25 February 2019
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman shows the harsh realities of what life was like for some women. Although women were beginning to experience some freedom, their husbands still had a say in what they did, which means they wouldn’t take into consideration what their wives wanted or needed. It is learned that the narrator is suffering from mental illness who feels that she would be better off experiencing freedom and going out to help with her illness. Unfortunately, her husband John, who also happens to be her doctor, feels that it is best to isolate her in her room with very little outside contact. Although she tries to voice her feelings and opinions, she is quickly shut down by John. By the end of the story, the wallpaper has driven her insane, making her feel as though the wallpaper has actually trapped women which symbolizes how she feels about her marriage. Society has come a long way since this story was written, but the conflict presented in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is still one that is relevant today. Society has managed to find a way to continue oppressing women in a way that is detrimental to women’s health and their children.
The difference between both conflicts presented is the difference in social class and racial group. Charlotte Perkins Gilman writes from the perspective of a white woman who belongs a rich, upper middle class. Gilman’s purpose for writing this story was to share her experiences in hopes of changing the future for all women. This goal of hers was accomplished, but to a certain extent. Although society has progressed a lot since the late 1890’s, we can still see this conflict today in lower-income families and communities. There are groups of women who are still struggling with their mental and physical health due to not being listened to by their health care professionals. Great strides have been made in the last hundred years, but there are still various consequences that have resulted from the original conflict presented in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. The lives of women of color are still at risk today, regardless of their economic status. The connection between both conflicts is the internalized racism and misogyny that is still alive and present in society today.
Some of the ways in which Gilman’s story is interesting is because of the way the narrator does not have a name and also because it only focuses on what life was like for women who belonged to an upper class. The narrator having no name really stands out and it seems that Gilman chose to do this to represent the rest of women in society at the time, not just one specific group of women. The narrator doesn’t want to acclimate to a life where she won’t get the help she needs or won’t be able to engage in the activities she enjoys doing. She notices how the women in her life are unlike her, in which they are willing to do whatever their husbands and society tell them to. She is cautious around Jennie, her sister-in-law, because she believes Jennie “thinks it is the writing” that made the narrator sick (Gilman 423). The narrator had to hide who she was and what she did because she feared that her own family would send her away to Weir Mitchell to receive a different kind of treatment. This conflict is not unusual today and still exists for women of color and lower income families. Although today the situation is different, society has managed to find a way to continue to oppress women in certain communities. One consequence of this is that “African American women are three to four times more likely to die from childbirth than non-Hispanic white women, and socioeconomic status, education, and other factors do not protect against this disparity” (Novoa and Taylor). There are several different factors that come into play, but one of the main ones is mental health. “Maternal mental health issues among African American women are largely underreported” (Novoa and Taylor). For a number of different reasons, most women aren’t able to ask for help just like the narrator in Gilman’s story and the results have shown that it has taken a toll on these women and their families.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the narrator conceals her pain and suffering because of the way society views women as being incapable of expressing their needs. At the beginning of the story, the narrator reveals how “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage” which shows the way in which this kind of toxic behavior is normalized (Gilman 419). Because of these expectations, it shows why she would avoid bringing up anything regarding her mental health. At one point in the story when discussing the narrator’s recovery, she tries to divert the subject to talk about her mental health but as soon as she began, she “stopped short, for he sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word” (Gilman 425). This kind of conflict can still be seen today in a hospital where some women continue to receive horrible care. In both of these situations, the husband and doctors would be expected to do everything in their power to help these women, but unfortunately it does not work out too well for either group. A recent incident from 2016 shows how an African-American woman Simone Landrum experienced a difficult pregnancy but “she recalls, her doctor told her to lie down — and calm down” making her feel as if “he threw me away” (Villarosa). Unfortunately, a few days after being sent home, she was back in the hospital with the exact same pain but this time it resulted in her losing the child and the nurses mentioned that she was sick and “very lucky to be alive” (Villarosa). Both the narrator and Landrum were trying to receive the help they needed from the doctors but instead they were ignored which resulted in the narrator going insane and Landrum losing her baby.
Gilman was criticizing the way men would belittle not just women’s health, but also any other small detail about their lives. Women weren’t regarded as equals because men were always the ones who held power in society. Much has changed as shown in current events, but not enough are focusing on all women and the different struggles they experience. One of the struggles that is common now are black women during their pregnancies. The conflict in the story was originally targeted towards all women but now it is much more common in lower social and economic classes and colored women. According to collected data, Kacey Eichelberger states that “black women face across their reproductive lives and conclude that these outcomes are not only statistically significant, but morally significant and fundamentally unjust” (Eichelberger 1771). These women experience twice as many risks than a white or Hispanic woman would. There are several factors as to why these risks are occurring much more often for black women, such as little access to healthcare. It seems that Gilman would have wanted to achieve gender equity with her story, but it is also important to prioritize racial equity in a situation like this.
With the ending of the story and how the narrator ended up going insane, Gilman was trying to show the harm that would occur when medical professionals refuse to acknowledge women and their cries for help and why it is important to care for mothers and pregnant women. She knew she had the responsibility to do what’s right and express how unjust society was back then. Despite having to suffer through her mental illness, Gilman never gave up on trying to make a change whether it was for just one woman or all of them. Although we have come a long way from where we once were, we still have a long way to go before we can say that all women are regarded equally.
Eichelberger, Kacey Y., et al. “Black Lives Matter: Claiming a Space for Evidence- Based Outrage in Obstetrics and Gynecology.” American Journal Of Public Health, vol. 106, no. 10, Oct. 2016, pp. 1771–1772. EBSCOhost,
Novoa, Cristina, and Jamila Taylor. “Exploring African Americans’ High Maternal and Infant Death Rates.” Center for American Progress
Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Literature: The Human Experience. Edited by Richard Abcarian, Marvin Klotz, Samuel Cohen, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000 pp. 419-431.
Tunçalp, Özge, et al. “Listening to Women’s Voices: The Quality of Care of Women Experiencing Severe Maternal Morbidity, in Accra, Ghana.” PLoS ONE, vol. 7, no. 8, Aug. 2012, pp. 1–8. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044536.