The Yellow Wallpaper & Women's Rights

The Yellow Wallpaper & Women's Rights
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  • 0:03 Patriarchy and Domesticity
  • 1:06 The Wallpaper
  • 2:36 Escape
  • 3:59 Independence
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ''The Yellow Wallpaper'' amply demonstrates the conventional expectations placed on women. These expectations seemingly imprison women, much as the wallpaper does. To assert their independence, they must remove the bars imposed by patriarchal society.

Patriarchy and Domesticity

Imagine having no control over your life. Expression of individuality is strongly discouraged. All outlets for escape are closed. You are trapped in a life of domesticity, staying at home to care for the house and family. This can be rewarding, but people want to choose what they do, not be told this is what they must do.

When Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote ''The Yellow Wallpaper'' in 1892, women didn't have the opportunity to choose a life apart from a domestic life. ''The Yellow Wallpaper'' challenges this domestic lifestyle and advocates for the right of a woman to choose how to live her life.

The narrator of the story emphasizes the patriarchal expectation that women are subservient to men. Any attempt to move outside this boundary is met with disapproval. The narrator writes that her husband, for instance, ''hates to have me write a word.'' Furthermore, he ''hardly lets me stir without special direction.'' The husband continually claims to know what is best for her, yet his method actually makes his wife's medical condition worse.

The Wallpaper

The room in which the narrator stays is covered in yellow wallpaper. She spends quite a bit of time staring at it and finds ''one marked peculiarity about this paper,'' which upon closer examination ''becomes bars! The outside pattern, I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.''

The wallpaper design serves as symbolic imagery of the imprisonment of women, much as the narrator is a prisoner in her own home. By adhering to the patriarchal expectations regarding a woman's behavior, women are prevented from any type of growth, specifically personal and artistic.

Any attempt to escape from this imprisonment is choked off, much as the wallpaper pattern chokes the woman behind the bars. The narrator discovers this when the woman in the wallpaper attempts to ''climb through…it strangles so.''

Even when she manages to get through, ''the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down.'' Through this imagery, Gilman asks what recourse a woman has under such oppression? She has no rights or any means for recourse.

There is more symbolism in the wallpaper than just the pattern. It is described as ''repellent, almost revolting.'' The wallpaper's ugliness symbolizes the absence of beauty in the life of a woman. She's trapped in an ugly prison, one that the narrator admits she ''should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.'' Any attempt to create beauty, such as the narrator's writing, is discouraged. The suppression of her creativity creates more ugliness and creates a need for escape.

Escape

As the story progresses, the narrator comments on her writing, mentioning how ''the effort [to write] is getting to be greater than the relief.'' The constant discouragement of artistic expression wears her down.

In fact, John, the narrator's husband, encourages her to sleep all she can. She cannot, though, and describes seeing the woman trapped in the wallpaper ''[begin] to crawl and shake the pattern.'' The narrator gets up and attempts to assist this symbolic image of a woman. The two begin to work at the pattern, and ''before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper.'' They find a means to escape.

Tearing off the wallpaper symbolizes a step toward asserting their rights as individuals, not property to be controlled by men. But not all women are in favor of this. Jennie, the narrator's sister-in-law, sees that the wallpaper is being torn from the wall. Jennie tells her that she wouldn't mind removing the wallpaper, but she doesn't want to get tired. Jennie feels like this struggle isn't worth the effort. She is content.

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