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Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935)

and The Yellow Wallpaper

I. Her life
born in Hartford, Conn.,1860
her father deserting the family, which thereafter lived in frequent movement and in
near poverty
studying two years at Rhode Island School of Design,1878-80
marrying Charles Stetson, 1884
bearing her first daughter and suffering from postpartum depression, 1885
beginning treatment with Dr. Weir Mitchell, 1886
separating from Stetson and coming to California, 1888
getting divorced with Stetson, 1894
marrying George Houghton Gilman and beginning to live in NY, 1900
moving from NY to Norwich, Conn., 1922
diagnosed with breast cancer, 1932
moving to California and living with her daughter after Georges death, 1934
taking her own life, 1935

II. Her major works:

The Yellow Wallpaper,
Women and Economics,
Concerning the Children,
The Home, 1904
Human Work, 1904
Man-made World, 1911
Herland, 1915
His Religion and Hers, 1923

III. The Yellow Wallpaper (1892)

*The inspiration:
Charlottes postpartum depression
the rest cure prescribed by Dr. Mitchell

from confinement to near insanity

The Yellow Wallpaper is a rich and intensive feminist analysis of the
norms of a patriarchal culture.
The story is a superb dramatization and relentless indictment of the
oppressions imposed on women by a patriarchal culture.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a presentation of how a woman undergoes
mental deterioration and finally loses her reason in the course of a rest
cure, prescribed for her depression.
Feminists now see the story as an unapologetic protest against societys
subjugation of women and praise its thematic depth.

IV. Whos behind the Bars?

A Deconstructive Reading of The Yellow Wallpaper

1. Sanity and Insanity
2. Freedom and Bondage
3. Male and Female

One of Jacques Derridas major strategies in invalidating logocentrism
is to subvert the numerous binary oppositionslike truth/error, speech/
writing, and male/femalewhich are essential structural elements in
logocentric language. Such oppositions constitute a tacit hierarchy, in
which the first term functions as privileged and superior and the second
term as derivative and inferior. By subverting this hierarchy, Derrida
refutes what he calls an ultimate referenta self-certifying and selfsufficient ground, available to us totally outside the play of language itself,
that is directly present to our awareness and centers the structure of the
linguistic system, and as a result suffices to guarantee the coherence and
determinate meanings of any spoken and written utterance within that

Thesis statement:
The Yellow Wallpaper, by a play of internal counter-forces,
disseminates into a range of self-conflicting significations and
its meaning is not so determinate as to justify an unequivocal
feminist reading.

1. Sanity and Insanity

1) The narrator may be insane in the first place:
A. She is not able to know her sickness;
B. She feels the old mansion haunted and hateful;
C. She begins to see illusions from the very start.
2) The narrator may remain sane throughout:
A. She keeps her diaries in neat order;
B. Her acts on the last day are well planned and strategic
Conclusion for Part 1: the distinction between the narrators sanity and
insanity is not so clear as most readings have tried to reveal.

2. Freedom and Bondage

1) The story dramatizes the theme of women being suppressed and struggling
for freedom:
A. The narrator sees underneath the wallpaper a woman behind bars;
B. She sets the woman free by stripping off the wallpaper.
2) The story is not a celebration of womens liberation:
A. The narrator enjoys considerable freedom at first;
B. She is not really free ultimately.
Conclusion for Part 2: Freedom and bondage are relative and intertwined in
the story, there being no marked boundaries between them.

3. Male and Female

1) Gender differences give rise to the tension between the couple:
A. John is a physician, works in town, and occasionally assumes
supremacy over his wife;
B. The narrator has to stay at home and accept the rest cure.
2) Gender roles are not fixedly delineated and allow of change:
A. Jennie performs Johns function in his absence;
B. John behaves as a woman by fainting and collapsing onto the floor.
Conclusion for Part 3: The frontier between genders is not easy to pin down
and it may be transgressed.

The warring forces of signification within The Yellow Wallpaper
make almost impossible a convenient and correct reading of it; rather, it is
capable of various interpretations. The texts treatment of the three pairs of
binary oppositions may suggest, among others, that the very demarcation
between sanity and insanity is arbitrary and all humans are sane and
insane at once, that freedom and bondage are inseparable and absolute
freedom is unavailable to mankind, and that gender tensions are not so
difficult to ease and erase as those between people at large. Viewed in this
respect, the story is more of a presentation of humanitys dilemma than a
feminist one and the woman the narrator sees behind the bars may as well
be any other human being.