“The Yellow Wallpaper”: Liberation in Madness

English 102

November 10, 2002


Thesis: In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Jane’s role conflict as a result patriarchal oppression is resolved when she foregoes the roles of mother, and woman for that of madwoman.

I. Introduction

II. Hysteria was as common in the Victorian era as its definition was broad, and treatment narrow.

a. Hysteria was a common ailment, epidemic in ambitious women.

b. Dr. S. Weir Mitchell’s rest cure was commonly applied in these cases.

III. Sufferers of hysteria and neurasthenia are unable or unwilling to resolve their role conflict as women, mothers, and whatever else the affected aspires to be.

a. The prescribed role as woman is in conflict with the expectations of motherhood.

b. Jane is conflicted with her roles as a young wife, a new mother, and a writer.

IV. Jane is trapped in her unhappiness by societal rules that fuel her resentment for John, the baby, and Jennie, who each reinforce society’s expectations of her.

a. Jane’s conflict with John is the core of her unhappiness.

i. John is controlling and condescending, just as he has been taught he should be as the husband, father, and head of household.

ii. Jane enables him to treat her this way by her submission and deferral to his judgment.

b. The baby is strikingly absent from the story.

i. Jane has conflicted opinions about children in general, but especially about her own child.

ii. Jane is resentful of the baby for being the catalyst for her current state.

c. Jennie is Jane’s antithesis.

i. The Jennie’s of the world contribute to the dismal state of women’s affairs, and directly to the narrator, by reinforcing the power of men.

ii. Jane doesn’t trust Jennie.

V. The prescribed rest cure is the proverbial nail in Jane’s coffin.

a. Jane silently rebels against the rest cure by secretly keeping a journal.

i. The bulk of her journal entries occur after she has been there for several weeks, her credibility damaged as it becomes clear she is quickly plummeting into full madness.

ii. The frequency of her journal entries increase along with the damage to the wallpaper, suggesting that perhaps the wallpaper itself is her medium.

b. Jane progressively destroys the room, displaying increasing violent urges and decreasing self-control.

i. She reports on increasing damage as her conflict with John deepens.

ii. She does not take responsibility for the damage, blaming it on nonexistent children.

c. Jane joins the image of herself inside the wallpaper, abandoning the damaged self for the new one.

VI. Conclusion.

The Victorian era was governed by a system of rules for behavior and gender roles. Much has changed over the past century for women, largely owed to the women who challenged this system, however something in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” continues to ring true with women today. The struggles over role conflict are possibly greater for women today because of the options that are now available, but the basic challenges of “how to be both a person and a wife and mother; how to live with acceptable passivity in a patriarchal culture while yet being aggressive enough to stay alive; and how to be both “good” and sensual, supportive and necessarily selfish, and, above all, sane” remain (Wagner-Martin). The theme of violent rebellion in the face of patriarchal oppression is common in literature about women. Miss Emily in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Miss Emily” was persecuted in gossip for living a solitary life as mandated by her father’s strict social rules. He damaged her ability to have relationships to the point that she murdered her husband and this was not discovered until her death. Zora Neale Hurston’s narrator in “Sweat” suffers socially sanctioned mental and physical abuse at the hand of her husband. She is persecuted by the townspeople for her husband’s actions, but knows it would be worse to leave him completely. She finds her salvation when she chooses not to help her dying husband. For her, it is better to watch the man die than to leave. Gilman’s narrator, Jane, in “The Yellow Wallpaper” cannot resolve her conflict over roles imposed upon her by her oppressive patriarchal culture, so she foregoes the roles of wife, mother, and woman to become a madwoman.

Hysteria was as common in the Victorian era as its definition was broad, and