Cultural Analysis Of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Work Term Paper
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Charlotte Perkins Gilman is known as one of the foremost literary feminists who sought to manifest the cultural stereotypes attached to women in the late 19th century. As stated in the website of Facts on File, she was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1860. She belonged to the famous Beecher family – which included Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mary Fitch Westcott. Her own father abandoned her and her mother, and this caused the mother and daughter team to move so many times in almost as many years, oftentimes surrounded by poverty and difficulty. She was however successful in finishing a two-year course at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1880. Thereafter she was able to support herself through writing and freelance art. She also suffered from post-natal depression after the birth of her daughter in 1885, and this is reflected in her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Gilman moved to California, began to write more seriously, and divorced her first husband in 1894. Several years later, she married her own cousin, George Gilman, and stayed with him until his death in 1934. She developed cancer in 1932, and perhaps at a loss after George’s death, together with her own illness, she took her own life in 1935. This short paper will perform a cultural analysis of her work, while examining feminism of this era and discussing how her work reflected how women were cast in certain stereotypes in the late 19th century.
Women as Subjugated through Motherhood
In the late 19th century, women were rarely thought to be able to go to work and earn a living for their families. Women were relegated to the role of homemaker, taking on household chores while raising the children. It was the men who were in charge of earning a living for the family. Women were thus viewed as weaklings, to be subjugated and subject to the will of their husbands. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” Gilman tells the story of a young mother who is apparently suffering from post-partum depression, yet is simply brought to a country home to convalesce and rest. That the woman is weak is depicted in the story as one who does not deserve to be heard. The main character in the short story has so much going on in her head – and mostly, that she disagrees with her own husband’s (who is a physician) diagnosis of what she is feeling at the moment. She is a budding writer herself, yet her husband prohibits her from writing, saying that total rest is the ultimate cure for what she is feeling at the moment. In the website of Facts on File by Esposito, it is also emphasized that the husband is supposedly “in control” of the situation, and that it is him who knows best for his ailing wife. In effect, the husband subjugates his wife and takes her freedom such that she cannot be allowed to be what she wants to be. She also descends into madness, as she begins to see women behind the wallpaper who are desperately trying to be free.
In another article in the same website by Esposito, it is also mentioned that Gilman had her own bout with post-partum depression, and perhaps this is why she was able to convey the experience to her readers so intimately. In the story, she hates the fact that she was brought to the “home” supposedly for some rest. She feels that she is normal, and that she can overcome her malaise by doing more productive things and endeavors such as writing. While at the home, she is to comply with all the instructions of her husband, and cannot do as she pleases. This is subjugation at its best, never mind if the husband sounds pleasant and if the surroundings of the country home seem to be so quaint. Soon, the room she is staying in turns into some sort of dungeon or wooded area with all the women trying to get out of the confining yellow wallpaper.
The Lack of Proper Mental Care for Women
In the late19th century, post-partum depression was simply thought to be something that was ordinary or temporary, and that was simply brought about by a woman’s being so “weak” after childbirth, and hence, all that the “weak” woman needed was to take a few days or weeks’ worth of rest, and everything would return to normal. A prominent neurologist of the time, Dr. Mitchell, simply advised her to forego writing and remain at home and become a homemaker. In the website of Facts on File by Bruccoli and Baugman, it is also mentioned that in writing about women with mental neuroses, there is bias against this “gendered” illness such that nothing is done more for them, except that they are required to rest. Female mental patients are treated differently, and are not allowed the liberty of more comprehensive treatment. In the 19th century, This is what Gilman sought to express in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Again, in another article by Snodgrass on Facts on File, it is stated that Gilman seems to mock the “rest cure” oftentimes prescribed for women with “hysteria”. She implies that to do absolutely nothing is to sink deeper into mental illness and despair, and this is not seen by physicians because of the gender stereotype associated with women with “hysteria”. Gilman also avers that one’s own cure comes naturally when women take control of their own treatments, and have a clear say in how they would want their treatment to be administered to them.
In this case, the assignment of “illness” is depicted as a tool for men to control and subjugate women. To designate a woman as having “hysteria” is tantamount to controlling and manipulating them such that the women are able to do only what pleases the men. The lady in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is deemed as ill because she behaves differently from the stereotyped expectations of the time – that women should be subservient and submissive to their husbands. She is then locked up to receive the so-called “treatment”, but this only leads her to be even more depressed and lonely.
As pleasant and simple as “The Yellow Wallpaper” may have sounded, this essay has driven women and feminists alike to question the cultural stereotypes imposed on women back in the 19th century. Women who had the strength to question inequities between the genders or simply why they were being asked to take on roles that they did not wish to assume were considered as “ill”, and hence needed to be treated. The concept of women as weaklings did not only exist in the previous two centuries; they still exist to this very day. In many parts of the world, women are still expected to be submissive to their husbands; they cannot assume or take on their dreams while still playing the roles of wife and mother in their families. As with “The Yellow Wallpaper”, women cannot realize self-actualization as they have been doomed to a life of taking care of the children and of obeying their husbands no matter how ridiculous their husbands’ orders may be. Gilman shows how conflicting this subjugation can be; as the woman in the story is still forced to stay in the home and prohibited from writing what she wishes to write, she then slowly descends into madness. In another story on Facts on File by Werlock, one can understand from the story that women of the 19th century (and in many cases today) can be seen as an oppressed group that does not have any rights of its own. Women could certainly never engage in creative work; all they were good for was bearing and raising children and taking care of the household chores.
This text reaches out to a wide group of people even to this day. Not only are the people of today educated on what happened in the past, but perhaps those who still find themselves similarly-situated today will have the courage to find against agencies and institutions perpetuating these stereotypes. Education is also a purpose of Gilman in writing about “The Yellow Wallpaper”; such that women will understand that there is more to what they can do rather than merely acquiescing to their husbands and being subservient to them. Gilman urges women not to limit themselves to these stereotypes and roles, but to examine the possibilities of engaging in activities that relate to the creative as well.
Womanhood and motherhood should not be limited to these stereotypes. A woman’s position in society is all the more glorified if and when she multi-tasks and engages in a profession wherein she can contribute best to society. She can be a writer, a teacher, a pilot, a bus driver, a politician, a scientist, or just about any person that she wants to be. Gilman asks the readers to destroy their own cultural assignments of women, understand the new roles and possibilities for them, and revel in the empowerment that comes along with the destruction of these stereotypes and the assignment or assumption of new roles. Even if Gilman wrote her pieces in the 19th century, a century and a half later, these issues are still meaty and significant socially and politically.
Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Judith S. Baugman. "Unamed Narrator." Student's Encyclopedia of American Literary Characters. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009. Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin=SEOALC283&SingleRecord=True>.
Esposito, Carmine. "The Yellow Wallpaper." McClinton-Temple, Jennifer ed. Encyclopedia of Themes in Literature. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2011. Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin=ETL0470&SingleRecord=True>.
Esposito, Carmine. "Illness in The Yellow Wallpaper." McClinton-Temple, Jennifer ed. Encyclopedia of Themes in Literature. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2011. Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin=ETL0473&SingleRecord=True>.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. "Gilman, Charlotte Perkins." Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005. Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin=EGL153&SingleRecord=True>.
Werlock, Abby H. P., ed. "Gilman, Charlotte Perkins." The Facts On File Companion to the American Novel. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006. Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin=CANov0360&SingleRecord=True>.
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