The Yellow Wallpaper Victorian Era Gender Roles
How it works
The Civil War had just recently come to a close bringing about many changes in American culture. The archaic class system had been shaken, leaving the wealthy and middle class void of social standards and in search of a new identity. In an act of desperation, Americans adopted European culture, a culture tyrannized by men, as their own. In the 1890s short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman tells the story of a woman who is diagnosed with hysteria by her husband and treated with a rest cure, a medical protocol that forced patients to abstain from expression and activity until the observed illness subsided.
Through the narrator’s descent into madness, John, and the relationship they share, “The Yellow Wallpaper” symbolically represents Patriarchal dominance, the marital oppression of women, and the destruction caused by gender roles in the Victorian Era. Many similarities can be drawn between features of the setting in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and elements of Victorian Society. The story opens with the narrator describing her summer abode. Although commonly regarded as a “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate”, the narrator perceives the home to be somewhat eerie and compares it to a “haunted house”(Gilman 325).
This drastic difference in opinion reveals the narrator’s discomfort with her new surroundings while also illustrating the progression of gender roles throughout history, as the home is typically symbolic of solidarity and safety. Gender roles aren’t inherently evil but were corrupted during the Victorian age as seen by the narrator’s eerie emotional response to her new environment. To further portray this corruption, the narrator describes the color of the wallpaper inside the house as a “shouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight” (Gilman 327).
Yellow is feminine by nature, characterized by its gentle and pale hue. In this instance, the sun, an object seen throughout literature as a symbol of the male archetype, erodes the purity of the yellow causing it to become unclean. This degradation illustrates the oppression of women by men during this time period. John, the husband in “The Yellow Wallpaper, is a precise representation of the Victorian patriarchy. He is a busy man whose time is very much occupied by his career as a physician. Because of his rigorous work schedule, John has little time to spend inside the home itself. This lifestyle demonstrates the stereotypical model of a Victorian man while also furthering the notion of separate spheres”.
In a scholarly article entitled “Gender Roles in the 19th Century”, Kathryn Hughes states, “The ideology of Separate Spheres rested on a definition of the ‘natural’ characteristics of women and man. Women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men, which meant that they were best suited to the domestic sphere. Not only was it their job to counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere in which their husbands labored all day, they were also preparing the next generation to carry on this way of life.” In addition to fulfilling the role of the breadwinner, John is also the decision maker and authoritative figure in the home.
The narrator describes him as “practical in the extreme”(Gilman 328). In other terms, John is overbearingly controlling and, as stated by the narrator, hardly lets me stir without special attention (Gilman 326). The opinion of the narrator, the female figure of the story, is often overruled by John. Although she longs to express her emotions through the outlet of writing, John refuses her this liberty as he has prescribed a rest cure for his wife’s newly acquired symptoms of insanity. Similar to this forced abstinence from self-expression, the female voice was in many ways silenced during the Victorian age.
Women were socially discouraged from academic pursuits. Becoming overly invested in intellectual matters could result in being labeled a blue-stocking, a term undesirable to potential male suitors (Hughes 2014). “The Yellow Wallpaper” demonstrates the harmful result of feminine oppression through the narrator’s relationship with John. During the Victorian Era, marriage was often the main source of feminine oppression due to the shackled lifestyle it forced upon the female partner. The Yellow Wallpaper” depicts a “great bedstead nailed down”. The fastened bedstead can be interpreted as the unshakable gender roles associated with Victorian marriages. In addition to the responsibilities of motherhood, wives were expected to satisfy the sexual desires of their husbands. In a text entitled “Family Life in 19th Century America”, James M. Volo elaborates on the topic stating, “The obvious objectives of marriage were to provide an acceptable outlet for sexual activity, to recognize the legitimate children of a union, and to assure the continuity of the family fortune through the instrument of inheritance” (Volo 2007).
These limited roles were the object of much female frustration during this time period. An example of this agitation can be seen in the closing action of “The Yellow Wallpaper” where the narrator emphatically states, ” This bed will not move! I tried to lift and push it until I was lame, and then I got so angry I bit off a little piece at one corner – but it hurt my teeth” (Gilman 336). The effort of the narrator to move the bed serves as a symbol of women who attempted to defy marital restrictions and make their own path. Failing to liberate themselves from these limitations often resulted in frustration as illustrated by the later part of the previous quote in which the narrator’s anger is manifested in the form of biting.
This exemplifies the hazardous effect of Victorian gender roles and the eventual destruction they caused on the female psyche. In many instances, much like the final scene in The Yellow Wallpaper, women were either accused being mentally unstable or actually driven to insanity by their oppressive environment. The story closes with the narrator creeping along the perimeter of the room in animalistic manor. She has circled the room with such intensity that a groove in the shape of her shoulder has been created. John enters the room and attempts to understand his wife’s psychotic behavior but quickly faints of shock. John’s presence does not alter the course of the narrator as she states, 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 337).
Here we see the culmination of the narrator psychological descent resulting in insanity. The Yellow Wallpaper” exemplifies the looming dangers of oppression and social expectations in the Victorian Era. Although not malevolent by nature, gender normality’s have the potential to cause great chaos and social disorder. Attempting to rebel against the preexisting patriarchal model often resulted in anger and increased stress for many women. Such anxiety would eventually catalyze a progressive movement idealized by the notions of equality, freedom, and hope.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. The Carolina Reader for English 101, Hayden-McNeil, 2017, pp. 325-327. Fall 2017. Hughes, Kathryn. Gender Roles in the 19th Century. British Library, www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century-. British Lribary,2014. Accessed 17 October 2017. Velo, James M. Family Life in 19th Century America. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007, pp. 36-39.