In my previous article, Literature during the English Class (Part I), I wrote about how we can introduce some literary fragments in our lessons and how we can stimulate students’ taste for literature. I also wrote about my first attempts to this kind of lessons and how, eventually, I managed to stir my students’ interest in some Anglo-Saxon literary works. In this article, I am going to include another literary essay that my 12th graders and I managed to commit to paper after three classes of discussions, research and drafting. It is about feminism, a movement that first appeared at the end of the 19th century and has continued ever since, changing the women’s lives for the better by fighting against gender discrimination (marital rape, domestic violence, incest, sexual harassment, cultural and political inequalities etc.) and for women’s rights (to vote, to work, to write, to be protected, to be equal to men, etc.).
The short story under discussion is The Yellow Wallpaper, written by the American novelist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It deals with women’s struggle against the patriarchal society in order to be able to write and with their fight for identity and independence which have been taken away from them by marriage and motherhood.
When the story was first published (New England Magazine,1892) it was not very well acclaimed and the critics took it as a description of female insanity: “Such a story ought not to be written… it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.” (The Transcript). In those times the woman’s condition was totally different from that of today’s. Women were victims, tools in the hands of men; they were subjected, silenced, imprisoned in their own homes, being considered servants tending to the family’s needs. They were deprived of all intellectual, sexual and emotional fulfillment and were obliged to remain virtuous and pure even after marriage, having a modest behavior. Two important elements that supported this ideology were religion and submission: religion would pacify any desire that could cause a deviation from the rules, while submission implied dependence on the patriarchal head. Men used these two means to insure women’s passivity and docility.
The plot of the story is quite simple: a woman who has given birth to a baby-girl has some complications which eventually result in a nervous breakdown. In order to cure her, the husband (John), who is a physician, takes her to a countryside mansion where she is not allowed to do anything. She is isolated in a former nursery-room where the windows are barred and the bed is nailed to the floor. Although it is a room destined to children, metaphorically, it stands for a room for a mad person. Her husband treats her both as a child and a mad woman and sometimes even laughs at her: “What is it, little girl?” he said. “Don’t go walking about like that –you’ll get cold.” He laughed a little the other day, and said I seemed to be flourishing in spite of my wallpaper.”
The place where she has been taken is a beautiful spot of nature; this would be perfect for curing her disease. Only that the house she is locked into, stands at the opposite side, it does not fit the pattern. It has not been inhabited for years and goes to ruins; it is a decrepit, secluded building surrounded by a queer, gloomy, gothic atmosphere that gives thrills. Such a surrounding is exactly what a person who suffers from the so-called hysteria should be protected from! Her husband is a physician, not a psychiatrist and he treats her illness as an organic one. Her brother, who is also a physician, has the same opinion. She is under John’s care and according to his mentality a wife must obey her husband –just another patriarchal idea! Women’s oppression is shown when she tries to tell her husband how she feels, but he quickly hushes her assuring her that his prescription of rest is all she needs.
Throughout the story the woman states her intentions, but does not act upon them because of her husband and says: “what is one to do” as if she has no power or authority to do what she believes it is best for her. She depends on him and considers him superior as she quotes him all the time, being unable to take decisions on her own (“he said…”, “he asked me…”). She also tries to talk to John about her crisis but she cannot; she is afraid of his possible reaction.
Step by step, she gets the feeling that the wallpaper belongs only to her, that everything in the room is hers. Following Virginia Woolf’s ideas expressed in her essay A Room of One’s Own, she needs a room of her own to be able to create. Unlike men, women need solitude to write.
She is not the only one attracted by the wallpaper. She caught both John and Jennie (his sister) analyzing it. Therefore, it presents interest to the outsiders, too. At a certain point the yellow wallpaper emanates a yellow smell which is perceived only by her, it is moving round and round and gets her dizzy. Her hypersensitiveness is emphasized here, especially the fact that the smell is coloured –yellow. This colour symbolizes paleness, illness, being the best way to indicate her condition. She is aware of her hypersensitiveness and puts it on the account of her nervous breakdown, unlike her husband who takes it as lack of control.
Loneliness and exclusion from society leads to insanity. The use of imagery and settings help illustrate this. Through the figures she sees in the wallpaper it can be inferred that she is really analyzing herself and her illness unconsciously.
According to Freud, writing liberates one’s mind from all tensions and what is being repressed takes the form of literature. Gilman’s woman wants to write but she’s unable (she is a female, a wife, a mother). The only way of escaping reality is by keeping a diary but she has to be sneaky about her writing, otherwise John will find out: “And I know John would think it absurd. But I must say what I feel and think in some way –it is such a relief!” This shows how just being a woman was difficult to have a career.
The figures from the wallpaper correspond to the façade of the patriarchal text. What she wants to do is to destroy this existing text and create her own. Through creation and imagination she will find her way to freedom. Thus, the wallpaper tums into a kind of palimpsest. The irony is that the pre-existing one will not vanish completely but always remain in shadow.
Because of the “prison” she is in, she starts seeing things in the yellow wallpaper. First, she sees only eyes, then everything takes shape and becomes a woman behind bars. She has the feeling of being watched all the time. The transition from a dead wallpaper to an animated one can be easily noticed. It is a sign that her disease is getting worse. The bars symbolize the division between men and women and how women are being held back. The woman behind bars represents her double. The bars that she shakes stand for her motherhood and marriage; her freedom would be her independence from John. In the end she rips off as much of the wallpaper as she can, to liberate the woman behind, but symbolically, to liberate herself.
The story is a depiction of the plight of women’s suffrage and the beginning of the rise of feminism, as well as a reflection of Gilman’s own life and experience. Her final cry “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!” stands for the discovery of feminism by society. Here, the society is represented by John and Jennie and when the wallpaper is down, the figures are out and, consequently, feminism is also out.
The verb “to creep” is mentioned at least seven times along the story. It is a key-word and its significance is relevant: “I saw her in the long shaded lane, creeping up and down. I see her in those dark grape arbors, creeping all around the garden. I see her on the long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines.” It is symbolic for the difficult and full of obstacles rise of feminism. This act of creeping is usually done during the night (representative of females’ fear to be discovered) but as the narrator pens, the woman behind the bars does it during the daylight, having no fear (she wants to break up all patriarchal patterns): “I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight.”; “I don’t blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight!”
The final sentence: “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time.” are representative for the women’s struggle for their independence and identity and that nothing will interpose in their “path”.
A significant issue of the story is that the main character is not given a name. Therefore, she is every woman, she can be taken as an archetype. Through her voice, every woman’s voice can be heard, her fight is every woman’s fight, and, finally, her victory is every woman’s victory.
All in all, it was a successful experience and my students found out new things about the concept of feminism from another point of view, unlike what they studied at history or sociology, –a literary one. They also enjoyed listening to the story and making additional research to the short video I presented to them.
1. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, The Yellow Wallpaper, Penguin Books, 2015
2. Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own, Penguin Books, 2014
3. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, Modern Library, 1995
6. Ciubotariu, Daniela (2021). Literature during the English Classes (Part I). In: EDICT- Education Review, No. 8/2021. Online: edict.ro/literature-during-the-english-classes-part-i/