November 01, 2004

Domination and Control within The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1899

“Domination and Control”

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman defines the traditional gender roles of the late 1800’s, through the perspective of male dominance in marriage, with female existence regulated to a more subservient, or submissive position. This story also presents the social relationship between male dominance through accepted “norms” and female “imprisonment”, within the household. It is this concept of a “shackled” female, being ruled by a velvet glove, cast in iron that truly earns Gilman a defining role in early feminist observation, particularly with the concurrent theme of patriarchal authority and psychological “positioning” within the relationship.

From the onset of this story, we are presented with a male status norm, concurrent with the era, although equally distressing to realize that this behavior continues in this day and age, giving this work a “timeless quality”, which is both unfortunate and insightful. The sheer levels of disrespect that John shows his wife, in particular to her supposed physical condition, frustrates me to the point where I find him absolutely appalling and undeserving of marriage, much less any relationship with women. The following line opened my eyes to the reality of her environment, within this relationship, and possibly her own belief that she is not on an equal level with her husband.

“John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.”

The fact that he is a physician, and primary source of her depression through both emotional neglect and treating her like a child astounds me, especially since he does not feel that his actions are harmful, or at the very least related to her condition. His ridiculous path to her improvement, by denying her work, writing or even the freedom to explore the world outside of this house is also confirmed by her own brother and further exposes the blatant oppression of women through the principle of a male hierarchy. Her helplessness in dealing with male dominance and unquestioned “care” becomes truly apparent when she reveals of drugging and a strict regimen of techniques to cure her “slight hysterical tendency”.

So I take phosphates or phosphites--whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well again.

The notion that she would ever even question his methods is also presented, and destroyed, symbolic of John’s mental conditioning to establish her as “inferior”, and without even an opinion regarding her own well being.

“I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus--but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.”

Do you think that John is generally concerned about his wife? Does this concern stem from the fact that he will not even permit her to chose her room, allow her to write, or even provide her with any level of emotional interaction, besides ridicule or disregard of her ideas? As the story progresses, we learn that he is not even spending much time with her, and that she is entirely under his male “hypnosis”, and unwavering in her belief that he knows what’s best for her, given her “case”.

“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.
Of course it is only nervousness. It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way!”

Duty? What duties are expected of her? Oh yes, the traditional female gender roles that she relates in the following sentence.

“Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able,--to dress and entertain, and order things.”

This concept of female as mindless arm candy, doting wife and entertainer at functions furthers the concept of male/female gender roles and social norms. Through the continual assignment of such trivial activities, the role of wife is downplayed considerably, and any essence of equality or partnership within the relationship is doomed. However, as time passes, John’s wife begins to spend considerable time with the wallpaper, endlessly staring into the patterns, which I believe are reflective of her own true being and desire for freedom. The “Creeping Women”, that she experiences, endlessly struggling against the paper, metaphorically represent her passion to tear herself free of this relationship, and shed the chains that bind her to both social standards regarding a woman’s place within the home, as well as the continual disrespect and lack of equality within her marriage. As she rips the paper from the wall, she is free, becoming a “creeping woman” of her own self, liberated and no longer under control.

In conclusion, I would like to ask the following of my classmates.

1. What do you think are the prime motivations for John’s control issues over his wife?

2. Do you feel that this is merely a representation of socially accepted, behavioral norms, or perhaps that his own insecurities play a role in his treatment of his wife?

3. Do you feel that the “creeping women” within the wallpaper represent only John’s wife, or all women, in their struggle for equality?

Posted by MichaelSichok at November 1, 2004 12:39 AM

Excellent post, Mike.

You've already asked several good questions, but here are a few more...

Do you see John as a villain? Does the narrator see him that way? Why would Gillman create a story with a protagonist who is crushed like this? What is the power relationship at the end of the story?

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at November 2, 2004 04:07 PM


You did a great in depth analysis of how your feelings are towards the text. Eventhough, John was acting controlling towards his wife, it's just his way of making sure that she is fully recovered. That was how men acted in the late 1800's. Those attitudes have changed drasmatically as of now. Of course, no woman would tolerate that type of attitude now, but back then, it was common.


Posted by: NabilaUddin at November 3, 2004 05:50 PM


I agree with Nabila and Dr.Jerz, great blog entry!! You mentioned how you take meaning to pretty much everything. I so totally relate ;) After talking more about this story in class on Monday, I so badly wish to be a detective and figure out the meaning to everyone's actions. Really I do this in life, trying to place meaning with situations. Yeah so in answering your third question about the creeping women within the wall paper, I feel that you are onto something here. It would make sense that these creeping women are being represented as women of this generation, who struggle with equality. I did do a little research and found Gilmans explanation as to why she wrote this story. Gilman mentions that yes, she had "for many years suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia (depression)". I do not have a link for you, but if you want to read this, just ask me. I think Linda had mentioned this in class, about how this type of behavior is what we know of today as postpartum depression. Unfortunately, people didn't have such knowledge about treatments as we now have today. It was either just go crazy, or find outlets, such as writing or art to encourage personal growth.

Posted by: ShannaDeFrances at November 4, 2004 11:35 AM
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