In this short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the dominant/submissive relationship between an oppressive husband and his submissive wife pushes her from depression into insanity. Flawed human nature seems to play a great role in her breakdown.
John, the main character’s husband, a noted physician, is unwilling to admit that there really might be something wrong with his wife. This same attitude may be seen in her brother, who is also a physician. While this attitude, and the actions taken because of it, certainly contributed to her breakdown; it seems to me that there is a rebellion spirit in her. Perhaps unconsciously she seems determined to prove them wrong. As the story begins, the woman – whose name we never learn – tells of her depression and how it is dismissed by her husband and brother. “You see, he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do? If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?” (Gilman, 176).
These two men – both doctors – seem completely unable to admit that there might be more to her condition than just stress and a slight nervous condition. Even when a summer in the country and weeks of bed rest don’t help, her husband refuses to accept that she may have a real problem. Due to their refusal to accept the idea that there may be something wrong with John’s wife, they create a situation in which she begins to feel even more isolated and oppressed because of their inability to listen to what she has to say about her mental state. Throughout the story there are examples of the dominant – submissive relationship. She is virtually imprisoned in her bedroom, supposedly to allow her to rest and recover her health. She is forbidden to do any work, “So … am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.” (Gilman, 176).
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She is not even supposed to write: “There comes John, and I must put this away – he hates to have me write a word.” (Gilman, 178).
She has no say in the location of the d?cor of the room she is virtually imprisoned in: “I don?t like our room a bit. I wanted … But John would not hear of it.” (Gilman, 177).
By placing her in an environment where she does not feel comfortable or at ease, it allows the situation to become worse, since a patient must feel at ease in their environment in order to become well again. She is also not allowed to have visitors either: “As is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work … but he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have these stimulating people about now.” (Gilman, 179).
A person like John’s wife should not have been denied touch with the outside world even though her mental capacity was not at its fullest. The reason being, that she must be socially involved in her life and environment in order to be able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. And because she was not given this chance, she became unaware of what represented reality, and what represented fantasy around her. Perhaps due to John’s dominance over his wife, it was obvious that to a large extent he was responsible for her oppression, and her continuous decline mentally. As she sates at one point, “I don?t feel as if it was worthwhile to turn my hand over for anything … ” (Gilman, 180).
It seems that her husband is obviously aware to her declining condition, since he never admits she has a real problem until the end of the story – at which time he fainted. John could have obtained council from someone less personally involved in her case, but the only help he seeks was for the house and the baby. He obtains a nanny to watch over the children while he was away at work each day: “It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby.” (Gilman, 178).
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And he had his sister Jennie take care of the house, “She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper.” (Gilman, 180).
The above two statements made by John would have had an enormous affect on his wife’s psyche, making her feel incapable to do anything in her own house, therefore making her feel oppressed and worthless.
John does talk of taking his wife to an expert: “John says if I don?t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.” (Gilman, 180).
But she took what John said as a threat since Weir Mitchell was even more domineering than John and brother. Not only does John fail to get her help, but by keeping her virtually a prisoner in a room with nauseating wallpaper and very little to occupy her mind, let alone offer any kind of mental stimulation, he almost forces her to dwell on her problem. Prison is supposed to be depressing, and she is pretty close to being a prisoner. Perhaps if she had been allowed to come and go and do as she pleased her depression night have lifted, “I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.” (Gilman, 179).
It seems that just being able to tell someone how she really felt would have eased her depression, but John would not hear of it. The lack of an outlet caused the depression to worsen: “I must say what I feel and think in some way – it is such a relief! But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief!” (Gilman, 181).
Meanwhile, her reaction is to seek to prove her husband wrong in the diagnosis of her illness. “John is a physician, and perhaps … 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?” (Gilman, 176).
It seems to me that while putting on an appearance of submission she was frequently rebelling against her husband’s orders. She writes when there is nobody around to see her, she tries to move her bed, but always keeps an eye open for someone coming. This is obvious throughout the story. It also seems to me that, probably because of his oppressive behavior, she wants to drive her husband away. “John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious – I am glad my case is not serious!” (Gilman, 178).
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It may also appears that she is also in denial and is making excuses for her husband because he has led her to believe that she is not sick. As her breakdown approaches she actually locks him out of her room: “I have locked the door and thrown the key into the front path. I don?t want to go out, and I don’t want to have anybody come in, till John comes. I want to astonish him.” (Gilman, 187).
There seems to be no reason for this behavior other than to force him to see that he was wrong, and since she knew he couldn’t tolerate hysteria, to drive him away.
Although John might have seen it as though he was helping his wife get well by restricting her from all the normal activities, one would not agree with his methods. By restricting her from things such as her writing, not allowing her to have any impute in the d?cor of her room, and not letting her have any social contact with anyone other than the household, are deemed as oppression an it is what drove her into total isolation. All of the above restrictions that came from her domineering husband are what had let her to feel oppressed, and because of this she fell deeper into depression. To attempt to help herself out of depression, she had free herself from oppression. This is where the yellow wallpaper becomes a significant part of her life. John’s reluctance to see his wife as being ill, and his ridiculous ways of preventing her from becoming stressed, led her to her insanity. As seen in the beginning of the story, John’s wife does not show any indication of mental illness, she only seems slightly stressed. However, by the end of the story it is obvious that she has totally separated from reality. In order to free herself from her husband’s oppression, she feels that she must free the woman behind the wallpaper, who she believes is also another victim of oppression (a mirror image of her).
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By freeing this woman she feels that she will also lessen her depression. Hence, it is very obvious that John’s wife is the submissive individual in the relationship, shown by her willingness to accept everything that John presents to her. This is apparent in her acceptance of his medical diagnosis, despite what her feelings are about it. It is also evident that she is submissive, due to the fear she posses’ when John mentions sending her to another medical facility, or her fear of being caught writing when he had instructed her otherwise. Consequently John possession of the dominant and oppressive traits is what pushed his wife from depression into insanity.
Bibliography Work Cited in ENG110Y Reader, pg. 176-188 Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, “The Yellow Wallpaper” from Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing, third edition, edited by Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, Pp. 160-172, copyright Bantam, 1992