The Husband in The Yellow Wallpaper

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

In the beginning of 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' the narrator describes her husband as a kind of saintly caretaker. By the end of the narrative, he becomes a kind of prison guard that she has to escape. We'll learn about the role of the husband in Gilman's story.

John, the Rest Cure, and Patriarchal Control

The narrator of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' has a husband named John who is a physician. He's diagnosed her with what he calls a 'slight hysterical tendency,' but refuses to consider that something different or more serious may be wrong. In the nineteenth century, hysteria as a psychological disorder wasn't well understood and was incorrectly thought to primarily afflict women. The treatment for perceived hysteria was the rest cure. Used from 1873 to about 1925, this 'cure' largely confined women to their beds. They were forbidden to work or have social interactions, and were often even directed to be fed and bathed by someone else.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was herself misdiagnosed with hysteria, found this cure inhumanely oppressive. 'The Yellow Wallpaper' explores insanity as a possible effect of this treatment. John is doctor, husband, and caretaker to the story's narrator, so his role as someone who constrains her physically and psychologically is triply reinforced. John's character is closely linked with his imposition of the rest cure on the narrator, but it's also defined by his social standing and his dismissive responses to her wishes and concerns.

A Gentleman and Respected Physician

The narrator establishes at the outset that she doesn't agree with John's diagnosis or treatment. (Her brother, who is also a physician, agrees with John). However, she's careful not to contradict him openly. Her husband 'is a physician of high standing,' as is her brother. She knows that the friends and family they speak to will listen to them, not her, because they're both men and respected doctors. Frustrated, she says, 'And what can one do?'

Two gentlemen in Victorian-era clothing who might resemble John and the brother of the narrator
Two gentlemen in Victorian-era clothing who might resemble John and the narrators brother

A Careful and Loving Caretaker

The narrator also feels obligated to appreciate all John is doing for her. She says he 'is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction,' adding that 'He takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.' At first, she feels he's pampering her rather than controlling her, since he gives her 'cod liver oil and lots of tonics and things, to say nothing of ale and wine and rare meat.' When he assigns her the nursery on the top floor of the house instead of the room she wants on the first floor, she admits that it's 'a big, airy room' as 'comfortable as any one need wish.' After asking him to replace the hideous nursery wallpaper, she feels guilty about it, saying that 'I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim.'

A Victorian man sweeping his beloved into his arms, as John does with the narrator
A Victorian man sweeping his beloved into his arms, as John does with the narrator

A Stern, Reproachful, Manipulative Husband

A third reason the narrator feels guilty about contradicting John is that he's manipulative. He makes her feel she's being unreasonable whether she is or not, and treats her like a child. When she asks if they can change the wallpaper, John predicts that if he did this for her, she'd also want to change the furniture, window dressings, and other fixtures. Even though she's actually only asked for one thing, he makes her feel as if she's excessively demanding and selfish. He condescendingly refers to her as a 'blessed little goose,' as if she were a precocious child.

John also tries to smother her creative faculties. The narrator parrots him in saying that 'with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies' that will worsen her condition.

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