Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” (originally “The Yellow Wall-Paper”) contains the theme of sex discrimination against women. This theme is embedded in the story through the narrator’s isolation in the colonial mansion and through the actions of the characters. Classified as a feminist literary work, “The Yellow Wallpaper” serves as a reflection of the sex discrimination that Gilman experienced during her time in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The captivity narrative shows sex discrimination against women in general. Considering the persistence of such discrimination in society today, this theme remains applicable in current sociocultural situations. This thematic background makes “The Yellow Wallpaper” a feminist literary piece that exemplifies the aims of gender equality and the empowerment of women. The short story is also an example of gothic literature, especially because of the narrator’s madness and the horror associated with the character of the woman who originates from the yellow wallpaper.
The theme of sex discrimination against women is also found in the works of other authors. For example, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” depicts sex discrimination against Madeline Usher, and William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” shows sex discrimination against Emily. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” contains other themes, such as the theme of madness or insanity, the theme of freedom and free will, and the theme of empowerment through writing. These themes combine to put emphasis on the plight of women in society.
Men’s Subjugation of Women (Quotes #1 and #2)
The subjugation of women in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is in how the male characters treat and interact with the narrator during her confinement in the colonial mansion. This condition strengthens the theme of sex discrimination against women in Gilman’s work. The author shows that women’s lives are under the influence and control of men and the male perspective, as in the following quotes:
- “You see he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?” (Gilman 647).
- “My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing. (…) Personally, I disagree with their ideas. (…) But what is one to do?” (648).
Quote #1 presents the theme of sex discrimination in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by establishing the husband’s dominance and indicating that the narrator cannot do much about her situation. For example, in talking about her husband’s perspective regarding her sickness, the narrator states that he does not believe her. In Quote #2, the narrator proceeds to describe how others in her immediate social environment view her condition. This quote refers to the narrator’s brother’s agreement with her husband, John. In this regard, “The Yellow Wallpaper” shows that women are subject to the perspectives and decisions of men. This significance of men in women’s living conditions highlights the theme of sex discrimination. This part of the story draws the reader’s attention to interpreting the male characters and how the male perspective keeps the narrator within the confines of the room with the yellow wallpaper. Despite the absence of outright misogyny in the short story, the male characters’ dominance and control are illustrates in the above quotes. The narrator says, “what can one do?” and “what is one to do?” These questions imply the narrator’s powerlessness compared to the male characters. Thus, the quotes imply the theme of sex discrimination.
Women as Passive and Submissive Members of Society (Quote #3)
In spite of her disagreement with John and her brother about her illness and treatment, the narrator remains passive throughout the plot of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” This passiveness helps establish the theme of sex discrimination. It is in this thematic view that Gilman points to women’s undesirable passiveness and submissiveness to men. For example, the following quote refers to her husband’s directions and her compliance:
- “Indeed he started the habit by making me lie down for an hour after each meal. It is a very bad habit I am convinced, for you see I don’t sleep. And that cultivates deceit, for I don’t tell them I’m awake – O no! The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John.” (653)
Quote #3 describes a part of the narrator rest cure treatment. Charlotte Perkins Gilman characterizes the theme of discrimination against women in “The Yellow Wallpaper” through the narrator’s response to how her husband treats her. For example, based on the quotation, even though the narrator does not sleep and thinks that her husband’s habit is bad, she complies nonetheless. In relation, even though the narrator despises the yellow wallpaper, she remains in the nursery. Thus, the quote depicts the narrator’s passiveness and submissiveness linked to the theme of sex discrimination against women. The quote’s meaning points to issues linked with passiveness and submissiveness, at least in Gilman’s social context in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Societal Reinforcement of Sex Discrimination against Women (Quote #4)
The narrator is the primary subject of the theme of sex discrimination in Gilman’s short story, but John’s sister, Jennie, also plays a role in such discrimination. Her minimal role represents how society reinforces the sex discrimination theme in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In the following quote, pertaining to stripped yellow wallpaper and the wallpaper that remains on the wall, the narrator states:
- “Jennie looked at the wall in amazement, but I told her merrily that I did it out of pure spite at the vicious thing. She laughed and said she wouldn’t mind doing it herself, but I must not get tired.” (655)
In Quote #4, the narrator describes Jennie’s reaction. In the scene, the narrator has already removed much of the yellow wallpaper, with the objective of freeing the female figure that she thinks is trapped behind the wallpaper’s front pattern. The quotation indicates that Jennie is amazed at what the narrator has done. Also, according to the narrator, Jennie laughs and implies removing the yellow wallpaper herself. Jennie’s partial support for the narrator is established in this text excerpt. However, the theme of sex discrimination against women is illustrated when Jennie thinks that the narrator “must not get tired.” This means that Jennie agrees with the narrator about the yellow wallpaper, but also agrees with John and his discriminatory rest cure prescription that goes against the narrator’s wishes. Considering Jennie’s role as part of the narrator’s social sphere, Quote #4 presents Gilman’s perspective that society reinforces sex discrimination against women.
Explanation & Importance of the Theme of Sex Discrimination in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Through the thematic view of sex discrimination, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” highlights how men, society, and women contribute to sex discrimination against women. Quotes #1 and #2 illustrate men’s role in subjugating and oppressing women. Quote #3 shows that women’s passiveness and submissiveness contributes to the problem of sex discrimination. The theme is further established through Quote #4, which describes how society reinforces sex discrimination against women.
The cited quotes bring the theme of sex discrimination against women to the foreground. This theme is important in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s message regarding the social issues facing women. Through “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the author informs readers about the feminist view that society is problematic because of how it discriminates against women. Because its plot revolves around this theme, “The Yellow Wallpaper” serves as a way to increase readers’ awareness about this social issue. Based on the quotes, the theme encourages readers to explore how sex discrimination influences societal development, and how this social issue is also in the works of other authors, especially Gilman’s contemporaries.
Works Cited and References
- Bak, John S. “Escaping the Jaundiced Eye: Foucauldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Studies in Short Fiction 31.1 (1994): 39.
- Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (Stetson, Charlotte Perkins). “The Yellow Wallpaper.” New England Magazine, Jan. 1892, pp. 647-657.
- Haney-Peritz, Janice. “Monumental feminism and literature’s ancestral house: Another look at ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12.2 (1986): 113-128.
- Jing, H. E. “Same Plight, Different Struggle: A Comparison of Female Protagonists in Hamlet and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Journal of Literature and Art Studies 6.5 (2016): 468-472.
- King, Jeannette, and Pam Morris. “On Not Reading Between the Lines: Models of Reading in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Studies in Short Fiction 26.1 (1989): 23.
- Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies 15.3 (1989): 415-441.
- Núñez-Puente, Carolina. “The Yellow Hybrids: Gender and Genre in Gilman’s Wallpaper.” DQR Studies in Literature 49.1 (2012): 139.
- Schöpp-Schilling, Beate. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Rediscovered ‘Realistic’ Story.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 (1975): 284-286.
- Shumaker, Conrad. “Too terribly good to be printed: Charlotte Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” American Literature 57.4 (1985): 588-599.