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20090130 Gilman

Page history last edited by Brian Croxall 11 years, 8 months ago


       Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), was a well-known 2nd generation feminist writer of both fiction and non-fiction genres. She published "The Yellow Wallpaper" in 1892. This autobiographical short story denounces the “rest cure”, a remedy designed to combat cases of “hysteria” in women. This remedy was designed by S. Weir Mitchell in the 19th century. Hysteria, related to the Greek term for uterus, was a broad diagnosis denoting nervousness, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The "rest cure" was influenced by the Freudian idea that described women as the weaker of the two sexes. The treatment required that women abandoned all activities; they were forced to live "as domestic a life as … possible”, and eventually retreat back into the normal sphere of domesticity, as Gilman put it in “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wall-paper?”


     As a polemical writer, Gilman wrote this story in order to highlight the danger of the treatment that was prescribed to women. Indeed, she had herself experienced a disorder that we now know as post-partum depression. Her doctor prescribed the rest cure for her symptoms, with the support of both her mother and husband. Like the woman of this story, her forced inactivity actually increased her mental instability and it is only when she started to write again that she began to recover. 


     Incredibly realistic, the description of the woman's madness reflects the 19th century new interest in psychology and mental disorders.  It is the image of women as domestic creatures, subservient to men and unable to escape their social duties that Gilman criticizes here. Like in the Goophered Grapevine, Gilman uses the traditional representation of women as sick, weak, emotional and dependent beings. The setting of the story contributes to creating a sense of imprisonment which reflects the limitations women faced in their society. 

     As a feminist writer, Charlotte Gilman was interested in balancing gender roles and creating spaces where women could be their true selves.


Word Count: 320






"But if John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself -- before him, at least, and that makes me very tired" (Gilman 809).

  • This passage, located in the beginning of the story, demonstrates the type of relationship that takes place between John and the narrator. In our discussion we talked about the subservient role the woman plays in relation to her husband; this not only reflects the time period of the 19th century, but also the physical and emotional burdens John places on his wife during a sensitive period in her life. Within this quote, she expresses that although she is trying to please her husband, the effort of doing so is wearing her down and will progress into a more serious matter as the story continues. Even though it seems John is trying to help her get better, his actions and requests cause the narrator to self-destruct. 


"The paint and paper looks as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off-- the paper -- in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life" (Gilman 809).

  • The woman's ability to express her observations of the nursery in detail demonstrates intellectual traits. Throughout the story, the women (narrator and Jennie) are portrayed with domestic responsibilites. John and her brother however are both physicians and therefore have the last word in situations, which is always correct. The fact that the nursery was for a boys' school also illustrates that only males recieved education whereas females didn't necissarily have a use for it.  


"There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day" (Gilman 813).

  • This quote shows the narrators slow but steady descent into madness. As she become more fixated on the paper she says that the shapes behind the pattern become clearer. This increasing clarity parallels her increasing association with the "creeping woman" behind the "bars" of the outside pattern. This quote is the turning point in the narrator's sanity.


Key Terms:

New Criticism: an approach of interpreting literature which disregards the author's biography and the historical context of which the work was written. Instead one must only focus on the text itself.


Polemical Writer: a person who writes for a purpose and to express an idea. He/she writes to create change.


Temporal Distortions: a technique used in modern fiction usually to convey irony. Temporal distortions are opposed to time-linearity and invariance. In Gilman's story, we can see that the narrator becomes unreliable because she loses the notion of time and space.


The Cult of True Womanhood: this movement appeared in the 1800s and aimed at defining women’s proper role in society. This cult came from the idea that women did not do "work", their roles in the home were simply an extension of their character. It asserted that womanly virtue resided in purity, domesticity, modesty, chastity, lack of sexual desire, religious piety and submissiveness to one's husband. (characteristics in bold are considered the Four Cardinal Rules)


Unreliable Narrator:  when the actuality of the story is compromised by point of view. The truth or entirety of story may not be conveyed because of the mental or physical state of the narrator. This is especially important when the story is written in first person singular and the reader does not know the motives of others in the story.



Comments (5)

bbrown8@... said

at 2:20 pm on Jan 31, 2009

I've posted a brief summary from my discussion class notes. what needs to be changed?

awill27@emory.edu said

at 1:19 am on Feb 1, 2009

The handout he gave us in class has a brief outline of what we need to include. We probably need to distinguish between the key points discussed in class from extra information and adjust our summary. Also we should include passages that were discussed in class as well as key terms.

clouati@... said

at 3:10 am on Feb 11, 2009

I thought we had to put less biographical and historical elements!!!!!!

Brian Croxall said

at 11:21 pm on Apr 16, 2009

This is a good start to the notes, especially your work on the passages. You’ve taken some of the important parts of the story and provided good analysis of them. Your definitions also hit on key terms from class. One of them, however, is written in such a way as to make it unclear to me what you are saying. You should think about revising “temporal distortions.”

The biggest problem at the moment is the summary section. As it currently stands, you do a lot of plot summary. It’s more important to discuss the particular points that were brought up in class. Some of the history—especially about S. Weir Mitchell’s rest cure—is germane and, in this particular case, some of the biography is important too. But there could be a little less of both of these and certainly less plot summary.

Brian Croxall said

at 11:22 pm on Apr 16, 2009

The above comment reflects my initial comment on these notes. After they were edited/improved, I wrote the following:

I’ve just reviewed your revised wiki notes for 30 January. The definition for “temporal distortions” has been improved as has the summary.

Yet, the summary has some incorrect points, such as the rest cure being influenced by Freud. Freud didn’t start publishing what we think of his work in psychoanalysis until 1893, which is the year after Gilman published the story. (This could be related to different points being made in the different discussion sections.) Also, while you are right to notice that the woman in the text is depicted as being nervous in the same way as Annie in “The Goophered Grapevine,” there is a significant difference in that Gilman’s story is all about questioning the reality of this diagnosis. Chesnutt’s story doesn’t worry about this at all and is instead, as you mention, a traditional representation. Connecting to previous class sessions is very useful, but it’s even more useful to notice the differences between the texts.

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