The Life of Dead Paper
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, an interior decoration color symbolizes the revolt against gender oppression and sparks a wave of early literary feminism.
Gilman wrote the academically-popular short story to show her utter disappointment with a medically-prescribed lifestyle which she claims came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin.
Gilman was given the professional medical advice in 1887 to live as domestic life as possible and to have but two hours’ intellectual life a day…never to touch a pen, brush, or pencil again as she openly admits in a brief epilogue called Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.
Gilman’s literary approach to feminism became a proclamation against discriminating medical assessments and would become crucial in the subsequent feminism movements. Its undercurrents forcefully aimed to level the intellectual and creative playing field between men and women. Gilman’s seemingly unbearable and currently unthinkable lifestyle prescription is the silent antagonist at the heart of her plot.
Written in the form of seamless journal entries, the short story begins with Gilman’s narrator indicating it is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John [her husband] and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer. The reader eventually becomes aware of John’s typical 20th century oppressive behavior toward women. John, a physician and thus archetypically a man of only reason and scientific evidence, hardly lets [her] stir without special direction. Simply put, he deflates intellectual productivity and deters her from any individuality or self-reliance.
The narrator is sentenced to a torturing and repellant yellow-colored room constantly described as a grotesque. By the end of the story, Gilman’s intellectually numb protagonist has fallen stricken to the 19th century illness of hysteria, and began seeing an image of a woman inside the hideous wall’s binding pattern.
However, the repercussions of Gilman’s classic text go well-beyond bashing certain interior designs, into the traditional gender relations in the 19th century and sparking early literary feminism.
Gilman’s story was a defiantly honest manifesto representing the voice of many American women during this period, who were labeled as atypically emotional and deemed to be suffering from hysteria. The Yellow Wallpaper is an artistically-effective attempt to refute these sexually-biased, medical and cultural accusations of American women’s emotional and psychological conditions.
Gilman’s nameless protagonist calls her journal entries dead paper since they are not supposed to exist and because there is only one intended reader, the writer. Her prescription had the opposite effect of its intentions; it fostered critical thinking and creative intellectualism. A century later, The Yellow Wallpaper is far from flat-lining; its cultural relevance continues to breathe, keeping the importance of gender equality alive.
In effect, Gilman’s work is one of the first American texts on feminism, although the term ‘feminism’ had yet to be coined. Since The Yellow Wallpaper arrived, feminism has evolved within American society. Its fluctuating purpose continues to develop. Many American women during the mid-20th century continued to identify with Gilman’s secluded protagonist. Social commentaries like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the photography of Cindy Sherman continued to shed the light on the oppression of women and their domestic prisons, paving the way for feminism’s ideals.
In her famous sociological and historical text, Friedan discusses the intellectual and psychological confinement many American females suffered from during the 1950s and 1960s.
Using a plethora of phallic symbols representing the male’s undying presence in every aspect of the female’s life, Cindy Sherman’s photography artistically and, occasionally scarily, portrays the American woman subdued by the dull monotony of kitchen life in male-dominated America. Unafraid of the topic of sexuality, just like Friedan explicitly takes on and Gilman subtly exposes, Sherman paints a sexually-charged, but repressed reality via film exploring the power struggle between man and woman.