Updated date:

Breaking Through the "Yellow Wallpaper"



10 February 2017

Breaking Through the “Yellow Wallpaper”

The suppression of women in American history is very real.

The first gathering of women for their right to vote was on July 19th and 20th of 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY. Topics discussed included social and institutional concerns. Women spoke out against their responsibilities within their families, their want for education opportunities, and the desire to have a voice in politics. Their pleas failed, but they did not give up. Finally, women received the right to vote in 1918 and the vote was ratified by 1920, thus, the 19th Amendment was created. The right to vote was a huge step for women because they held a little bit of power for the first time on a local and national level. The struggle was far from over for women. Though women received the right to vote, it would take many years for women to establish their own vote. For years, women voted along with the males in their family, stifling their own opinions and reasoning. The male influence on women’s vote smothered the progress that would have been made. Male influence on women was still prominent and the will of women was still “bent” by male influence.

Not only was there the problem of male influence, there was a medical treatment called the Rest Cure that a lot of women suffered though. The Rest Cure was invited by neurologist Silas Wier Mitchell in the 1800s. The treatment was for people, mostly women, who suffered from hysterics, depression, nervous disorders, etc. The Rest Cure left female patients “as dependent as an infant." Patients of the Rest Cure were cleaned and fed by nurses, fed a milk diet that was to increase the weight of the patient, and denied most stimulation. As the title suggests, patients were enforced to take to bed resting but were also force fed if necessary. The denial of stimulation meant that there was isolation from the outside world including family and friends. Not only was isolation involved with no stimulation, but also the luxury of talking, reading, writing, and even sewing. This treatment was provided mostly to women and was thought to be a way of breaking the patient’s, in most cases, the woman’s will. Though there was a Rest Cure for men, it was less harsh. Men could paint and do what they pleased intellectually. Mitchell was noted as being cruel, specifically to his female patients and especially to those female patients who disagreed with his Rest Cure. Mitchel has also been known to call his female patients “hysterical” or “invalids.” Mitchel’s stance on gender roles was that against women trying to gain equality of a man. He considered such equality as women “making mischief." Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a female writer who had first-hand experience of the Rest Cure. Mitchell prescribed the Rest Cure to Gilman himself. Gilman was quoted saying, “I came perilously close to losing my mind." Mitchel had told Gilman that she needed to live domestically, keep her child around her constantly, lie down after meals, have no more than two hours of intellectual time, and never in her lifetime touch pens, pencils, or brushes ever again. Gilman wrote her story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” after her own experience with the Rest Cure.

Though Gilman does not go crazy, her character, Jane, does. Throughout the story, Jane spirals down into madness through suppression. Jane’s husband, John, is not just her partner, but also a doctor. As her husband and doctor, John laughs at her and does not believe she is sick. John claims to know what is best for her and speaks to her as if she were a child. Not only does John laugh at her, he is in charge of her limits. At one point, Jane wanted to go visit family, but her husband told her she was unable. Our narrator also wants to speak with her husband about her illness, insisting that she is still sick, while he tells her that she is absolutely getting better. John comments to her that she will be as sick as she pleases, laughing it off in a way that entails that he thinks she is silly and childish. John considers everything his wife says as silly and irrelevant, successfully managing to suppress Jane’s voice and make her sound even more child-like. Regardless of the wallpaper, John says that Jane is getting better. The wallpaper is represented as suppression in the story; therefore John is telling her that she is well despite her suppression. Not only is John squashing her notion that she needs individuality, but also that The Rest Cure is working, though she may disagree.

Jane’s surrounding are signs of her suppression too, especially the room they are in. Their bedroom is called a nursery, but it is more of a room for a mental patient. Calling the room a nursery can further symbolize how John treats her like a child. Reading further on, the audience may notice that the room is not a nursery at all. The details of the room, like the bars on the windows and indentions in the wall, describes a room better suited for a mental patient and not a child. The bars on the window represent being caged in. Jane describes the woman behind the wallpaper shaking the bars, suggesting that she is trapped. What Jane is actually seeing is her shadow and herself behind those bars. Our audience first realizes that the woman Jane is seeing is herself when Jane is looking out the window, seeing the woman. It did not matter how quickly Jane looked through each window, the woman was there, “creeping” faster than she could turn. Jane is seeing her reflection in the glass. Also, when Jane speaks of how still the woman is in the day time behind the wallpaper, she is still seeing herself through shadow once more. Jane is sitting very still, hardly moving as she studies the wallpaper. In the “nursery,” the bed is nailed down. This detail can be considered representation of “sexual crucifixion.” Men were allowed to have a woman’s body whenever they wanted. The depiction of a bed nailed down really captures the idea that, not only mentally women were tied down, but also physically. Jane’s solution in the end is to peel the wallpaper off so that she cannot be put back. Ultimately, Jane believes the wallpaper to be her suppression. Jane even wonders if the other women came out from behind the wallpaper too. Gilman represented how women were suppressed and how their will was bent by men. Jane’s ending mental breakdown was a result of the enforced Rest Cure she endured.

Kate Chopin was another female author who wrote about the suppression of women. In her story “Story of an Hour,” Chopin gives an anti-marriage feel as the audience learns that Mrs. Mallard feels free because of her husband’s death. The audience finds out first thing that Mrs. Mallard is sick. It is more than likely that she was restricted a great deal, almost as restricted as women enduring the Rest Cure. Restrictions and limitations due to her medical condition, like in Gilman’s story, was a suppression of Mrs. Mallard. Though her husband was not mean to her and cared for her, Mrs. Mallard still considered herself a prisoner in her married life. In her room, Mrs. Mallard starts day dreaming, looking out her window with a whole new perspective. She repeats to herself that she is “free.” Mrs. Mallard notes the birds outside her window. The window to the world was closed before and now it is open to her to explore. The spring-like conditions outside her window reveal a new life where she can be free and will appreciate a long life. Unfortunately, her joy does not last long. Her husband was not dead and surprised her by walking right through the door the moment she came downstairs, ready to lead her new life. Though the other characters in the story assume that she died based on the joy of her husband being alive, Mrs. Mallard died because she could not handle losing the new life of freedom. Mrs. Mallard suggested that even dying would have been freedom. This entails she could have died to keep her freedom.

© 2020 Esila Waya


BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on November 06, 2020:

I enjoyed reading this one.

I guess it's been awhile since we were allowed to vote...1920. That is amazing.

The story Gillman writes about Jane is so sad. I had not heard of this Rest cure thing, but it sounds like just another way of keeping a woman in her place.

These women both endured pain looking from the inside out without finding relief.

Mrs Mallard understands what freedom is and wants it in her lifetime. So sad that anyone could be made to feel this way.

Nice write.