Subordination of Married Women in Charlotte Perkins’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

The Yellow Wallpaper is a first-person narration in the form of journal entries of an unnamed woman who has a mental illness. The story starts with the narrator being locked inside a summerhouse that her husband has rented so as to isolate the narrator while managing her mental health. While the condition could be diagnosed now and treated appropriately, in the 19th century, the women have been addressed with conceit in their quest for health services and given a bed rest as the ideal “medicine” for the condition. Throughout her treatment and isolation, the story shows the ills of gender division and women subordination that prevented married women from voicing and having their opinions considered.

John, the husband of the narrator, assumes that his job to protect his wife. As a highly regarded physician, he uses his experience and judgment to apply the best medication to his wife. Ironically, he follows the social norm at the time which suggested that women with such mental conditions as his wife required isolated “rest.” Even though he cares for his wife, the element of male superiority is demonstrated by how he refers to his wife. As John gives her a hug, he says, “Bless her little heart” (Perkins 652). He goes on to say, “She shall be as sick as she pleases! But now let’s improve the shining hours by going to sleep, and talk about in the morning!” (Perkins 652). To John, he is doing the best for his wife. Furthermore, according to the narrator, both John and his brother do not take her sickness seriously. The dominant male mentality is shown when she says, “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?” (Perkins 647).

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Even though the narrator is convinced that the “rest” regimen is not helping her case, she finds it hard to convince her husband. She suggests that any work of excitement or a daily routine would be good for her instead of the lying in bed the whole day. In her opinion, interacting with people will make her feel better. She says, “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had let opposition and more society and stimulus” (Perkins 648). However, her husband shows little attempt to grant her those wishes, and it makes the narrator says “it always makes her [me] feel bad” (Perkins 648). John’s disregard to his wife’s plea shows the injustice that accompanied subordination of women in marriages.

The narrator’s confinement makes her angry. She hates the room that her husband forces her to stay in. In particular, looking at the yellow wallpaper, she explains that it “as if a boy’s school had used it” (Perkins 648). She explains to the husband that she does not like the room and asks if he could remove and replace the wallpaper. Sadly, the John refuses to change the wallpaper, stating that if he agrees to change the wallpaper, the narrator would ask for more and more changes. He says that “nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies” (Perkins 649). This assertion only shows the total domination of the men in marriages.

Although the narrator knows what she wants and what she needs to feel better, she relies on her husband’s rules. She does not question him and whatever he says goes. During her narrations, she states that “I sometimes think if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me” (Perkins 649). She is clearly having ideas and notions of her own, but instead of voicing out her opinions, she abides by whatever her husband says. Unfortunately, John does not regard his wife highly. As the story progresses, he takes away her only activity, writing, claiming that it will only confuse and corrupt her mind. Instead of seeing his wife as a creative and independent person, John makes the decisions for her.

The narrator subordination makes her feel guilty most of the times. Her lack of power combined with insecurities are evident in the story. Even as she secretly writes, the narrator feels guilty that she is not following her husband’s instruction. Instead of being an equal adult in the relationship, subordination makes her feel like a small child who is guided on everything. Her purpose is to make her husband feel and look good. She says that “I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already” (Perkins 649). It is a clear picture of women of the century who had to abide by the men’s rule and make sure that the husbands were happy in spite of their own health or social condition.

Throughout the story, John controls the narrators every move, and due to subornation, she follows through on every rule. While following the rules set by the husband, a clear case of manipulation is evident. Statements such as, “What is it, little girl?” (Perkins 652) show his view of her submissive wife. In another scene, the narrator complains that though her body is feeling better, her mental state is deteriorating. Her husband accusingly looks at her and says, “My darling… I beg of you, for my sake and our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! …It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?” (Perkins 652) This is a clear case of manipulation. Furthermore, the narrator says that John “hardly lets [her] stir without special direction” (Perkins 648).

At the end of the story, the theme of inequality that subordinate women go through is still evident. When the narrator’s mental states seem to wonder off completely due to the isolation and manipulations, the husband realizes that the “rest” medication is not helping her at all. As she creeps around the walls and her mental condition seemingly worse, John faints in front of her. Instead of worrying about her husband, she says, “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” (Perkins 656). It is symbolic of the life that she has had to go through being submissive to her husband and in return being stepped on and monitored.

In conclusion, even though the narrator was not in the correct mental state, the theme women being subordinates in the relationships in the 19th century is evident. The husbands had all the say, and the women concentrated on following the husbands’ rules and abiding by them just as the children did. As evident in the narration, wives had not said in marriage and their opinions, good as they may be, were hardly considered in any situation. This view destroyed the women’s self-belief, self-esteem and reduced them to inferior beings in marriages. As the story shows, women have opinions about their lives, and negative consequences come about if ignored.

 

Work Cited

Perkins, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” New England Magazine, vol. 5, 1892, pp. 647-656.