 

Throughout the 1800s the common law doctrine of femme covert [French for "covered woman"] was prevalent in the United States.  During this time women had few rights.  For instance, adultery was not sufficient reason for divorce if committed by the man, but if committed by the woman, it was sufficient. The husbands dictated where the family would live, how the household would be run, where they would go on trips, etc. With the particular focus of Gillman's story based upon her own experiences of suffering post-partum depression, the conventional wisdom of this patriarchal society comes under examination.  For, some of the experiences of the unnamed narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" mirror those of Gilman herself who was treated by Dr. Weir Mitchell, whose program of rest and separation was promoted as the cure for depression.  He essentially imprisoned women for up to two months with very little contact with anyone.  They were not permitted to read or perform small activities in the effort to have them "rest" their minds.  Most of the women were not even allowed to roll over in their beds; this is an action that suggests restraint being placed on them. 

Gilman's story demonstrates the terrible deprivation that she suffered in being deprived of her writing and the company of her family.  The narrator struggles with this need for self-expression as it runs against the conventional Victorian wisdom.  Certainly, Gilman's character is a striking model of the repressed woman of Victorian times who seeks desperately for self-expression. 

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What is the historical context of women's oppression in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman?

Concerning "The Yellow Wallpaper," I'm afraid your original thoughts are incorrect, and there is no "conundrum."  Below is a passage from the enotes Study Guide on the story:

Throughout much of the 1800s, the common law doctrine of femme convert was prevalent in the United States. Under this law, wives were property of their husbands and had no direct legal control over their earnings, children, or belongings. Some state laws prohibited women from going into business without their husband's consent, and some dictated that a husband could decide where the family would live. Other state laws dictated that adultery was not considered sufficient grounds for divorce if committed by a man, but it was if committed by the wife. Women also could not vote; they were not allowed to do so until 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted.

The story was written in 1892, twenty eight years before women were even allowed to vote in the United States.

More specifically, Gilman was actually treated herself by the doctor named in the story, and she wrote the story to expose the sexist and idiotic nature of his "cure."  Just to give you one example, the word, hysteria, the decease the narrator is labeled as having, is related to the word, hysterectomy.  It was believed at the time that the roots of mental illness in women were in the ovaries. 

The country in the story, as well as in actuality, is not a liberated place.

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What is the theme of women's suppression in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman?

The narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is the wife of a doctor and the sister of another. They use a combination of patriarchal and medical authority to suppress and imprison her so that physical escape is impossible, and the only way she can escape mentally is to go mad.

The narrator describes her husband, John, as "practical in the extreme." He regards himself as highly rational, and has no patience with "things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures." John adopts an attitude of masculine practicality, stressing science and logic, in opposition to what he sees as the feminine tendency to be emotional and irrational. However, it quickly becomes clear that John himself is being unreasonable. The narrator says rather diffidently that she disagrees with his opinion that she should be cooped up in a room with bars on the windows and forced to rest. She says:

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

There is nothing irrational in this idea, certainly nothing that a doctor or a husband would be justified in dismissing out of hand.

As the story progresses, the narrator stops expressing even such mild opposition to her husband and brother as this. She has no choice but submit to masculine authority, ostensibly backed by science and reason, but really an exercise of mere power. They force their dogmatic views upon her and shut her away in a room that is half nursery and half jail, reflecting her status as child and prisoner. It is scarcely surprising that the strain of such oppressive treatment ends in insanity.

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