Accepting Female Nature
The history of human civilisation can teach a lot of lessons, which can be applicable in everyday life. Even ancient beliefs and orders can be useful for contemporary challenges, not to speak about times of not so long past, which teach us who we and where are we going. Often people tend to take for granted what they have and consider that life was the way it is at this specific moment of time. The best example proving that such statement is disillusion is the case of women's emancipation and position in society. Only a century ago, women were considered to be second best to men and were deprived not only from equal rights but even basic benefits of self-expression, dignity and self-esteem, or even proper psychological and medical treatments. In this regard, knowledge of history gives us an opportunity to evaluate what we have today, understand at which cost it was achieved and make sure it is not going to perish.
One of the best ways to study history is to explore literary works of a chosen time. Literary works of the studied time are able not only to describe certain events, but also to send the message from the author of the past times to the audience of the future epochs. This is particularly relevant, when a literary piece has certain autobiographic elements. In the framework of all mentioned above, the aim of the present essay is to outline the historical context of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Papers", paying attention to the role of women in the society contemporary to the author, their psychological and heath issues, and in which ways the story reflects the most characteristic gender differences reflected in the society.
Gilman lived in the end of 19th century, and the story was published in January 1892. Although Gilman lived in the new world of the United States, the social structure and gender roles division within the society was similar to the English one and had no substantial differences when family matters were at stake (Stoltfus 427). In this context, just as in England, the Victorian model of female behaviour was at favour. Characteristic feature of the family was male dominance or patriarchal structure. In other words, father was viewed as the ruler of the family and an example of moral, dignity; holder of family members' destinies and the only person to make decisions for everyone and everything (Shaver 56). Until certain extent, it may seem that women were nothing but family members and subordinates to the male will. In fact, that was the case. On the other hand, women had a crucial role of giving birth to the heirs of the male heritage and continuation of the family lines.
The role of bearing children had two crucial implications for women status in family and society. First of all, attention was paid to female physical health in a sense of preparation of child birth and subsequent preparation for a favourable marriage for girl's family (Stoltfus 432). Thus, women were viewed by society as child bearing and upbringing instruments and were treated in accordance to this perception. Women were to be ready to give birth, take care of their families, and make sure the cycle of the patriarchal structure continued (Stoltfus 429). In this context, deviations of women's behaviour included a desire of self-expression, development of skills and abilities which were individualistic and not family oriented, like writing or gaining skills for an economic independent; separation from husband not to speak about divorce or adultery. Female life was about devotion to family - husband, children and household.
In the society contemporary to Gilman, woman was supposed to be mentally and physically happy if she had a family and a household to care of. In other words, women's place was at home dealing with domestic matters, while men were supposed to deal with public affairs and establishment of family's position within the existing society (Shaver 59). If woman craved for more, more for herself, or her children or something different - her actions were viewed as deviation and abnormality, which was considered to be a sign of a certain illness or mental condition (Stoltfus 430). In this regard, the physical and mental condition of an individual was dictated and explained through social lens rather than a proper medical examination. On the other hand, medicine of that time still considered that male and female bodies were of different functional specifics and what was normal for men was abnormal for women (Shaver 60). In this regard, women were viewed as fragile creatures that were capable of giving birth to children and raising them, but had limited abilities to anything else. Thus, their health was poor and fragile for neurological illnesses like melancholy, depression or psychosis. Such socio-medical characterisation resulted in deprived position of women in society - they were to be protected from everything but their male carers (father, brothers and husbands), who were physically superior to them and more morally stable (Stoltfus 428). Under those conditions, women were in a double trap of family and society.
Women of that time could not escape that trap even if they were ill, either mentally or physically, instead they would be deprived of even that little freedom they had and would be isolated in a small space of a bedroom. Due to specific requirements of a female body, doctors of Gilman time considered that the most beneficiary treatment of women was more strict isolation of women from the outside world and prescription of "rest cure" practice (Stoltfus 429). Under those conditions, women were to stay in bed most time of the day and night, and accept a limited number of visitors. Although, for certain illnesses, peace and quiet atmosphere might be beneficiary, in cases of nervous disorders, depressions and postpartum psychosis isolation results in deepening and worsening of those states. Under various conditions, maltreatment could result in development of schizophrenia, maniacal states, madness and suicidal inclinations (Stoltfus 429).
Reading though Gilman's short story, one is not only capable of viewing her society from inside but also to experience inner struggle of the female mind in an attempt to keep sanity in complete isolation and loneliness of the tormented soul. The elements of gruesome and controlled life order are explained by the main heroine as a matter of fact; since that order was the only one she knew and was raised in. On the other hand, her inner self and mentality did not want to accept the role she was given, so her sanity started to shift and rebel against the orders imposed on her feminine nature. Paternal control over the main heroine was shown in her husband's treatment of her illness: "John though it might do me good to see a little company John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall he is just like John and my brother, only more so!"(Gilman, 650). On this example, Gilman showed that her heroine had no control over her life or even treatment of her state, men were in charge, and only they could decide whether she was fine, sane, proper woman or nothing at all. Her will and feelings meant nothing.
A particular feature of the short story is the fact that, from a contemporary perspective, irrespective of description of gender roles, her characters lack proper features of belonging to each gender. Gilman described unnatural essence of gender role distribution through deprivation of her characters of sexuality and humanity until certain extent. In this context, she shows that patriarchal society was equally limiting men and women in the expression of their sexuality (Shaver, 56). In this context, masculinity and femininity are meant as expressions of sexuality. Referring to John and men in the aforementioned passage, the heroine does not give them any characterisation; they are just the same to her with various degree of sameness. From the point of psychoanalysis, such interpretation of sexuality says about complete erasing of any distinction between family roles of individuals and lack of any attachment to them (Shaver, 52). In other words, gender roles described in that society were leading in desexualisation of individuals and further dehumanisation of people.
In this discourse dehumanisation means a lack of feelings between people, just as between the main heroine and her husband. In her diary, she paid more attention to wallpapers and fears than feelings to the men she was married with (Gilman, 652). There were no feelings between them except for the socially imposed duties: he was supposed to be in charge of the family and take care of the weak females, while she was supposed to follow his prescriptions and his perception of what was best for her. The inconsistency of gender roles with human nature was shown through main heroine's invention of another patient doing things she had done personally. The same was the case of her denial that she had locked the door and not him (Gilman, 656). Thus, her technique of coping with the gender stalemate was a rejection of sanity and acceptance of insanity as a way of breaking boundaries. On the other hand, her husband was following the chosen pattern of controlling the situation and imposing his will on subordinate and unstable female. This inconsistency between coping mechanisms shows one of the gender differences between males and females of that time. While men irrespective of eagerness or not fulfilled what was expected from them, women were likely to rebel in this or the other way. In case of the main heroine, her rebellion was self-damaging, but still against oppression of the surrounding world. Although she lost her sanity, she gained freedom from conditionality of her society.
Until a certain extent, it can be argued that the main heroine gained strength through her insanity, because sane person could be able to accept suppression and inability to express herself in the social environment. Gilman argued that, in the rational world full of male control and cold calculations, woman could survive and gain freedom only through irrationality and spontaneity, which were alien for men. Although the main heroine lost herself to insanity, in the last scene of the story, she is the one being triumphant and not her husband. By denying him power over the situation over her life, she gained power and changed the role imposed by him and his society:
"I've got out at last, in spite of you and Jane? And I've pulled off most of the paper, so
you cannot put me back!Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and
right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!"
In this episode, Gilman showed the change of gender roles imposed by her society. She showed that rebelled woman in possession of her freedom was stronger than man, because, unlike him, she was capable of sacrifice and needed more for a comfortable living - self-expression and fulfilment of feminine creativity. Her husband, on the other hand, proved to be incapable of a proper masculine behaviour of protector - he fainted like a weak woman, although his status in society and physical abilities were considered to be superior of female ones (Shaver, 50). Until certain extent, Gilman made a sarcastic caricature on her society, arguing that an insane woman in possession of the limitless self-expression and feminine creativity was stronger and more enduring than a man who is accustomed ruling in an ideal submission of his slaves and has no potential to face the rebellious reality of female nature.
Another crucial element of Gilman's story is a conclusion that in gender role structured society, human being losses humanity and becomes a prisoner of the gender roles, all strengths of whom are spent on adaptability to the environment where being alive and sensual is a crime and abnormality. According to Gilman people stop being humans because they do not pay attention to interpersonal relations and feelings, but to behavioural patterns imposed by their society. Under such circumstances, people lose themselves into surreal society, which exist only because of their fears to change it built a new, better one. The main lesson of Gilman's story and the history of female emancipation is that a person cannot change the whole world or the structure of society overnight, but she can express herself in it and change her perception of the world. Accepting one's nature in its sexual and mental complexities, an individual is capable to change one's behaviour, through a different behaviour diversity can be born and through diversity comprehension and acceptance develop. By her complex story of insanity, Gilman gives guidance and hope for the next generations to follow. Her message is to be one self irrespective of circumstances.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "The Yellow Wallpaper. A Story", The New England Magazine,
11.5 (1892). Print.
Shaver, Lisa. "Stepping outside the "Ladies' Department": Women's Expanding Rhetorical
Boundaries", College English, 71.1 (2008): 48-69. Print.
Stoltfus, Geniffer. "Gender, Gender Role, and Creativity", Social Behaviour & Personality: An International Journal, 39.3 (2011): 425-432. Print.