16 Feb 2018
Roadmaps for Societal Revision
It is difficult to begin a discussion on feminism without mentioning the intellectually challenging and powerful works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Throughout her life, she campaigned for the reformation of women’s rights in politics and in the home, arguing that the roles and values attributed to women were outdated and only catered to men’s perceived “superiority”. Many of her opinions on female rights stemmed from her own tragic life experiences—her development of depression and the prescribed rest cure that followed, and the maltreatment from her first marriage—and often manifested themselves in her writing. One of her most acclaimed works that has a strong influence from her life is “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a fictional tale about a woman’s descent into madness. Another story, “If I Were a Man”, follows the comical journey of a woman’s experience in her husband’s shoes. Though both accounts convey the theme of sexism, they use setting and point of view to create in contrasting ways to come to this conclusion.
Setting in both the aforementioned texts is a key component to gaining insight into their feminist meanings. Taking place in the romantic countryside, “The Yellow Wallpaper” paints the image of an isolated, “ancestral” mansion well secluded by “hedges and walls and gates that lock” (Gilman 9). Giving it the description as being “ancestral”, the narrator alludes to a time in history when women were portrayed as grossly weaker than their male companions and the only dutiful tasks they were capable of completing were housework and other domestic affairs (9). A time when traditional gender archetypes, most of which were imposed by religion, were forced upon women, no matter their true strengths. Using this descriptor also brings light to the concept that these appointed roles are just that: ancient. They are outdated ideals of a society without education, technology, and the diversity of a traveling world, and have no place in an evolving civilization in which the only limitation is one’s mind. In this fashion, it is feasible that one of Gilman’s intentions in writing “The Yellow Wallpaper” was to stress that gender roles should not be considered a part of society’s belief system, a possibility that one would not have uncovered without examining the setting of her story.
Likewise, the setting in “If I Were a Man”, though slightly different than that in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, creates the same effect in relation to the theme of sexism. In this story, the environment is depicted as a commuter’s train in the 19th century. Like the other narrative, the time in which “If I Were a Man” takes place is key as it is an era when women had no rights and were considered only be useful when they acted like the shadows of their husbands. They were completely dependent on their male partners for financial stability and were regarded as simple beings compared to the “stronger”, both physiologically and psychologically, more dominant sex (“Gender Ideology & Separate Spheres in the 19th Century”). With this in mind, it becomes apparent that the date of this story is crucial to understanding the period-based values being disputed, much like “The Yellow Wallpaper”.
Dissimilarly, though, the physical setting proposes a different idea: hope. Because Mollie is experiencing the most profound character changes as she speaks with Gerald’s friends on the train, the locomotive represents not only her own shift in morals, but society’s as well. While it is true that the men on that train have only insults to throw at the women in their lives—the excerpts, “They haven’t much mind to make up” and “The real danger…is that they will overstep the limits of their God-appointed sphere”, come to mind—it can be argued that the fact that they are even listening to a disagreement to their viewpoints is a small glimmer of hope that humanity can change for the better. Furthermore, the train itself is a symbol of the shifting values of man as it leaves “tradition” in its dust and arrives to a new mankind, one filled with equality between the sexes.
In addition to setting, point of view is essential in developing a message for sexual equality that lasts through the ages. Being a journal of a morose woman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is written from a limited first-person point of view, allowing the reader to fully immerse themselves into the debilitating mind of the narrator as they can see only her thoughts, feelings, and actions. By limiting the audience’s view to this type of character, it allows them to feel the same isolation and entrapment she feels as her delusions of the changing wallpaper escalate, seen by her ever-growing “[fondness] of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper” (Gilman 14). The yellow paper, with its captivating and disturbing properties, represents the dominating power men hold over women in a patriarchal society, no matter how subtle their reign might seem. It is difficult to deny that the narrator is imprisoned by her fantasies and projects her dilemma onto the wallpaper, but it can be argued that if the husband, a self-proclaimed expert on the matter of health, had not stripped his wife of almost all human interaction and self-expression, then she would not have retreated to such an extreme mental state. Furthermore, if this story were written from the perspective of the husband, his patronizing attitude would have clouded the true extent to which the wife’s condition worsened, resulting in a simple recollection of a man and his wife on vacation rather than a traumatizing psychological tragedy. Without stepping into the shoes of an oppressed woman trapped by her own mind and the views imprinted into her psyche by a segregated society and marriage, the message of sexism and Gilman’s feelings about feminine inferiority cannot be communicated effectively.
The importance of narrative perspective is similarly portrayed in her piece, “If I Were a Man”. However, there is a key difference: this story is written from a third person limited viewpoint because, though the reader is not completely seeing the world from Mollie’s eyes, they still do not know what the other minor characters are thinking, creating a narrow field of vision with Mollie as the central consciousness. When Mollie exchanges bodies with her husband Gerald for a day, the reader gets a glimpse as to how the other half, so to speak, sees women. Being told by an unknown narrator offers an impartial opinion, one that is less biased to the world of men than someone discovering it for the first time, like Mollie, would be. As a result, the narration can be considered much more reliable than that of “The Yellow Wallpaper” since it is not being told from the perspective of a mentally unstable character, or with preconceived notions that alter the recount. This also leads to a better understanding of Mollie’s development from a complacent wife to an enlightened woman preaching, “It’s time we woke up…If she brought evil into the world, we men have had the lion’s share of keeping it going ever since” (69). After her experience with internalized misogyny, or the notion that women are sexist towards themselves and other women, Mollie now sees that any sin in the world is brought about by both men and women. The idea that men are just as much to blame for pain as women are can be strengthened further by the characters in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. As mentioned earlier, one can contend to the fact that John has as much fault as the narrator does for her condition—if not much more—considering that solitary confinement results in great damage to mental health “because it restricts meaningful social contact, a psychological stimulus that humans need in order to remain healthy and functioning” (Corcoran). However, because the husband thinks that it is solely his partner’s responsibility for her state, he continues to bring pain to her mind, leading to her complete plunge into insanity. Had he seen the error in his misogynistic ways, perhaps the narrator would have been able to recover. In this sense, “The Yellow Wallpaper” compliments “If I Were a Man” by offering a precedent in which Mollie’s point of gender equality in responsibility is proven to be true. Though each story has narrators that are drastically different from each other, they come to the same conclusion about women’s roles in society’s hardships, resulting in a deeper understanding in what Gilman possibly intended to address through her writings.
Given Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s biography and her advocacy for female empowerment, it is no question that her works of fiction would have much of their focus on gender inequality. Instead of writing journals and essay to add to her collection, she wrote incredible narratives that kept her audiences on their toes and wanting more for generations. Though it has been over a century since “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “If I Were a Man” were first published, her works continue to captivate and remain as roadmaps for societal revision in the modern era.
Corcoran, Mary Murphy. “Effects of Solitary Confinement on the Well Being of Prison Inmates.” Department of Applied Psychology. New York University, 2018. Web. <https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/appsych/opus/issues/2015/spring/corcoran>. 15 Feb. 2018.
“Gender Ideology & Separate Spheres in the 19th Century.” Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016, <www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/g/gender-ideology-and-separate-spheres-19th-century>. 13 Feb. 2018.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Other Stories. Dover Thrift Editions, 1997. Print.