“Society is more interested in controlling women than emancipating them” Examine to the extent you agree that this is the case in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
Both Sylvia Plath and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were female authors widely celebrated for their innovative literature. Driven by their own struggles to be recognised as accredited writers, they produced ground-breaking works The Bell Jar and The Yellow Wallpaper. These texts are considered to be hugely influential pieces of proto-feminist writing; they give eye-opening insights into what it was like to be a creative female in a largely patriarchal era. Despite being written in different periods, the protagonists in both works appear to be in astonishingly similar circumstances. Through the use of carefully crafted symbolism and metaphors, both writers produced the first person narratives in order to enlighten their readers of their own personal battles with mental illness caused by lack of emancipation. Gilman used The Yellow Wallpaper to discourage ‘rest cure’, the damaging treatment prescribed to her by her male doctor for her “unbearable inner misery”1 of which he believed to be caused by “too much mental activity” and “not enough attention to domestic affairs”. Plath used The Bell Jar as an outlet to relieve her depression, to write her autobiography, and to further reject the norms of society.2
Being published and set at the turn of the 19th century, The Yellow Wallpaper was based on a culture which still largely embraced the tradition of men and women having certain ‘roles’. During this same period however, change was imminent – with the establishment of The NAWSA in 1890, American women were beginning to get the opportunity to change society rather than simply be acquiescent with it. Arguably, this uncertain period is what led the narrator to despair. She seems to be trapped in a position where she wants to express herself, but still has to conform to the expectations of the male dominated society in which she is living. Early on in the text, she states that she desires “less opposition and more society and stimulus”. It is clear that the speaker doesn’t fit this ideal of a traditional female but instead appears to be a character who wouldn’t seem out of place in a more contemporary setting. Upon stating her desire for “less opposition” however, it appears that the narrator hesitates (shown by “–“) and disregards the initial subject. Here the narrator notices herself expressing thoughts that, under John’s patriarchal control, she shouldn’t. Considering this, the narrator attempts to steer her discussion to a more typically feminine topic, “I will let it alone and talk about the house”.
Additionally, to this, the narrator describes herself as feeling “nervous” around her baby. This again is a clear indicator that she is a character who feels trapped by the expectations of women – the oldest and arguably even biological role associated with being a woman has a negative effect on her health. It is made fairly obvious by her frequent praise of other more domestic female figures in the text, such as the babysitter Mary and housekeeper, Jennie, that the narrator feels guilty for not fitting the standard of an ‘idyllic woman’. She states how “fortunate” it is that Mary is “so good with the baby” and describes Jennie as a “dear girl” of whom is “a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper”. The positive adjectives used perhaps stress the fact that she herself is envious of this. The name Mary could also be symbolic of Virgin Mary, who would of course have been considered the ultimate female role model in 19th century Christian England. With this in mind, the narrator’s insecurity cannot be ignored; the speaker is conscious of the fact she doesn’t fit this archetype and feels as though she is a “comparative burden” as a result.
The setting in The Yellow Wallpaper it is feasibly the most important symbol of the narrator’s entrapment. The speaker describes the house as being “quite alone” surrounded by “hedges and walls and gates that lock”. Even the garden, a setting which often symbolises freedom due to the uncontrollable force of nature, is described as having “box-bordered paths” and being “lined with long grape-covered arbors” emphasizing the complete isolation of the narrator’s setting. Furthermore, the bedroom, in which the narrator spends most of her time, is also a presage of her eventual entrapment: The “barred windows”, “nailed down bed”, “rings on the wall” and “gate at the top of the stairs” are evocative of a mental asylum, foreshadowing the narrator’s eventual state of madness due to her deficiency of emancipation. The “immovable” bed may also be a metaphor for the repression of female sexuality in the Victorian era; women were expected to find sex distasteful and repress their desires and so the confinement of the bed may draw a parallel with the confinement of women’s sexual desires. The narrator does attempt to move downstairs to a less constricting room that “opened on the piazza”, unsurprisingly however, her husband “would not hear of it” as there would “not [be] room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another”. Paired with the imprisoning setting, the narrator is also required to be near her husband, this can’t be seen as anything other than a state of complete lack of freedom.
The significance of the “yellow wallpaper” also can’t be overlooked. Since she is trapped in her room, the narrator finds diversion in the wallpaper, of which, she becomes obsessed with and begins significantly to project her inner feelings onto7. The narrator ends up finding a doppelgänger6 in the wallpaper of whom, along with a “great many” other women, is trapped behind “bars” – this is undoubtedly a manifest representation of society’s entrapment of the female gender. The ‘doppelgänger’ tries to escape this wallpaper and “takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard” but fails; “nobody could climb through that pattern — it strangles so”. This failure to ‘escape the wallpaper’ suggests the difficulty the narrator found in trying to escape the entrapment of society’s norms and expectations. It is only when the narrator has “peeled” the wallpaper off that she manages to ‘escape’, by which point she seems to be in a totally deranged state, essentially, presenting a rather despondent conclusion that perhaps the narrator never does get emancipated.
Similarly, Esther Greenwood is a female character who, too, suffers mentally due being controlled by society. Debatably however, it could be said that Esther’s situation is more optimistic than that of the speaker in Gilman’s novella. The Bell Jar is set in 1950s America; a post-war society in which women had been given the vote and were readily entering the workplace and/or further education. Furthermore, Esther is on a magazine internship in New York – a city teeming with opportunity and new ideas. Nonetheless, despite these progressive changes, during the 1950s the ‘Rosie the Riveter-esque’ image of women was depleting. Women were re-entering a domestic setting with the rise of the ‘homemaker’; a passive role which constricted them to their houses and more stereotypically ‘feminine’ occupations. Esther herself is shown to be victim to this; her mother’s persistent attempts to urge her into learning shorthand with the justification that she would have a “practical skill as well as a college degree” is a clear demonstration of the idea that a woman’s creativity wasn’t valued by society, but instead, simply her practical function. Shorthand is the essential skill for a female to record a man’s diction – a prospect which blatantly repulses Esther who, unlike Mrs. Willard, isn’t content being a character who will simply end up “flattened out under the husband’s foot like a kitchen mat”.
In parallel to the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper, Esther too, to some extent, appears to not feel any enthusiasm towards progeny – when witnessing a childbirth, Esther perceives it as “unhuman”. Her description of the act seems frank and aloof displaying her disdain for the deed. She describes the birthing chair as resembling an “awful torture table” and looks to observe the unappealing aspect of the birth. She pronounces the new-born to be “the colour of a blue plum”, “floured with white stuff and streaked with blood”. Babies are reliant on others – something Esther doesn’t want to be. Although, it may not be child birth of which Esther disapproves. Moreover, babies appear to be a continuing theme throughout the novel; Esther is even likened to one when describing herself drinking hot milk “the way a baby tastes a mother” – it appears that Esther is equated to an infant due to her lack of freedom. In this instance the image of a baby is used represent her more fragile state of being, however it also is a more optimistic representation in that she appears to be in a condition of recovery. She also compares her skiing, which she states is one of the only times she feels “happy”, to “the white sweet baby cradled in its mother’s belly”. Thus, it can’t be said that Esther dislikes childbirth and children, but instead, has an antipathetic attitude towards the idea that women are simply seen by society as machines of reproduction. This idea is backed up when she expresses her aversion to the drug that causes the woman in labour she witnesses to be in a “twilight sleep”. She describes it as being “just the sort of drug a man would invent” and that as a result of forgetting her “terrible pain”, the woman would “go straight home and start another baby” just as society would want her to.
Using the metaphor of “The fig tree” in chapter 5, Plath suggests that there is a finite amount of opportunities for a female in 1950s society. Esther wants “all” of the “figs” however, “choosing one meant losing all the rest”. Plath suggests that in order to lead a harmonious life, a woman can only pick one of the opportunities presented to her. Each female character in the novel could be interpreted as having a “fig” off the tree: Jay Cee – “the amazing editor”, Mrs. Willard, Greenwood and Betsy (of whom “held an ear of corn to show she wanted to be a farmer’s wife”) – “a husband and a happy home and children”, Doreen – “a pack of other lovers with queer names” and Philomena Guinea – “a famous poet”. Plath uses Esther’s character as an instrument to highlight the sexist nature of this prospect. She discovers society’s double standards in Chapter 6 when she finds out Buddy Willard has been leading “a double life”. Buddy’s opportunity to have more than one ‘fig’ is deemed “unfair” and “hypocritical” by Esther who “unable to decide” on a ‘fig’ sees her opportunities “wrinkle and go black”. As the median age of marriage for a woman dropped to 20.3 during the 1950s3, it appears that society anticipated to control women at an even younger age. The Vanitas reminiscent image of Esther “starving to death” proposes the idea that society not only presents a woman with a limited amount of opportunities, but also a limited amount of time in which a she can take advantage of them. Whilst Esther struggles to decide on a course of life, she is being “starved” of the happiness that comes along with it; inevitably she will reach an age at which, by society’s standards, she is too old to pursue any of the paths presented to her.
Despite being able to choose paths, the female characters in The Bell Jar aren’t necessarily happy but rather, simply content. Perhaps the only difference between them and Esther is that they made a conscious decision to live the way that they do and ignore the fact that they have sacrificed other desires. Possibly living by the notion that ‘ignorance is bliss’, they have recognised the fact that they can’t have more than one ‘fig’ and accepted it. This idea can be supported by Mrs. Greenwood; a character who passively experienced the tragedies of her life without crying5 . Despite her husband dying and her daughter attempting suicide, she continues to uphold the image of a good woman by all societal standards5. During Esther’s shock treatments, Mrs. Greenwood’s knuckles are described as “bone white, as if the skin had worn off them in the hour of waiting”, it’s clear that Mrs. Greenwood may have internal struggles but has been forced by society to keep them hidden else she may forfeit her ‘comfortable’ life. Additionally, Esther’s seemingly desirable friend Doreen is merely described as being “handed” between men. In choosing a life of sexual freedom, Doreen has surrendered her right to be respected by society.
In both texts, the male peers of the narrators seem to desire control over women. John, the husband of the narrator in Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, seems to play a key part in her lack of liberation. Gilman uses John to symbolise a textbook example of a dominating spouse, a husband who holds absolute control over his wife4. He is described as a “high ranking physician” of whom is “practical in the extreme” and according to the narrator “doesn’t believe that [she] is sick”. It is evident that the narrator’s condition isn’t understood by her husband and his methods for dealing with it will most likely be inappropriate. She states that it is “hard to talk with John about [her] case because he is so wise”. Nevertheless, John’s occupation alone seems to be enough reason to assert his dominance over the speaker. Backed up by the narrator’s brother of the same profession, John pushes the speaker into a silenced and helpless position, surrounded by dominant men. John seems to have a somewhat condescending demeanour towards his wife. Frequently he is shown to infantilise the narrator, referring to her as a “blessed little goose”, a “little girl” and he even at one point “carries [her] upstairs”. It’s undeniable that John has complete control over the narrator; he regulates practically every detail of her life with a “schedule prescription for each hour in the day” which determines when she does “exercise”, what “food” she eats to when and even where she “sleeps” saying that it’s “good for [her]” to “lie down”, perhaps suggesting that it’s “good for [her]” to be in a state of submission. “He hardly lets [her] stir without special direction”.
Despite the fact it may be apparent to the reader that John is trapping the narrator of whom appears to be in a state evocative of brainwash. Pressured by society to worship and thank her husband for eliminating the need to think from her life8, the narrator scolds herself whenever she is in disagreement with him, labelling herself as being “silly” and “ungrateful”. She often blames her “unreasonable” moods towards John on her “nervous condition” while habitually reminding herself that “he loves [her]”. This is also evidenced by her ambiguous language when she states that “PERHAPS” he is the “one reason” she doesn’t “get well faster” likewise when she refers to her medication as “phosphates and phosphites – whichever it is”. The narrator appears to be in a state where she is unable to make up her own mind about such issues and possibly has her mind made up for her by John.
Of course, it could be suggested that John isn’t aware of the fact he is harming his wife as he does seem to genuinely love her. At some points, John appears to support his wife, he makes logical observations and “cautions” her when she begins to hallucinate and see people walking down the “paths” in the garden. It’s even stated that he is “so pleased” when he sees his wife’s condition “improve” – if John wanted to control his wife then it could be argued that he would go along with her delusions and send her into a state of complete insanity to which point she would be totally dependent on him. At another point in the text John even gives the speaker power by telling her that “no one but [herself]” can “help” her out of her fragile state of mind. In this light, John’s strict control of his wife could merely be interpreted as a ‘sign of the times’ – if society didn’t seek to dominate women, John may not be in the position where he was expected to regulate his wife’s activities. His treatment of ‘rest cure’ may simply be what was thought to be the best remedy for his wife’s condition by society’s standards. On many occasions, he displays affection towards his wife and even at one point states that the she is “his darling, his comfort and all he [has]”.
On the other hand, however, the repetition of the determiner “his” may infer that John sees his wife to exist solely for his own benefit. This is also implied when he states that she “must” get better “for his sake” rather than her own. In addition to this, John’s frequent dismissal of the narrator’s deceptions could be interpreted as his way of asserting power over her rather than an attempt to help her think rationally – the narrator states that the fact she has “no reason to suffer” “satisfies” John and that he “laughs” at her for her illness more than once in the text; a patronising and supercilious act to which she is submissive stating “one expects that in marriage”. It would appear in this instance that John has managed to proclaim complete supremacy over his wife, so much so that she accepts his actions and values his thoughts and desires over her own.
For this reason, it could be suggested after all that John doesn’t want his wife to get better. While she is in a state of disillusion, he is in a state of dominance. This would mean he has an excuse to control her every move. His wife’s entrapment is his freedom. This interpretation is supported by many of his actions, in particular, his refusal to move rooms and his prohibition of his wife’s writing – arguably the two largest contributors to her eventual madness. Writing is clearly the narrator’s only form of “relief” in the novella. It’s the only way she can say what she “feel[s]” and “think[s]” without the reprimand of her husband who finds it “absurd” and “hates to have [her] write a word”. John may not object to the narrator writing however, but rather the concept of her being able to express herself. If the narrator is able to express and explore her thoughts, she may end up gaining her own sense of power which would possibly result in her not doing what her husband desires. Jennie, John’s sister and housekeeper, who “hopes for no better profession”, also believes that it was the act of “writing” that makes the narrator “sick”. It could be suggested that Jennie has never had the chance to explore her own desires hence her contentment with her perhaps more limiting occupation. In this instance ‘sickness’ appears to be a dysphemism for ‘emancipation’.
In The Bell Jar, there are a number of characters who play a similar role to John in symbolising society’s male dominance. Constantin, a translator of whom Esther meets through Mrs. Willard is maybe the only male character who doesn’t seek to dominate her in the novel. Even then, the image of “getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee” is enough to stop Esther pursuing the relationship any further than one date. Perhaps the most important of these characters would be Buddy Willard. Again similarly to John in The Yellow Wallpaper, Buddy is considered a character of whom, as well as a result of his gender, has gained status over Esther due to his academy. Despite the fact that to the reader Esther may appear to be as, or even more, intelligent than Buddy, the accreditation that comes along with his attendance at Yale seems to put Esther in his shadow. Unsurprisingly, Buddy, who has been served by his mother his whole life, is described as embodying the traits of the typical “model person”; he is “very scientific”, “handsome”, “athletic” and “kind to his parents” – Esther even admits to, previously, admiring him “from afar”. However, her present description of Buddy appears to be scornful, she seems to look beneath the surface of his pristine outer layer and realises that he shares the same desires as most other men at the time: The desire to dominate and control a female. When Esther, prior to realising she has broken her leg, informs Buddy on their skiing trip that she is “going to do [the slope] again”, he responds “No you’re not” with a “smile”. This sense of schadenfreude that Buddy exemplifies is undoubtedly evidence for the idea that he likes the prospect of Esther becoming dependent on him. He appears to be a selfish and patronising character, frequently demeaning Esther’s passion for poetry seeing it as being inferior to his own medical profession. He refers to poems as merely “dust” and even states “in a sinister knowing way” that Esther will no longer care for poetry once she “has a baby”. The description of Buddy’s tone could imply that he is already expecting to marry and dominate Esther and simply views her to be naïve due to her gender. This is further emphasised when he makes a pitiful attempt to initiate sex with her in chapter 6 by trying to suggest that it would benefit her to “see” a man. He seems to think he knows how to control women, but in Esther’s case, he seemingly has no idea. The only time Buddy appears to be considerate of the women in his life is when he visits Esther in the asylum following Joan’s suicide, however, even this could have an egotistical motive, that of trying to clear his own guilty conscience.
Along with the dominating men in their lives, both Esther’s failure to get accepted into writing school and The Yellow Wallpaper narrator’s confining rest cure may be synonymous in the sense that they both restricted the protagonists from doing what they loved the most; expressing themselves through writing. Despite contrasting circumstances, that of Esther overcoming her mental illness and The Yellow Wallpaper’s protagonist falling further into it, the endings of both novels insinuate, in some form or another, that by persisting with their passions, the narrators may have in fact achieved emancipation. Taking into account that The Bell Jar is in fact a retrospective narrative, it becomes clear that, despite society’s protestations, Esther has managed to become a mother while still being able to write. Not only this, The Bell Jar ends with Esther entering her exit interview at the asylum, an act in itself of which is an obvious emblem of emancipation. Through her own perseverance, Esther escapes and defies Society’s expectations of women and becomes, “perfectly free”.
Still, while it may be suggested that it was in fact the writing that sent the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper into madness, we find the more she expresses and explores her thoughts, the more she begins to “see through” society’s (of whom “John” is a symbol) wish to ‘protect’ women. Instead she recognises it to be a euphemism for control. Through writing, the narrator gains the confidence to “peel” the wallpaper off herself (despite John’s refusal) and escape “in spite” of him. The roles somewhat switch at the end of the novel; John is the one shown to be weak. He is the one being infantilised by the narrator when she refers to him as “young boy” and he is the one who “fainted”. Subsequently this swap in power could essentially mean that the narrator has freed herself from society’s control. More feasibly, a pessimistic meaning can be read into this ending however. The narrator has in fact trapped herself in an eternal state of inferiority to men, her descent into madness results in John fainting “right across [her] path” and consequently, evermore obstructs her route to emancipation.
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