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Male Dominance in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper

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Male Dominance in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper


"I want to astonish him," (34) says the narrator, referring to her husband, in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, as she writhes behind the patterns of her yellow wallpaper, locked in her room of barred windows, sunken in the lunacy that she cannot evade. This short, ambitious phrase placed squarely on the page beneath stacks of similarly short-winded phrases that string together this diary-style narrative conveys most clearly the narrator's prime audience for her actions: John. He is her husband, her care-taker, the only man in her life, and in spite of the near-reverence that the narrator has for him, it is only in the final pages, when this stunning sentence is uttered, that John's wife endeavors to earn more than John's respect for her. She wants to provoke awe, the sort of "astonishment" that might make him feel as though he were mad, and would, thus, free his wife from beneath his condescending gaze. For the act, or the being-caught-in-the-act, of tearing off the wallpaper, and not the removal of the paper itself, will liberate the narrator most fully. What binds John's wife, what binds the woman reflected back at her behind the wallpaper's troubling patterns, is not so much the physical trappings of the home, but the less visible patriarchal society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

In The Short Story: the Reality of Artifice, Charles May cites Bonaro Overstreet's description of twentieth century drama, calling it "the drama of what goes on in the mind" (17). Gilman's story inhabits the dynamic mind of a woman willing to disclose to her readers everything she sees and feels. This first-person confessional, littere...


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Gilman's startling ending comes after nearly six pages of intensification, and it is a most dramatic finale, perhaps the heartiest parody of that Gothic romance mentioned early on. When John faints, revealed to the reader by the narrator's question, for isn't that silly of him, the story to clatters to a most rousing close. She has astonished him, into unconsciousness, toppled him like a tower the way she peeled the paper from the wall. And there, upon the ground, John remains, Gilman's weighty, though squeamish, symbol of male dominance around which the narrator, the woman writer, may now creep, though ultimately, one hopes, stand before and walk with.


Works Cited

May, Charles. The Short Story: the Reality of Artifice. New York: Twayne Publishers, 2002 edition.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. London: VIRAGO Press, 1988 edition.


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