Awakened by the Wallpaper
“I let the beast in too soon. I don't know how to live without his hand on my throat. I fight him always and still. Oh, darling it's so sweet. You think you know how crazy, how crazy I am.”
Madness and suicide hardly seem like triumphant feats; but to the speaker in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edna in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, madness and suicide, respectively, are the very means to their breaking free of oppression. According to Peter Ramos, assistant professor of English at Buffalo State College, “Edna and the speaker in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ are pitiable figures whose fates remind us of the magnitude of the obstacles women like them faced” (161). Moreover, the loss of sanity and self-ruled departure are the only paths the characters can take to escape oppression. The oppression they face is enforced not only by societal expectations, but largely in part by their husbands.
In The Awakening, Edna struggles with the societal pressures to be a devoted wife and doting mother; although, all she really wants is to be her own person: free to express herself and spend her time as she pleases. During that time period, a woman could not be married and a mother, and an independent person at the same time. Women were expected to either be maternal, doting wives, or single and chaste as evidenced by the characters Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, respectively. It is this pressure to conform, particularly when it comes from her husband, which pushes Edna to ultimately take her own life.
Leonce, Edna’s husband, is subtly controlling, condescending, and disrespectful of his wife throughout the book. At times he even openly criticizes her for no real reason. For example, upon returning home, he told Edna that one of the children had a fever; even when she said the child was well when he went to bed, Leonce insisted that he was indeed ill. It says, “He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children” (Chopin 7). The word reproach suggests a very condescending demeanor with which he chastised her, as if he were speaking to a servant. Certainly he did not consider Edna his equal. Later, Leonce tries to command that Edna join him in bed, and when she refuses, he sits outside with her, drinks wine, and smokes cigars. Once Edna decides on her own to go to bed, Leonce refuses to go in until he is ready (31). His insistence on “winning” in this situation shows his need for control over Edna.
In addition to these controlling behaviors, Leonce openly insults and degrades Edna’s passion for art:
Mr. Pontellier had been a rather courteous husband so long as he met a certain tacit submissiveness in his wife. But her new and unexpected line of conduct completely bewildered him. […].
“It seems to me the utmost folly for a woman at the head of a household, and the mother of children, to spend in an atelier days which would be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family.”
“I feel like painting,” answered Edna. “Perhaps I shan’t always feel like it.”
“Then in God’s name paint! but don’t let the family go to the devil. There’s Madame Ratignolle; because she keeps up her music, she doesn’t let everything else go to chaos. And she’s more of a musician than you are a painter.” (55)
Obviously, Mr. Pontellier is only a good husband when he has control over Edna. Once he loses control, he completely disrespects and belittles her. His direct comparison of Edna to Madame Ratignolle is quite rude; it is his way of telling Edna to be more like her. Leonce then adds that Edna is not even very talented, at least not as talented as Madame Ratignolle. Leonce’s need to control Edna ultimately forces her to take her own life. Edna thinks as she is swimming far out in the ocean to die that Leonce “need not have thought that [he] could possess her, body and soul” (109). Not only could she be free from Leonce, but she also could have control of her fate. Ramos explains Edna’s choice of committing suicide: “Edna’s final actions serve as an example of what can happen to a protagonist whose unwillingness to continue dedicating herself to any of the available social roles leads her to abandon all of them in favor of an enticing yet ever elusive freedom, the kind one associates with a tantalizing, idyllic childhood” (Ramos 147). Edna felt she needed to escape Leonce and all of the pressures that came with being his wife, and suicide was her only road to freedom.
Likewise, in “The Yellow Wallpaper” the speaker’s husband actively contributes to her insanity by confining her to a room and forbidding her to do anything remotely productive. The story is told only through what the narrator can write in secrecy, as her husband did not even permit her to write while on the “rest cure.” One of the main reasons the speaker is so tortured by her husband, John, is because he is a physician and doesn’t believe that she is sick (Gilman 1392). In addition to his ignorance of her condition, John is also incredibly condescending in his treatment of his wife. Ultimately, it is he who drives her to insanity, but, luckily for the speaker, her madness is her escape.
Because the speaker’s post-partum depression is a mental disorder, John cannot see any physical symptoms, and therefore believes it does not exist. The speaker explains: “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that. […] John is a physician, and perhaps […] that is why I do not get well faster. You see, he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?” (1392). The speaker is obviously used to the condescension from her husband, as she said she expects that he would laugh at her. She knows on one level that he is keeping her ill, but she also is aware that she has absolutely no say in the matter of her treatment. She later continues, “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him” (1394). As a man of science, as well as being very condescending by nature, John is satisfied by his conclusion that his wife has nothing wrong with her; he thinks he is right, and his wife is wrong. Since she knows this, she does whatever it is that John says and whatever she can to appear well in front of him. She reveals that she “takes pains” to control herself in front of him—so much so that it makes her “very tired.” She later states, “There comes John, and I must put this away—he hates to have me write a word” (1393). Since John has completely banned the speaker from doing anything remotely productive, she is left alone with only her thoughts, and can only write in secrecy. Her struggle is similar to Edna’s as they both strive to be allowed to express themselves. Both women have to escape from the oppression of their husbands.
In addition to laughing at his wife, John also treats her like a child and calls her demeaning names. Not only does her call her a “blessed little goose,” (1394) but he also tells her that she must control her “silly fancies” (1397). He then says, “What is it, little girl? […] Don’t go walking about like that—you’ll get cold,” as if she is a young child that cannot make proper decisions for herself (1397). It is obvious that John does not take her seriously, and thinks that she can control her nervous problems but chooses otherwise. He emphasizes this opinion by saying to his wife, referring to her in the third person, “Bless her little heart! […] She shall be as sick as she pleases!” (1398). He proceeds to inform her that she is, indeed, much better. His manner is very patronizing, and he often acts more as a father than a husband, particularly by carrying her in his arms, “taking all care from” her, and putting her up in a “nursery” (1393). His condescending manner of caring for his wife, in reality, makes her more ill, and eventually drives her insane.
At the end of the story, the speaker, in the nursery with gated doors, barred windows, and a bedstead that has been nailed down while tied to the wall, finally escapes. Her husband kept her imprisoned in the room with the yellow wallpaper, but she escaped into madness. Finally, John realizes the severity of his wife’s disease, but to no consequence because she was already free in the only way she could be.
“What is the matter?” he cried. “For God’s sake, what are you doing!”
I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. “I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t 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! (1403)
The speaker finally had some influence over her husband. The final irony: she had such a psychological influence on her husband that he fainted.
The speaker’s descent into madness is her only path to freedom. According to Gina Wisker, of the University of Brighton and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts:
The narrator breaks through the wallpaper at the tale’s end. Her insight about the need to be free, from the room and the shackles of her role involves madness. Gilman’s tale breaks down boundaries and reunites/unites the self with the Other. It refuses comfortable closure because the narrator does not regain sanity; that would in fact be an oppressive ending. Neither can Gilman suggest a freedom and alternative way of life once the narrator has broken from the false bars and boundaries. (15)
If the speaker had not gone mad, or if she had regained her sanity, she would have had to continue being oppressed, demeaned, and patronized by her chauvinistic husband. Madness gave her the freedom that sane life could not.
Perhaps madness and suicide were not the only options available to oppressed women during that time, but certainly they were the best options for the speaker in The Yellow Wallpaper and Edna, respectively. Had they other resources, perhaps their stories could have had happier endings; nevertheless, they escaped to freedom.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening:an authoritative text biography, contexts, criticism. 2nd ed.
Margo Cully, ed. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY. 1994.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Handout. October 2011.
Ramos, Peter. “Unbearable Realism: Freedom, Ethics and Identity in The Awakening.” College
Literature. 2010. Vol. 37. Issue 4. 145-165.
Wisker, Gina. “Places, People and Time Passing: Virginia Woolf’s Haunted Houses.” Hecate.
2011. Vol. 37. Issue 1. 4-26.