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A fictional narrative is a powerful literary tool. It allows an author to tell a story which otherwise might be too horrific or unbelievable to tell. It makes it possible for the unspeakable to be spoken. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote the story The Yellow Wall-Paper to give a voice to the oppressed masses of women during the 1890's. The Yellow Wall-Paper is an indictment of misogynists America circa 1890. In her story she allows the reader to see America through three different lenses: The paternal chauvinist John, the empathetic and submissive Jennie, and the unnamed protagonist, who becomes increasingly disillusioned as she becomes more aware of her surroundings. By deconstructing the three "lenses" Gilman's vision of women's role in a misogynist America becomes clear.
The protagonist's husband, John, is the symbolic representation of the paternal hegemony that existed during Gilman's lifetime. Gilman's choice to use the ubiquitous name "John" can be emblematic of the wide spread problem of the oppression of women. The way that John acts towards his wife is microcosm of gender inequality in society. John treats her as if she is his child and in no way his equal. He is a physician and unable to believe anything that he cannot see. The protagonist says of John's disbelief, "These nervous conditions are dreadfully depressing. John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him."(Gilman p.14) He has no knowledge of the inner-workings of the feminine psyche. So he treats his wife's disobedience and depression the same way one would deal with a petulant child; he locks her in her room.
John believes that if wife is indeed it is the result of feminine hypochondria and the negative influence of creativity. He stops his wife from writing. Writing had been something that his wife had found happiness in. John subscribes to the "Pedestal" philosophy. In that women are the moral guardian of society and that a women is corrupted by things like creativity or competition.
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The notion of John's paternal domination of the narrator is a theme central to the story. John controls, or at least attempts to control, every element of his wife's existence. He controls what she does, who she can visit with, even what she is allowed to think about. He dismisses any suggestions or ideas his wife presents to him, even when the thoughts are well thought out. John dismisses them as feminine "fancies." The narrator says, "At first he mean to repaper the room, but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies." (Gilman p. 14) There is a pattern to this patronizing denial of the protagonist's requests. When the narrator expresses the desire to move into the bigger nicer rooms downstairs and away from the dreadful wallpapered room John patronizes his wife. Gilman writes, "Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down cellar; if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain."(Gilmanp.15) John use of the phase "blessed little goose" is indicative of the paternal relationship between John and his wife. He treats her like a child. Referring to her as "his darling," (p.20) "little girl," (p.23) and "blessed little goose" (p. 15). He repeatedly belittles his wife in order to perpetuate his dominance. It is clear that although he control over his wife is waning, the control over his sister, the second lens, remains firmly intact.
In Gilman's story the character Jennie represents the ignorant masses of women either oblivious to or acceptant of male dominance. Jennie's role of housekeeper directly coincides with John's beliefs of the capabilities of women. Jennie is John's surrogate wife while the narrator is sick. Jennie takes care of all of the household duties and reports back to John on the status of the narrator. Jennie is the person in the best situation to help the narrator, but does nothing. Perhaps this is attempt by Gilman to show the importance of female solidarity. Jennie is sympathetic to the narrator. She goes so far as to look at and touch the wall-paper. Gilman writes on Jennie's encounter with the paper, "Then she [Jennie] said that the paper stained everything it touched, that she had found yellow smooches n all my clothes and John's, and she wished we would be more careful."(p. 27) That statement seemed of little importance at the time, but becomes more profound when the symbolic importance of the wallpaper is revealed. Jennie eventually sides with her brother's views of the narrator's illness. By looking at the wallpaper Jennie makes an attempt to understand the power the wallpaper holds over the narrator. Gilman's hope for the future, in that women will become more aware of their oppression, lies partially with Jennie's willingness to explore the wallpaper.
The narrator of the story is a creative and artistic women living in a society that sees women who see such talents as a threat. Gilman uses the narrator as the third lens to view American society. During the 1890's male dominated society felt that creativity corrupted women, making them ill. She is suffering from what today would be described as post partum depression. Her husband John, a doctor, confines her to wallpapered room in order to cure her. The protagonist is forbidden from any type of higher thinking by her husband. He believes that the influence of higher thinking is what is making her ill. She, however, does not totally agree with him, but is unable to tell him so. She has internalized the beliefs that men are superior to women. She validates his beliefs because he is a man and a doctor. She says, "I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus-but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad."(Gilman p.10) The internalized beliefs conflict with her ideas of self. Left with no outside stimuli the mental well being of the narrator breaks down. She takes this internal conflict and projects it onto the only source of stimuli in her room, the wallpaper.
The wallpaper represents the oppression of women during the 1890's. The narrator's opinion of the wallpaper changes during the story as she begins confronts her internal conflict. At first she hates the wallpaper. The wallpaper is there to protect her from things is the outside world that might harm her. As she becomes more obsessed with the wallpaper she realizes there are two levels to the wall paper and a woman is trapped in the background. The foreground represents all the things that are proper for women to be in society; it is pretty and has no depth. In many ways the foreground is like Jennie. The foreground is a barrier keeping in the background. The background, moreover the woman in the background, represents the person the narrator believes herself to be. It is wild and moves at night. This represents the creative side of the narrator that is trapped by what is socially acceptable. The woman in the background is clambering to free herself from this trap. The narrator says, "Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind [the foreground], and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over."(Gilman p.30) The narrator tries to set the women free by tearing down the wallpaper. It is during the process of freeing the women behind the wallpaper and proclaiming her freedom that her husband enters the room and faints. Gilman writes, "'I've got out at last', said I, in spite of you and Jane!'... so you can't put me back!' Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!"(Gilman p.36) The image of the narrator crawling over John symbolizes her newfound freedom from his oppression.
Jennie said that the wallpaper stained who ever touched. This is Gilman's indictment of male dominance. Like Jennie said, it not only stains the women who are oppressed, it stains the men who are the oppressors. Gilman calls for women to free themselves from the grip of the wallpaper. Not just for their own salvation, but to save the souls of the men. If men continued to stifle the intellectual and creative of women it would stain their souls.