In Search for Independence and self-fulfillment


In the last half of the nineteenth century, Victorian ideals still held sway in American society, at least among members of the middle and upper classes. Thus the cult of True Womanhood was still promoted which preached four cardinal virtues for women: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Women were considered far more religious than men and, therefore, they had to be pure in heart, mind, and, of course, body, not engaging in sex until marriage, and even then not finding any pleasure in it. They were also supposed to be passive responders to men's decisions, actions, and needs. The true woman's place was her home; "females were uniquely suited to raise children,care for the needs of their menfolk, and devote their lives to creating a nurturing home environment." (Norton, 108). However, the tensions between old and new, traditional and untraditional , were great during the last years of nineteenth century and there was a debate among male and female writers and social thinkers as to what the role of women should be. Among the female writers who devoted their work to defying their views about the woman's place in society were Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a social activist and theorist of the women's movement at the turn of the twentieth century. She developed her feminist ideals in her novels, short stories and nonfiction books such as Women and Economics. Charlotte Perkins Gilman is best known for her short story The Yellow Wallpaper, (1892) which is based on her own experience.

As the story begins, the woman-whose name we never learn- tells of her depression and how it is being treated by her husband and brother who are both doctors. These two men are unable to see that there is more to her condition than just a stress and depression and prescribe for her rest as a cure. The narrator is taken to a summer house to recover form her condition where she is not allowed to do anything but rest and sleep. Furthermore, she cannot do one thing that she loves the most: writing. " I must put this away, -he hates to have me write a word." She spends most of her time in a room with yellow wallpaper and very little to occupy her mind with. She becomes obsessed with discovering what is behind the pattern of the wallpaper and becomes determined that the image is a woman who is struggling to become free. The narrator wants to set this woman free, so she peels off the yellow wallpaper. Then she locks herself in the room and throws the keys out of the window. When her husband gets to the door and wants to break in, she tells him over and over again where the keys are. After he gets in and sees her creeping on the floor, he faints, and the narrator "had to creep over him every time."

Though The Yellow Wallpaper is a fiction, it was based on Gilman's own experience after being diagnosed as a hysteric and prescribed a rest cure which prohibited her writing. However, The Yellow Wallpaper is more than a case study in mental illness or a horror story, it is a story of a dominant/submissive relationship between husband and wife. John, the narrator's husband, never takes her seriously. At the very beginning of the story she says " John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage." Anytime the narrator would make a suggestion for her recovery, John would give her a " stern reproachful look." Although the narrator feels desperate, John tells her that there is no reason for how she feels. He treats her like a child and makes her doubt herself. John is the man of the house and he expects the narrator to trust him completely, just as small children trust in their parents. The narrator often speaks in a manner that suggests that she cannot disagree with anything her husband says. She is a typical nineteenth century submissive wife and her "What is one to do?" means that she has no authority and no control over her life. The idea of resting is not something she likes, she would rather work, but she has no choice. Still, she manages to disobey her husband and write her journal without him knowing it.