How far can a feminist reading be applied to The Yellow Wallpaper?

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How far can a feminist reading be applied to The Yellow Wallpaper?

Feminist criticism of literature reflects the period, social status and equality of women involving ‘a thorough examination of gender roles… how they are culturally constructed’ . These roles, ‘culturally assigned to countless generations of women’1 generally connoted them ‘naturally timid… sweet… intuitive… dependent… self-pitying’ or ‘how the speaker wants to see them’1. The Yellow Wallpaper refutes the prevailing nineteenth century perception of the subordinated, helpless woman whilst indirectly upholding the prevalent ‘social and cultural domination by males.’1 Conversely, authoritarian masculinity was traditionally represented through ‘strength, rationality, stoicism, and self-reliance’1. These attitudes encouraged ‘gendered stereotyping’ with ‘helplessness and dependence… endearing and admirable’1 representing women’s social roles. Bertens’ structuralist term ‘binary opposition’1 attracted positive, pragmatic meaning for masculinity but negative connotations for feminine representation.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s innovative autobiographical short story, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) invites a feminist reading: Gilman, the literal protagonist, discusses her personal subordination within marriage. Her linear stream of consciousness narrative contrasts the microcosm of the woman’s mind with the macrocosm of a patriarchal society with ‘critical social pressures imposed on women’: Gilman’s story provides a feminist and historical perspective into psychiatric health, sexual and social oppression and limited female personal freedoms within late nineteenth century male dominated society. The Yellow Wallpaper is an extended metaphor and bildungsroman, a journey of emancipation: the suffering character empathises with a metaphorical woman within the wallpaper, finally acknowledging identity and independence. Gilman’s persona precipitated women being ‘heard… understood… acknowledged’: the triad of past participles, reinforce Gilman’s determination for social justice through syntactic parallelism.

The Yellow Wallpaper figuratively addressed female subordination. Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1970) exposed ‘denigrating, exploitative and repressive… relationships with women’1, demonstrated by D.H Lawrence and Henry Miller creating female ‘negative stereotyping’. The pyscho-analytic critic Julia Kristeva supported women’s individual identity noting their ‘multiple subjectivities’ threatened by ‘sexist oppression’. Millet ironically discussed how ‘the private sphere’ resembles ‘the public realm, (being) thoroughly political… an… arena where the same power based relations exist’. Gilman’s protagonist sees repetitive wallpaper patterns moving ‘together or separately’, symbolically suggesting incipient insanity and emphasising conflicts between Gilman’s private and public personas. An early trade-unionist, Gilman promoted equality for women, domestically and publically just as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1848) campaigned for ‘equality in education, marriage, suffrage and property laws’2.

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A feminist reading is applicable to Gilman’s story; she explored unequal marital ‘power relations’1. 1970’s feminist criticism explored ‘the cultural mind set in men and women that perpetuated sexual inequality’. The Yellow Wallpaper’s protagonist gave Gilman a powerfully distinctive female voice. However, in 1980 feminist criticism ‘became… more eclectic’7 considering Marxist, structuralist interpretations and ‘exploring the nature of the female world… reconstructing the lost or suppressed records of female experience’7. Thus, Barry analyses ‘a female language, an ecriture feminine’4 exploring whether this form ‘is also available to men’4. Whilst, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1984) dramatized career women’s social and personal ...

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