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Updated Oct 28, 2014

Feminist Empowerment in “The Yellow Wallpaper”

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman depicts the changes that happen to the narrator. The narrator spends her time in confinement in a summer mansion. The narrator’s husband, John, puts her in confinement because he thinks it can help her get well from depression after childbirth. However, the narrator’s condition gets worse over time. She eventually becomes psychotic, based on her journal entries. Despite the decline of her condition, the story symbolizes the gradual empowerment of women. The changes in the narrator’s condition illustrate the rise of feminist empowerment.

Lack of Feminist Empowerment in the Beginning

In the initial parts of the short story, the male characters have strong influence and power over the lives of women. John’s decision to confine the narrator agrees with what other men think. For example, in Section 1, the narrator says, “my brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing” (1.11). Thus, it is shown that men think alike. They isolate and impose limits on women like the narrator. At this point, feminist empowerment is very low or absent. The narrator does not show any female empowerment in her. This is similar to the lack of women’s empowerment in society during Gilman’s time.

Women's Empowerment and Feminist Empowerment in the Yellow Wallpaper

Obsessed with the patterns of the yellow wallpaper, the narrator overpowers her husband, John, as she frees herself from oppression.

Prejudice and Stereotyping of Women as Subjects to Men

Even the narrator thinks that the typical woman is subject to the whims of men. For example, she says, “[Jennie] is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession” (2.77). This statement indicates that women during the time of Gilman think that they should be housekeepers. Housekeeping is seen as the best that women could do. This stereotyping makes opposes feminist empowerment. Women’s empowerment promotes women to better occupations.

The Narrator Recognizes Feminist Empowerment

The narrator becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in her room. In this obsession, she starts having visions of at least one woman trapped behind the wallpaper. The narrator explains, “sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one” (9.4). This helps explain that at least one woman already recognizes the need for feminist empowerment. This need is just like the need of the trapped woman to be free from the wallpaper. The narrator also says that the trapped woman “crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over” (9.5). Here, the narrator shows that the awareness about feminist empowerment shakes society. The narrator then adds that the trapped woman tries “to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern” (9.6). Thus, there is already awakening about women’s empowerment, but it is difficult to get through. It is difficult to achieve female empowerment in this condition where society limits women. Women want to be free from the oppressions of society, just as the woman in the wallpaper wants to climb through the wallpaper’s pattern.

Feminist Empowerment Begins as the Story Ends

By the end of the story, Gilman shows that women are already starting to break free. For instance, the narrator tears the wallpaper from the walls. The tearing of the wallpaper destroys the pattern that prevents the trapped woman from climbing through. The tearing symbolizes the start of breaking of societal limits that oppress women. Thus, Gilman shows that women’s empowerment is already beginning. In addition, John faints after seeing the madness of the narrator, while she repeatedly crawls around the room. The narrator keeps crawling even over John’s unconscious body. This crawling on him symbolizes the success of women starting to take control of their lives to achieve female empowerment. The crawling is a symbol of the first steps toward feminist empowerment.

Conclusion

Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” provides a feminist empowerment take on the conditions of women under the oppressions of society during the author’s time in the late 1800s. The story initially illustrates the difficulties and limits imposed on women because of the patriarchal structures of society. However, the story proceeds to show that women have already awoken and are already starting to break free. In the end, the story’s narrator effectively makes her husband faint and she crawls over him. This event symbolizes the successful beginning of women’s empowerment.

Reference

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The New England Magazine, 1899.

First published Sep 12, 2013. Updated Oct 28, 2014.