Gilman on Naturalism and Female Oppression in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

I have had the treat of reading a variety of authors from the mid 19th century to the early 20th century who focus realism and naturalism. Charlotte Perkins Gilman “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which  centers on a husband and his wife that move into a mansion. Gilman makes readers question, through the main character’s first person POV, whether she is truly mentally ill or is simply another victim of the male dominant society during that time.

Naturalism in Viewpoint

I do not really see a clear difference in the way women are depicted by naturalist writers in comparison to realist writers. In Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” the main character seems to be more of a victim of society’s standards during the time the story takes place than a victim of her husband, John. However, I think Gilman is trying to send a different message to readers. In a way, most everyone is a victim of society’s standards in Gilman’s story. I feel as if Gilman is saying this is how women are treated during this period in time. Society today is a different story, though in ways, similar to the one expressed by realists and naturalists in stories from the 19th and 20th centuries. However, in regards to women in society and in literature, they have made a lot of progress and are not about to stop. A woman will one day become the President of the United States! The protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper” has me making second guesses to what is truly going on. She is an unreliable character, which makes me as a reader guess to as whether she is a victim of oppression or simply a victim of her own mental illness. I blame this partly on Gilman’s use of first person POV.

Women have made progress in society as shown in politics, jobs and even as heroes in literature and film. There is the protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper” who battles with a mental illness that she is believed, but not certain to be suffering from. In other words, she may be perceived as normal in today’s society. She thinks John worries about her being ill, and she considers herself ill. However, she does not seem to agree with how the other characters perceive how she is sick. She wants to write, but John and his sister thinks that it makes her ill. I personally may be ill since I write very often, but it is very doubtful. I think if John’s theory about writing making one ill is true, there would be a lot of sick people today. In Gilman’s story, I think she portrays a woman who battles with her freedom in a male dominant society. In addition, the author makes readers question to whether the wife actually suffers from a mental illness or not, and whether John is indeed oppressing his wife or just truly cares for her. In today’s society, literature doesn’t seem to question women protagonist like Gilman and Chopin do. Instead, readers have female protagonists who are leaders and characters such as Katniss in “The Hunger Games.” Okay, the story may be fiction and a blockbuster movie, but it has a clear message about women being leaders and standing up against rulers. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” the husband, John, seems to care more for his wife’s health than to oppress or imprison her. But in a way he does oppress her, passively anyhow. He forbids her to write. However, so does his sister. This brings me to believe that Gilman simply doesn’t want readers to question the freedom of women in this story, but whether oppression toward females in this work is justified. In other words, how can a reader be certain the woman is being oppressed by her husband or is simply a part of the societal system during that time that oppresses all women? It may be easy to conclude that John is indeed a part of the male dominant society and is oppressing his wife’s freedom because she is a woman and he is a man. However, Gilman complicates this idea by creating an unreliable character and making readers question the protagonist and the other characters. Readers only know the other characters through the wife’s first person narration. Furthermore, writing seems to be some peoples’ method of finding relief as it does for the protagonist in Gilman’s story. “There comes John, and I must put this away-he hates to have me write a word” (Gilman 48.) The word choice, “hate”, is aggressive enough to make a reader think John is this controlling husband who is going to abuse his wife for writing. I think he, like his sister, is worried that writing is the activity that makes his wife ill. Maybe John is inertly oppressing his wife by not attempting to understand her desire to write or ask her true opinion about the wallpaper. It is a mystery to me why he believes writing is a cause of her illness.

Gilman and Chopin express through their work, how women are imprisoned by society’s standards of women. Society’s view on women during this time and other times, not only impacts how women live, but also impacts how couples live together. Society writes in stone about how men and women should pursue certain roles in life. I have seen this example still today. The wife in “The Yellow Wallpaper” states “I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!” (Gilman 83). This is in response to John’s sister. I believe it helps his case concerning him being the oppressing husband. I do not think it is John who is the oppressor. He is simply the caring and overly worried husband. Through his worry, he may unintentionally infringe upon his wife’s freedom. Would he do the same if it was his son who was ill? Would the wife treat her husband the same way he treats her if he were the one to believe to be ill? I think it is rather too easy for readers to conclude the woman is being oppressed in Gilman’s story because the setting takes place in the 19th century and it is written in first person narrative. In other words, it was a male dominant society then that did not support equal rights for women and the story is only told through the wife’s perspective. Therefore, it is hard to get a clear understanding of what the other characters think and feel. “I don’t know why I should write this,” the wife says. “I don’t want to. I don’t feel able. And I know John would think it absurd. But I MUST say what I feel and think in some way-it is such a relief” (Gilman 111). Judging from the main character’s perspective of her husband, he loves her and cares for her.

To conclude, I think in “The Yellow Wallpaper” Gilman expresses naturally how a husband and family respond to her being ill. With that said, I believe the main character is too unreliable to conclude that she suffers from being oppressed by John. However, Gilman, like Chopin and Stanton, attempts to evoke the reader’s thoughts concerning the treatment of women during the 19th century, male dominated civilization. She also makes me, as a reader, question how women are treated in regards to mental illness. Is the main character treated the way she is because of her depression or is it because she is a female who suffers from depression? Why did John keep her so confined? Perhaps Gilman wants readers to question whether the wife confines herself or not. This protagonist is difficult for me to figure out due to her POV being written in first person. I do not know whether to trust her view of her situation or not. But I have no choice but to accept what she says and thinks, because most of the story is her confined to her room pondering about the life around her. This I call Gilman’s naturalism.

2 thoughts on “Gilman on Naturalism and Female Oppression in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

  1. Wave!! I’m in the MA English and Creative Writing program at SNHU and am working on a post about this work and found this post. Nice to meet a fellow Penman. – Becky


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