The Yellow Wallpaper | Study Guide

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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The Yellow Wallpaper | Context


"The Yellow Wallpaper" presents a fictional account of one woman's struggle against her own mind as well as her external circumstances. Its concerns are grounded in experiences that were a reality for women at the time.

Gender Roles in the 19th Century: The True Woman

Gender roles were well defined in 19th-century society. Men were expected to take care of the public aspects of life—making money, pursuing politics, fighting in wars—while women were expected to function in private, domestic life. This gentler, more virtuous "women's sphere" was thought to provide a needed counterbalance to the competitive, driven, dog-eat-dog world that men operated in. Within this concept of the true woman, however, were assumptions that were erroneous and severely limiting. For example, a woman was viewed as virtuous but also vulnerable and in need of protection. Of course few women ever achieved the idea of the "true woman." Yet as an idea, it persisted. Perkins takes on this idea in "The Yellow Wallpaper" in full force by showing the negative psychological effects on women from idleness and dwelling solely in the "women's sphere."

Postpartum Depression and the Rest Cure

Postpartum depression, now recognized as a fairly common form of depression among new mothers, was unlabeled as a valid medical concern and misunderstood at the time Gilman wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper." Symptoms may develop within a few weeks of giving birth but can develop after several months. Depression and mood swings, crying, loss of appetite, tiredness and fatigue, anxiety, and failure to bond with the child are all symptoms of this physical and emotional condition. Today, doctors prescribe psychotherapy, antidepressants, and exercise to treat the condition, and they recommend avoiding isolation, which can worsen symptoms. In Gilman's time, however, women who had a "nervous condition" after giving birth were often put on the "rest cure" regimen promoted by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. This rest cure included rest, isolation, and a diet high in milk and meat. It also included an avoidance of using the brain for even small pursuits, such as writing, talking, reading, and sewing.

The New Woman

Pushing back against the ideal of the "true woman," women in the late 19th century developed the concept of the "new woman." These early feminists idealized a woman who was independent, on equal terms with men, and educated. They fought for women's rights, often avoided marriage and the restrictions of being a wife, and embraced, to some degree, sexuality. Support for the new woman was not divided by gender. Some women vehemently opposed this new woman, and some men approved of her. "The Yellow Wallpaper" explores the various attitudes of both sexes prevalent during the time of this important transition in the feminist movement.

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