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Figurative Language in The Yellow Wallpaper

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With its publication, “The Yellow Wallpaper” began a long literary discussion on the many facets of women’s oppression and its importance in past and upcoming eras. Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman casts off the yoke of male dominance after discovering her worth and power. Using psychological and gender criticisms, John S. Bak’s “Escaping the Jaundiced Eye: Foucaldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper” compares the gender oppression Gilman experienced with Foucault’s Panopticon, a prison where all cells had glass walls and the inmates never knew when they were being watched. In Sarah L. Crowder’s “Feminist Gothic in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” she agrees with Bak’s contention that Panopticism is not a cure, but a road to imminent insanity. Jane F. Theaikill’s “Doctoring ‘The Yellow Wallpaper” echoes the ideas expressed by the aforementioned authors while focusing on the implications Gilman’s writing had on medicine.

The narrator, Jane, presents herself as sick and unhappy with her living conditions, “a haunted house” (Gilman 576), and is unable to change the situation because her husband, John, has complete control over her and her illness. She suffers from a nervous condition and gets prescribed a “rest cure” treatment. This treatment consists of full rest with no intellectual activity for more than two hours a day, and complete isolation and minimal social interaction. Her husband then moves her to a remote room upstairs, covered with yellow wallpaper, that contained barred windows, a bed bolted to the floor, “rings and things” in the walls, and a gate at the top of the stairs to make sure she could not leave. With nothing to do and hours passing by, Jane chooses to write secretly in a diary. She pours out her undermined thoughts and feelings regarding her husband and the horrific wallpaper she can’t escape. As the story progresses, the relationship between Jane and the wallpaper becomes more intimate when she begins to see a woman trapped behind it, essentially her doppelgänger. As her disease gets worse, so do the images and their meanings. Jane soon reaches insanity and attacks the wallpaper, ripping and screaming, becoming the person trapped behind the wallpaper, completely losing her identity. She refers to herself in the third person saying “I’ve got out at last,’ said I ‘despite you and Jane”.

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In the midst of the madness, it becomes clear that the narrator’s feelings and thoughts are repressed and ignored by her husband. The household structure and the role her mental illness plays in this story are represented by the suffocating prison-like yellow wallpaper. According to Bak, this male dominance is her Panopticon. Panopticon proved to control behavior without the need for force. Its main role played out in prisons. “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (Michael Foucault). After a period of testing with consistent monitoring and prompt punishment against perpetrators, inmates began to regulate their own behavior. They could not see the authority but were still regulated by their conscience. Like in the Yellow Wallpaper, an external reality became internalized and habitual.

She ruing the fact that to leave this omnipresent oppression, the only way to escape was to put an end to her own identity. The surveillance required by the treatment created paranoia which caused her to have a severe breakdown. Bak believes that the narrator was fighting the patriarchal system that suppressed her feelings and he stated “the narrator, despite her doctors ill-advice and her husband’s dehumanizing imprisonment, is successful in freeing herself from her male-imposed shackles, her Panopticon”. The Yellow Wallpaper portrays how far the consequences of male oppression towards women can worsen illness, causing them to be defeated by their own minds. Bak concludes his article by stating that “Though externally she is clinically insane, unable to ascertain why her husband should be floored by her aberrant behavior, internally she is, for the first time, devoid of that identity that her husband (and his patriarchal society) had inscribed upon her.”

The “rest cure” originated with Dr. Weir Mitchell, who personally prescribed this cure to Gilman herself. But Mitchell was no women’s specialist. He honed his medical skills during the Civil War, treating soldiers who became hysterical or developed symptoms like phantom limbs. As a result, Gilman was treated with what Thrailkill calls “a model of disease articulated through experience with male bodies.” Complete submission to the authority of the physician and enforced rest were seen as part of the cure. She was driven to near madness and later claimed to have written “The Yellow Wallpaper” to protest this treatment of women like herself, and specifically to address Dr. Weir Mitchell with a “propaganda piece” (Crowder P2). She wrote this story to further illuminate connections between setting and psychological control to reinforce oppressive ideology. Feminist scholars interpreted Gilman’s treatment at the hands of Mitchell as paradigmatic of the patriarchal silencing of women.

Jane Thrailkill argues that the rest cure process of infantilizing the patient was, in reality, a symptom of nervous disease, but “not… a therapeutic end; the point of the rest cure was to restore a woman to adulthood” (540). The concept of female “adulthood” was so stunted by Mitchell and Gilman’s repressive masculine culture that whether or not infantilization was Mitchell’s intention, it was the inevitable result. The reduction to mental and physical infancy through absolute inactivity and the replacement of the patient’s free will and desires with the orders of the physician had incredibly perverse negative consequences; when implemented in cases of female nervous depression, as was done by Mitchell, it deeply affected the female identity. Thrailkill argues that Gilman wrote her short story to prove not only the usefulness but also the necessity of “salutary professionalized work” after a patient had restored themselves to physical health to also restore them to mental health (Thrailkill 545).

As Jane Thrailkill contends, “…becomes a participant in the drama of the wallpaper…[which] insistently solicit[s] attention from its analyst” (548). She must figure out the flaw in the rest cure’s design represented by the pattern before she becomes a part of its perpetuation. By trying to solve it, she sustains the psychological effects of its design. Confined in a prison-like setting, the narrator feels that “there is something strange about the house,” that she cannot fully articulate— the relationship between visibility and invisibility, which renders her powerless to control her subjection. Even when John is physically absent to observe her adherence to the “rest cure,” the wallpaper’s pattern acts as a psychological extension of his surveillance. Whether structured as a prison or nursery, the observer and observed are equally enveloped in the psychological effects of the panoptic power structure. This all-seeing prison symbolism is echoed according to Bak in the narrators’ observation of “gates that lock” and the constant surveillance of John and the housekeeper. Crowder believes that without the prescribed “rest cure” the narrator’s independence would not have been achieved. She credits the husband as a necessary counterpart and his influence and control in her road to freedom

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