The Oppressive Nature of Gender Roles

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is confined as much by her gender as by her illness. Her description of writing as “work” and her inability to engage with her child imply a desire to move outside of the domestic sphere. That desire is reframed as a symptom of her illness by the men surrounding her, and she is confined to a former nursery for her period of recovery. The presence of her baby boy in the house poses the threat of continued confinement even after her recovery, when the narrator will presumably relocate from her nursery to his. Only the narrator’s madness releases her from her husband’s expectations, showing the extent of the oppression which confined late 19th-century women into specific societal roles. 

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During the late 19th century, adult women in society were sharply defined as mothers, wives, caretakers, and housekeepers. They were expected to act like the narrator’s sister-in-law, Jennie, managing households and children while their husbands worked in professions and enjoyed relative freedom. Women like the narrator—and Gilman herself—who wanted to work outside of the home encountered opposition not only from their families but also from society at large. The subtlety through which this oppression is enacted can be seen through the narrator’s relationships with both her husband, John, and also with Jennie. Though Jennie isn’t a man or a doctor, she upholds societal expectations for women by taking over the narrator’s household duties and monitoring her behavior in John’s absence. 

Since the narrator is unable to perform the social functions of a wife and mother, John relegates her to a liminal space between adulthood and childhood. She finds herself stripped of any responsibility or stimulation, and her husband’s frequent absences from the home deny her a true and consistent caretaker of her own. On one level, her situation speaks to the systemic infantilization of women that pervaded late 19th-century society; on another, it shows the inflexibility of the maternal role thrust upon women. The narrator is expected to behave either as a functioning wife and mother or as a helpless child; there is no room in between.

Prevented from pursuing her interests and stifled by her roles as wife and mother, the narrator finds a meaningful task for herself: solving the complex mystery of the yellow wallpaper. Her investigation of the wallpaper can be read as an investigation of her own mind, the complexity of which is ignored by the people around her. By tearing down the wallpaper and freeing the woman behind it, the narrator metaphorically tears away the bonds of marriage, domicility, and female oppression that hold her. The story ends with her breaking free from any societal expectation, but not because her family has made room for her. Her only opportunity for freedom in a society that oppresses her is to escape into the wallpaper, into insanity.

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