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Literary Criticism and Varied Perspectives

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“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) is a gripping short story written by Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman that recounts about one woman’s loss of her mind. This story is richly layered with subtext to encourage the readers to wring multiple meanings from it. There are different interpretations, which help to better understand the writer’s intentions, some of the underlying concepts and the complexities that women encountered in the nineteenth century. The essays by Melissa E. Barth and Mary Dunn discuss the story from various perspectives, however, with the focus on the main character that stands for all women and their rights a bit more than a century ago.

The issue of woman’s rights is vigorously debated nowadays. The feministic viewpoints add oil to the fire, reinforcing the equality of social and political rights with men. Women play a significant role in the present day society and their position is firmly established in all major spheres of life. However, it was not until long ago that women began to enjoy their rights as well as equal opportunities with men. The nineteenth century women were treated as inferior beings and could hardly express what they really thought or felt. Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman vividly demonstrates the deterioration of women’s rights in the nineteenth century.

Gilman’s famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” received little acclaim after its first publication. A simple story about one woman’s descent into madness was reexamined with greater attention in the twentieth century, when women openly declared their rights and noticed feministic sub-context in the narration. Indeed, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a complex story that is replete with metaphors and symbols, as Barth and Dunn accurately pinpoint. They emphasize that the true value of the story is that it provides the clear insights into woman’s life and inner world. The protagonist is a woman, whose name is not revealed until the end of the story, and, who represents all women that experienced the same problems of social and cultural domination.

Women in the 19th century were regarded to be weak, unreasonable, passive and even mad. The society limited their role to kitchen and household chores, while men were seen as sole bread-winners, strong, unemotional, aggressive, and at the same time active members of society. The strict division of roles within society and family left women with little or no choice. They could not pursue their dreams or aspirations and were trapped behind the bars of restrictions. The protagonist liked writing, but had to hide her creativity for she could be deprived of that pleasure. Writing was the only way to express herself. When ignored or depressed or simply lonely, women desperately seek to communicate their problems and fears and they often use painting or writing as the favored modes of expressing their inner thoughts and feelings. Barth underscores that “the story can be seen as advocating a woman’s right to act and speak for herself; the alternative clearly leads to madness, as it does for Jane” (1).

The main character, Jane, suffered from post natal depression, which gradually turned into madness. The best cure, as men concluded, was rest. Their erroneous conclusion vindicated the lack of knowledge about woman’s nature. The all-knowing and all-powerful males overlooked one essential and characteristic feature pertaining to all women – the need to be engaged in some activity. The protagonist had to eat, drink, sleep and take tonics in order to restore her physical and mental health, but what she really needed was communication with her family and real work. Her sister-in-law, instead of being sympathetic and supportive, turned a cold shoulder upon her, showing zero women solidarity and submitting to the convictions imposed by males. Deprived of communication and activity, the protagonist lapsed into idleness and consequently allowed her morbid imagination to take advantage of her. She was confined to a room with peeling yellow wallpaper. At first, she was irritated by the color, but, as the story unfolds, she became obsessed with it. The room and the wallpaper have symbolic meaning. The room stands for physical and mental imprisonment, impairing woman’s rights and making her dependent on her husband and society in general. The yellow wallpaper represents the unfair society and male authority, suppressing the individualistic character of a woman. “Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over” (Gilman, 1).

The heroine retreats into her obsessive fantasy as the only possible way to exert the power of her mind. The repression of this power leads to insanity. The narrator searches for intellectual and emotional outlet and cannot find solace in idleness. Gilman emphasizes that forced idleness results in self-destruction. However, her concluding paragraph is triumphant, celebrating the victory of a woman who finally broke through the restrictions and confines imposed by society. She finds delight in peeling off the paper, despite the derision of “strangled heads” that symbolize women, whose goals and dreams were quelled. The main character victoriously exclaims: “I’ve got out at last in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman, 1). Creeping over her husband, she proclaims the triumph of woman’s selfhood.

Barth’s essay consists of the description of the plot, the interpretation of the main themes, technical and stylistic features as well as various clues that are embedded into the narration. Her conclusion is predictable and it can be drawn upon the first reading of the text, as she states that “on second reading, “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes the story of a woman who, while she may have been depressed, was not insane when she began her cure” (Barth, 1). In my opinion, she does not provide an in-depth analysis of the main character and states the obvious things. However, she is good at making her points straight and addressing the key issues of the story. Barth discusses Jane’s perception of the world around her and she tries to criticize a bit the nineteenth century society, pointing to its most evident flaws concerning the treatment of women. It is hard to disagree with Barth’s conclusions, because the story allows different interpretations.

Dunn’s essay deals with various meanings that can be derived from “The Yellow Wallpaper”. She summarizes the text, inserting some comments and explanations. Although she underscores that the story is autobiographical, there is no mention in the narration that the main character’s name is Charlotte. The essay lacks a certain focus in the discussion and presenting arguments. The conclusion, however, is more original than the body of the paper. Dunn demonstrates good skills at weaving her ideas into coherent and well-developed conclusion: “Destroying the paper seems to be the only way she can destroy the hold of stifling mores that demand female subservience to men and free women from male dominance” (1).

Both essays might have at least a few citations. They are superficial and state the obvious. They provide some criticism of male dominance, sympathize with women who lived in the nineteenth century, and emphasize the importance of fighting against constraints and any forms of oppression. In my opinion, the first essay is more elaborate and thought-provoking than the second one. Moreover, besides discussing the plot and main characters, Barth’s essay highlights the writer’s style and technique that keep the reader in suspense till the very last page. Despite some drawbacks, the essays celebrate women’s rights and desire for self-expression.

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