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Stephanie Schulz ENGL 271 Paper 2 Patriarchy in The Yellow Wallpaper: A Feminist Reading Charlotte Gilmans short story

The Yellow Wallpaper is, at first glance, incredibly supportive of feminist ideals and the undermining of patriarchy. Looking a bit deeper, however, reveals several ways in which the text submits to, and sometimes even supports patriarchy. There is a constant struggle throughout the story between acceptance and rejection of traditional gender roles. This struggle could be seen either as support for patriarchy, or a rejection of its ideals. This raises the question of whether The Yellow Wallpaper is as supportive of feminism as it first appears. Throughout the story, Gilman makes it very obvious what gender roles the characters are expected to follow. Right from the beginning, John, the narrators husband, is described as practical in the extreme (673). He is a physician with no patience with faith [and] an intense horror of superstition, which sets him up to be the perfect, logical, intelligent and strong male. John is even portrayed as a bit controlling, not wanting his wife to exercise or even write. Filling the opposite gender role, the female narrator is labeled as having a slight hysterical tendency, and, though she does not agree with the rest cure, she submits to it anyway. By the second page, she is describing the house, the garden, and her irrational emotions, such as her tendency to get unreasonably angry (674). All of this supports traditional feminine characteristics and tendencies. Johns sister, Jennie, is a dear girl, a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and

happily fills the female role of caretaker, conforming completely to her gender role (677). Thus, as the story begins, traditional patriarchal gender roles are being upheld. As the story progresses, the expected gender roles are challenged more often and more aggressively, but the characters continue to fall back on them. The narrator makes the startling revelation that she is not taking care of her own baby because she cannot be with him (675). She continues to assert that the rest cure is hindering her progress. At the same time, however, the baby is taken care of by another woman and the narrator continues to submit to her husbands diagnosis over her own, calling him so wise (679). When the narrator tries to protest her imprisonment, John pull rank as a physician and begs her to give up her false and foolish fancy for her sake and the childs sake (680). Though the narrator expresses doubts about traditional gender roles, she continues to refer back to them for much of the story. Finally, with the narrators acceptance and eventual obsession with her wallpaper, she seems to undermine patriarchy by completely disregarding traditional gender roles. She doesnt care so much about Johns opinions anymore, and makes no more references to her obligation to her child. She views John and Jennie with suspicion and pushes them away, going so far as to wish [John] would take another room (683). When the narrator goes crazy peeling the paper off the walls, she sheds her role as a patriarchal woman and John loses his role as a patriarchal male. She is in control and he is powerless. John becomes hysterical, threatening to break down the door and crying out For Gods sake! (685). He even faints from shock (a feminine action) and the narrator just creep[s] over him (685). Since the woman is happy and free within her own mind, The Yellow Wallpaper appears to reject patriarchal gender roles.

At a second glance, the portrayal of gender roles in The Yellow Wallpaper could provide support for patriarchy. Though the female narrator disagrees with the men who diagnose her and blames their rest cure for her deterioration, she constantly wishes John would act as a husband and advocate for her desires, rather than acting first and foremost as her doctor. The whole time she is considered to be at least reasonably sane, she expresses love (or at least loyalty and affection) for her husband and relies on him to rescue her. This supports patriarchal roles. Furthermore, the only time patriarchal roles are completely undermined is at the very end of the story when the narrator goes insane. This can imply that one has to be insane to consider challenging patriarchy. It could also simply mean that, in that place and time, anyone who rejects traditional gender roles would be considered insane by the rest of society. Either way, these examples of possible support for patriarchy make it difficult to decisively state that the story undermines patriarchal ideals. Overall, it is impossible to say that The Yellow Wallpaper completely supports or completely undermines patriarchy through its acceptance and rejection of traditional gender roles. There are too many examples supporting each case to reach a definite conclusion. It is, however, possible to say that the story supports feminist views. Regardless of the wavering support of gender roles, it cannot be denied that Gilman challenges patriarchal ideals. Though insane, the main female character is the most empowered character at the end of the story. She constantly expresses doubt about her husbands authority as a doctor. It can even be argued that men cause her to go insane by locking her up. Through challenging patriarchy, Gilman shows strong support for feminine ideals.

Works Cited Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010. 673-685. Print.