Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s
“The Yellow Wallpaper”
Gilman’s Life and Ideas
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) is best known as an early American feminist activist, journalist, and writer. As a feminist, Gilman was an early campaigner for women’s rights. Remember that she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” before women had many of the rights they have today, such as the ability to inherit complete control over property or, most famously, to vote. Her advocacy for women’s rights centered on the question of economics and the role of women in the domestic household. In her book Women and Economics, Gilman wrote, “The ideal woman was not only assigned a social role that locked her into her home, but she was also expected to like it, to be cheerful and gay, smiling and good-humored.” Gilman believed that the roles women had to play in the typical household, cleaning, cooking, and caring for children were stifling and repressive. She argued that domestic work prevented women from becoming independent, developing their minds, and earning equal status as members of society.
Thus, her critique was against patriarchy, the traditional system of rule in the public and private spheres by men. Gilman believed that patriarchy taught women to be subservient to men and to see themselves as less intelligent and ration so that they would accept their lower position. Referring to patriarchy in The Home, Its Work, and Influence, she wrote, “It is not that women are really smaller-minded, weaker-minded, more timid and vacillating, but that whosoever, man or woman, lives always in a small, dark place, is always guarded, protected, directed and restrained, will become inevitably narrowed and weakened by it.” (277) Thus, her feminism was not just about liberating women, but it also extended to men who found themselves limited by the demands of patriarchy.
Gilman argued for the theory of “Reform Darwinism”, which sought to build upon and modify the ideas Darwin wrote about the evolution and survival of man to make sense in the modern era. She believed that the idea that men were naturally aggressive and that women were naturally weaker and submissive were social constructions, ideas that were learned instead of naturally innate. Gilman argued that while it may have made sense to have gender roles in prehistoric times to survive, civilization and modernity created a circumstance in which men and women could live as equals. She famously stated in Women and Economics, “There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver.”
Furthermore, Gilman understood how economics played a role in shaping modern culture and creating the new economic classes. She argued that the only way for women to gain equality was to have economic independence. Thus, she advocated education for women, vocational training, and for the ability of women to own and control property.
Now that you have an idea of Gilman’s feminist beliefs, consider how she uses “The Yellow Wallpaper” to illustrate them. How does the protagonist’s experience reflect the kinds of oppression and unhappiness that Gilman argued women were forced to endure during her time? Are some of these issues still at stake in our present day society? What issues from this story have improved for today and which ones do you believe we still need to make progress on?
Masterpiece Theater did a movie version of “The Yellow Wallpaper” if you are interested.(the movie is longer than it takes to read the story, so no, there won’t be any questions on the quiz about the movie)
Women’s Health and Psychology in the 19th Century
When “The Yellow Wallpaper” was first published, it was extremely controversial. Rarely before had a woman’s mental illness so vividly and hauntingly been presented to the general readership. The 1800s was also the time of great advances in the field of psychiatry and gynecology, which were not always accurate or actually helpful for their patients. Hysteria was a common diagnosis in the late 19th century, which has now been discredited as an actual disease. Dr. Gwen Sharp describes the history of hysteria as a psychological disorder:
“In the U.S., our gender ideology includes the belief that female bodies are weaker than male ones, more fragile. Particularly in the Victorian Era, this belief led doctors to discourage physical activity by women. Among a range of other concerns, doctors argued that physical exertion in women might cause their organs (particularly the reproductive organs) to become dislodged and wander around the body, causing all types of problems.
Medical practitioners weren’t just worried about physical exertion. They believed mental activity could be harmful to women as well; perhaps all that thinking meant the brain would take blood away from the reproductive organs and lead to infertility. A common diagnosis for women was “hysteria,” a general term that could be applied to almost any woman. A common “cure” for hysteria was bed rest, preventing both physical and mental activity. The diagnosis of hysteria served as a justification for severely limiting women’s activities, drawing on the ideology of the fragile female body. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote the classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” after her own experience of being forced to stay in bed with no mental stimulation, not even books.”
Perkins argued that stereotypes about women being fragile and mentally weaker led to this inaccurate diagnosis whose supposed cure actually made women who truly suffered from depression feel even worse. Gilman’s story is so vivid because it details her own experience of forced bed rest when she was diagnosed. Gilman actually names her real life doctor in this story, and he was so moved by how ardently she protested this treatment that he stopped prescribing forced rest to his female patients.
As you read the short story, think about how the narrator’s diagnosis of hysteria impacts her. Since we know that hysteria does not actually exist, what might have been the real problem that she was facing? How does her forced bed rest make her feel even worse than before?
Consider the content of her delusions and hallucinations. Yes, these are the visions of a woman on the brink of insanity, yet the images she sees and her behaviors give us a clue as to what drove her to this insanity. Analyze her hallucinations. Why is she obsessed with the wallpaper and what does she see in it? How might this symbolize what put her in this state of insanity to begin with?
Many modern critics have suggested that Perkins’ protagonist suffered from what we now know to be Postpartum Depression, a state of severe depression brought on after a woman has given birth. Here’s a page on how the Mayo Clinic defines Postpartum Depression. Click on this link and consider how this diagnosis might compare. Given how Perkins presents the way women were thought of in the 19th century, how might the symptoms of post-partum depression shock and disturb people of the era?
Finally, I want you to consider how this story relates to the idea of feminism. Many modern literary scholars have argued that this story was one of the earliest and most important American feminist stories. As you know, Gilman was an active feminist philosopher and worked along side the suffragettes as women like Susan B Anthony campaigned for the right to vote. Therefore, I ask, what is feminist about this story? Often, stories with a political message have a clear cut bad guy and good guy, and the good guy wins in the end in order to show that what he stands for is right. But, such a black and white statement is not present in this story. Can we consider the narrator to be a feminist? What might the feminist message of the story be?
Poem: Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll”
(Marge Piercy and a Cat on the Verge of a Freak Out)
Marge Piercy (1939-present) was associated with the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s. This is often called the “Second Wave” of Feminism. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was part of the first wave in the early 1900s. Before you read “Barbie Doll,” think about your own experience with Barbies. Every child born since the 60s grew up with them. Sisters played with them, brothers ripped off their reads or microwaved them (I’m sooooo sorry sis, I was just 8!) What about you? Did you play with Barbies? Did your sisters? If so, how did you play with them? What did they mean to you?
Think about what the Barbie doll means to our American culture. Describe what she looks like, what she is usually depicted as doing, and how girls are encouraged to play with her. How does she embody what we consider to be attractive and ideal femininity? Is this ideal achievable? What impact might this have on young girls playing with Barbie?
The Simpsons famously parodied Barbie with “Malibu Stacy”. If you’re a fan of the show, think about how Marge Piercy’s opinion of Barbie might compare with that of Lisa Simpson’s
As you read the poem, consider why Piercy chooses the title “Barbie Doll”. She never specifically mentions the doll in the poem, yet it is implied that the girl who she is describing is the Barbie Doll. Under what circumstance does she become like Barbie? Does Barbie’s model of femininity impact the way she or others view her?
Consider the other toys that Piercy mentions, the miniature stoves and ovens, tiny lipsticks, and dolls that pee-pee. What kinds of toys are these? What does this say about the way we treat little girls if these are the toys we give them? Do you think there is a problem or not?
My sister had Barbies, an Easy Bake Oven, and tiny lipsticks and she ended up as a businesswoman who makes a lot more than her professor brother. Thus, these toys do impact people differently. Did you have any of these toys? If so, do you think they influenced your childhood and how you grew up?
Consider the stanzas about the way the girl views her body and her sexuality. What is her perception of herself? How do other opinions affect her? What might Piercy be trying to say about body image and gender?
Finally, consider how Piercy’s commentary on gender compares to Gilman’s in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” You might also want to think about Ibsen as well from the previous unit. How do Ibsen and Piercy both use the metaphor of a doll to talk about gender roles and expectations? Ibsen never lived to see a Barbie, so consider how the Barbie embodies changes in our culture from when Ibsen used the metaphor of the doll in the 1890s.
“Hills Like White Elephants”
(Hills Like White Elephants illustrated by Toy Box Melody)
Ernest Hemingway’s Biography
Ernest Miller Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Cicero (now in Oak Park), Illinois. Clarence and Grace Hemingway raised their son in this conservative suburb of Chicago, but the family also spent a great deal of time in northern Michigan, where they had a cabin. It was there that the future sportsman learned to hunt, fish and appreciate the outdoors.
In high school, Hemingway worked on his school newspaper, Trapeze and Tabula, writing primarily about sports. Immediately after graduation, the budding journalist went to work for the Kansas City Star, gaining experience that would later influence his distinctively stripped-down prose style.He once said, “On the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.”
In 1918, Hemingway went overseas to serve in World War I as an ambulance driver in the Italian Army. For his service, he was awarded the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery, but soon sustained injuries that landed him in a hospital in Milan. In Paris, Hemingway soon became a key part of what Gertrude Stein would famously call “The Lost Generation.” With Stein as his mentor, Hemingway made the acquaintance of many of the great writers and artists of his generation, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. In 1923, Hemingway and Hadley had a son, John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway. By this time the writer had also begun frequenting the famous Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain.In 1925, the couple, joining a group of British and American expatriates, took a trip to the festival that would later provided the basis of Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. The novel is widely considered Hemingway’s greatest work, artfully examining the postwar disillusionment of his generation.
Soon after the publication of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway and Hadley divorced, due in part to his affair with a woman named Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become Hemingway’s second wife shortly after his divorce from Hadley was finalized. The author continued to work on his book of short stories, Men Without Women.Soon, Pauline became pregnant and the couple decided to move back to America. After the birth of their son Patrick Hemingway in 1928, they settled in Key West, Florida, but summered in Wyoming. During this time, Hemingway finished his celebrated World War I novel A Farewell to Arms, securing his lasting place in the literary canon.
When he wasn’t writing, Hemingway spent much of the 1930s chasing adventure: big-game hunting in Africa, bullfighting in Spain, deep-sea fishing in Florida. While reporting on the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Hemingway met a fellow war correspondent named Martha Gellhorn (soon to become wife number three) and gathered material for his next novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which would eventually be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Almost predictably, his marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer deteriorated and the couple divorced. Gellhorn and Hemingway married soon after and purchased a farm near Havana, Cuba, which would serve as their winter residence.When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Hemingway served as a correspondent and was present at several of the war’s key moments, including the D-Day landing. Toward the end of the war, Hemingway met another war correspondent, Mary Welsh, whom he would later marry after divorcing Martha Gellhorn.
In 1951, Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, which would become perhaps his most famous book, finally winning him the Pulitzer Prize he had long been denied.The author continued his forays into Africa and sustained several injuries during his adventures, even surviving multiple plane crashes.In 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Even at this peak of his literary career, though, the burly Hemingway’s body and mind were beginning to betray him. Recovering from various old injuries in Cuba, Hemingway suffered from depression and was treated for numerous conditions such as high blood pressure and liver disease.Early on the morning of July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway committed suicide in his Ketchum home. (Biography)
Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory
One of the key features you will notice right away is Hemingway’ short and right to the point style of writing. He purposefully used a little description as possible and stripped his sentences of large and excessive words. Hemingway referred to this as his iceberg theory:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. (Hemingway)
Just like how you only see the tip of the iceberg because the majority is submerged in the water, so too do you only see the “tip” or the main features of Hemingway’s stories. The meaning and message is there, but he does not spell it out for you. Hemingway allows us to fill in the blanks. We create what the setting looks like, how the characters feel like, and what meanings we can derive based on our own imaginations instead of Hemingway telling us what to think and how to feel.
Furthermore, consider the way her writes the dialogue. Compare this to how the dialogue is written in some of the 19th century texts we read. Notice how the language is plain, simple, and matter of fact. This sounds more like how people actually talk and express themselves. Hemingway wanted his stories to be as realistic as possible.
Communication and the Elephant in the Room
Oddly enough, by giving us just the facts of what was taking place in his prose and writing plain speech as his dialogue, this makes it almost harder to follow what’s going on. Upon first reading, you may not have realized that the couple was talking about an abortion. Afterall, the story never explicitly mentions what the operation is. Hemingway understands that this is a difficult subject, and just like anytime we have a conversation about a delicate issue, we tend to speak vaguely and in circles. We worry about saying the wrong thing. We worry about offending others. We worry that we don’t quite have the words to express what we feel. We may not even know what we feel.
Consider the symbolism of the “white elephants” in this story. It’s just a casual observation that Jig makes about the hills near the train station, yet it opens up an entire can of worms. The white elephants represents the “elephant in the room”, which is a term that describes a topic or issue that everyone in a situation is thinking about, but nobody wants to address or deal with. Thus, everyone speaks as if there is an elephant standing in the room that nobody wants to address. It is obviously there and everyone is worried about, but nobody has the courage to bring it up so they act in a false an ridiculous manner to pretend it isn’t there.
In this story, we can think of abortion as the elephant in the room. They never specific address the abortion in their dialogue, but both know what the other is talking about. Is it ever truly clear what the man or the woman truly wants? The man seems to want to travel and thus abort the fetus, but does the woman want this? What does she want? Why is she afraid to vocalize this outloud?
It may look odd, but this cartoon I found with dinosaurs re-enacting the story does a pretty amazing job of re-imagining the story as if all the subtext was spoken out loud instead of buried. This is what “Hills Like White Elephants” would be like if Hemingway did not use the Iceberg Theory but instead just showed us exactly what everyone thinks and what we should think (and if the characters were dinosaurs)