Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ first came out in 1892. It offers a sharp critique of the 19th century White American Patriarchal Bourgeois Society by reclaiming the narrative of hysteria that had been used to oppress women and their voices for a long time. This story is one of a woman with ‘hysteria’ but as opposed to what was common up until that time, this short story is told from the perspective of the woman who was diagnosed. The fact that this fictional story draws from the real-life experience of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the treatment she went through only adds strength to the narrative offered by her work.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ tells the story of an unnamed narrator who moves into a rented colonial mansion with her husband, John. The narrator being unnamed and her husband having one of the most common names for American men adds a feeling of universality (although, it applies only to a specific social background of the western world) to the story: any woman could be the unnamed narrator, any man could be her husband, and this story could be true for any household. John, apart from being the narrator’s husband also happens to be a doctor and through him the short story offers not just a critique of the patriarchal familial institution but also of the misogynistic medical tradition.
It is clear from the very beginning of the short story that the balance of power in the narrator’s marriage, as in any patriarchal structure, is unequal. When the narrator expresses her uneasiness with the colonial mansion that they are moving into, her husband’s response is to laugh at her – “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage”. That John can simply laugh at his wife’s concerns without even acknowledging them and that this response is followed by “of course” and seen as something that is to be expected in marriage highlights the inherent inequality of the institution of marriage in a patriarchal setup. Throughout the short story, John uses ‘terms of endearment’ to refer to the narrator. These ‘terms of endearment’, which include “blessed little goose”, “little girl”, and phrases like “bless her little heart”, constantly infantilise the narrator and establish the social and intellectual ‘superiority’ of her husband over her: the narrator is always “little” or some variation thereof while her husband is the ‘master’ of the house and ‘always knows better’.
In addition to being the ‘master’ of the family, John is also a doctor. Despite the narrator saying that she is not well John claims that “there is really nothing the matter … but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency”. Thus, even though the narrator disagrees with this diagnosis, John’s word holds more authority due to the backing of multiple patriarchal forces. The awareness of the lack of power in the hands of the narrator and the consequent feeling of helplessness that it creates is often reflected in her repetition of the question “what is one to do?”. Even though the narrator believes that some work and mental stimulation would do her good, she is overruled by John who prescribes her rest and isolation from the rest of the world.
How is one to survive in a world where one is constantly belittled, overlooked, and overruled? The narrator does this by trying to reclaim control. At first, it starts by her going against her husband and choosing to write down her thoughts even though John has forbidden her to do so. She writes in secret, hiding it from everyone in the house. She writes even though it makes her feel tired and exhausted. Her words become a battleground between the patriarchal values that have been ingrained in her and the familial duties she must follow on the one hand and her discontent with that life on the other. Her guilt at not being what the society wants her to be is reflected almost throughout the short story. However, in a world where systematic oppression is present at every step to reign over you, the only way in which the narrator can fully reclaim control over her own life is by completely breaking away from the structures of that society. As a result, at the end of the play the narrator becomes an almost animalistic other of herself and just like the women she saw in the wallpaper, she too starts creeping on the floor. It is here that the tables truly turn: as opposed to being constantly infantilised herself, it is she who now calls John “young man”; instead of her being called weak and fragile, it is John who faints; and instead of her being walked all over metaphorically by John, it is she who creeps over him.
Just as the narrator reclaims control at the end of the story, this short story in itself is an act of reclaiming control. Before this short story was published, almost all narratives on hysteria were written by men. These narratives constantly demonised women and reaffirmed the patriarchal superiority of men since women were reduced to weak, fragile, and vulnerable beings. The short story is a direct attack on the ‘rest cure’ devised by Dr S Weir Mitchell for women diagnosed with hysteria (the treatment of rest and isolation that John offers the narrator is based on Mitchell’s Rest Cure) as well as an attack on the patriarchal structures that governed her society. By reclaiming the narrative Charlotte Perkins Gilman shows that the true demon is patriarchy that drives women to madness by oppressing them so completely and highlights the need to dismantle and overthrow patriarchal structures.