Alongside its exploration of mental illness, The Yellow Wallpaper offers a critique of traditional gender roles as they were defined during the late nineteenth century, the time in which the story is set and was written. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a prominent feminist, who rejected the trappings of traditional domestic life and published extensively about the role of women in society, and saw the gender roles of the time as horribly stifling.
The story’s family unit falls along traditional lines. John, the husband, is rational, practically minded, protective, and the ultimate decision maker in the couple. He infantilizes his wife, referring to her as his ‘little girl’ and brushing off her complaints. However, John is not purely the irredeemable villain of the story. Rather, we see how his ability to communicate effectively with his wife is constrained by the structure of their gender roles. This is an important point: John’s happiness is also ruined by the strictures of traditional domestic life.
The narrator, his wife, is confined to the home, not allowed to work (or to write), and considered by her husband to be fragile, emotional, and self-indulgent. Differing readings of the text’s sarcasm lead to different interpretations of her voluntary submission to this role, but it is clear that her forced inactivity was abhorrent to her. The diary becomes a symbol of her rebellion against John’s commands. The willingness of John’s sister, Jennie, to submit to her domestic role in the home only increases the narrator’s guilt at her own dissatisfaction.
The mysterious figure of a woman trapped behind the yellow wallpaper becomes a symbol for the ways in which the narrator herself feels trapped by her role in the family. The narrator’s urgent desire to free this woman, and to hide her existence from John and Jennie, leads to her raving final breakdown as she tears the paper, ‘creeping’ around the room and over her husband – who, in a reversal of their traditional roles as strong protector and fragile child, has fainted in shock at the sight of his wife.
Gender Roles and Domestic Life ThemeTracker
Gender Roles and Domestic Life Quotes in The Yellow Wallpaper
John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.
John is a physician, and PERHAPS—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—PERHAPS that is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see he does not believe I am sick!
And what can one do?
He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.
I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.
He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get.
John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious.
I am glad my case is not serious!
But these nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing.
John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no REASON to suffer, and that satisfies him.
There comes John's sister. Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing. She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!
Dear John! He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia.
But he said I wasn't able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished.
If we had not used it, that blessed child would have! What a fortunate escape! Why, I wouldn't have a child of mine, an impressionable little thing, live in such a room for worlds.
I never thought of it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all, I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see.
Of course if you were in any danger, I could and would, but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know. You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better, I feel really much easier about you.
At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.
And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.
I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.
Besides I wouldn't do it. Of course not. I know well enough that a step like that is improper and might be misconstrued.
I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!
It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please! I don't want to go outside. I won't, even if Jennie asks me to.
For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow.
But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way.
"I've got out at last," said I, "in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, 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!