Discussion Topic

"The Yellow Wallpaper" and Victorian Women's Roles in Society

Summary:

"The Yellow Wallpaper" highlights Victorian women's roles in society by illustrating the oppressive treatment of women and their limited autonomy. The protagonist's confinement and lack of control over her own life reflect the broader societal norms that dictated women's subservience to men and restricted their freedoms.

Expert Answers

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

What does "The Yellow Wallpaper" suggest about middle-class women's roles in society?

The story is about a middle-class woman probably suffering from postpartum depression. She needs intellectual stimulation and activities, but instead is kept from books and isolated in a room papered in yellow wallpaper. She is a prisoner there because her husband, a doctor, thinks this will cure of her of her depression, whereas it is simply making it worse.

He calls her "little girl" and refuses to listen seriously to her requests to be released. The entire story is an indictment of how men in society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century treated women as children and made decisions for them. "Really, dear, you are better," her husband tells her, when this is not true.

The husband has too much power over his wife and is too influenced by stereotypes of women as intellectually inferior and incapable of thinking for themselves. The story shows how this treatment drives a woman to insanity.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does "The Yellow Wallpaper" suggest about middle-class women's roles in society?

"The Yellow Wallpaper" suggests that the role of middle class women within society can basically be delineated by the male in charge of the household; if the husband wishes and provides for it, the woman of the household will unequivocally be dependent, subservient, obedient, nurturing, and passive.

All of these are traits are quite visible in the unnamed main character, however, her actions and expressions expose that, beneath her kind manners and subservient behavior, there is a vibrant and even humorous woman that, like the "woman" in the wallpaper, wishes to come out and be herself.

This fact is evident in the voice of the story. The narrator's voice is far from flat and colorless, nor does she tell her story in a tragic mood. Instead, she provides much insight as to how she feels, what upsets her, what bores her, and how much she disagrees with the current state of things.

John ... has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition...-- perhaps (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.You see he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?

She also agrees with the fact that she is made to obey, and to follow the directions of her husband, despite of what she feels that she wants and needs. She, herself, admits that her role is to remain obedient and passive and to let her husband take complete control of her situation.

I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus -- but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.

Therefore, as she begins to spiral down into what could very well be a moment of psychosis, she begins to identify with a shape on the pattern of the yellow wallpaper that immediately represents to her a woman begging to be liberated. This is what leads her in the end to tear up the paper. This all is an allegory to the subjugation and pressure that our main character feels; she is entirely dependant on others, because that is her role and duty within society.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," what does Charlotte Perkins Gilman suggest about middle-class women's place and roles in this society?

Another point I believe Gilman is making is that mental illness and depression (particularly post partum depression) were not treated effectively during this time.  Anyone who had mental illness was either locked up in a sanitorium or given shock treatments, etc.  These people were treated like pariahs of society, which was so unfortunate.  Gilman's story brings the unfair treatment of depressed women to light in her story, which helped raise awareness about it.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," what does Charlotte Perkins Gilman suggest about middle-class women's place and roles in this society?

Gilman is saying that the subservient, silent role women have been forced to play in Victorian society is not just unfair, but very damaging. The protagonist's husband and other male figures, such as doctors, are the only people allowed to make decisions. Moreover, the protagonist relates how women of her era have been conditioned to accept this secondary status when she says, "John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in a marriage." It doesn't matter what she thinks will help her or what she knows isn't working, John will not listen. He only calls her his "little goose" and dismisses everything she says as the silliness of a woman.

Had he but listened to her, she may not have totally slipped into madness. But because she (and other women) are not respected or thought capable of logical thought, she is doomed.

Gilman herself suffered from depression and was subjected to the same "rest therapy" as her protagonist in this story. In her essay "Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper,'" she states that this treatment was not only inadequate or unhelpful, but nearly left her insane, and that leaving the situation (and ultimately her husband and doctor) was the only thing that saved her.

For more information on "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman's essay, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, see the links below.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does The Yellow Wallpaper suggest about Victorian women's roles?

This story suggests that women were regarded almost as children, to be cared for by men, in a completely paternalistic way.  One gets the feeling that women were meant to be decorative, not functional, and a woman who could not fulfill this duty was hidden away as "the madwoman in the attic."  The woman, who is suffering from post-partum depression, is treated by her husband and doctor as though her own opinions about her condition are meaningless. The "cure" advised is isolation and a complete rest of her intellect, with no reading, no writing, and no contact with her newborn child, suggesting that women who thought too much were harming themselves.  The woman has insight into her own condition, believing that writing is therapeutic for her, but she lacks the will or the power to oppose the males.  There is also the suggestion that the mental illness of women was something not to be taken very seriously, something that continues to be true to this day. 

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
Last Updated on