Charlotte Perkins-Gilman “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Sylvia Plath’s novel, “The Bell Jar” both tell the story of two women slowly slipping into a mental breakdown, though the two are not as mentally ill as they seem. Many evident and important similarities exist in the lives of Esther and the unnamed narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which imply that these two stories of ‘mad women’ are not simple accounts of mental illness, but indications of an underlying problem. In Susan Bordo’s 1993 analytical essay, she examines mental illnesses common to women during certain eras to argue that these illnesses are a reflection of and objection to the ‘traditional’ gender roles of their times. A comparison of the essay and the novel, in conjunction with Susan Bordo’s critical essay, shows a connection between traditional gender roles and mental illness. An examination of the struggles with mental illness witnessed in both female protagonists in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and The Bell Jar demonstrates the overwhelmingly negative effects of imposing tradition upon women, which could lead to a breakdown mentally. The two protagonists struggle to fit into their designated roles as ‘wife and mother’ and ‘future housewife’ and succumb to madness in protest of these externally imposed expectations.
As a writer, the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper thrives in her use of her imagination, and her creativity is an integral part of her nature, however from the start of the novel, her creative and imaginative nature is set in conflict with John’s rationality and reason. John does not acknowledge or understand his wife’s foundational imagination or creativity and believes that he can force out her lively imagination and replace it with his own solid rationality. Essentially, a large proportion of the “rest cure” that John forces on the speaker focuses on his attempt to restrain her creativity and wild imagination, and by forcing her to give up her writing, John hopes that he will calm her anxious nature and help her to settle in to her “role” as an ideal wife and mother. However, the narrator is not able to suppress her creativity, despite her best efforts to follow John’s instructions. Because she feels the repression of her imagination due to the constraints that John places on her, she is not able to write openly so she begins exercises her mind through the yellow wallpaper. “It is dull enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide, plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.”
Although the narrator attempts to incorporate John’s rationality into the chaotic pattern of the wallpaper, she fails. Her repressed imagination takes control, and she loses all sense of reality, becoming lost in delusions and the idea that she herself was the woman trapped in the wallpaper. “At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.”
The reason for the narrator’s confinement is her gender. Although explicit references to either gender in the text are rare, there is a gendered subtext , especially given the time that Gilman was writing in. It can be argued that Gilman uses the conventions of the psychological horror tale to critique the position of women within the institution of marriage, and this links to the argument that Shumaker sets out, as the speakers husband, John, is often belittling her “imagination” and can be seen as the voice of logic and sensibility. Gilman uses first person narrative which prioritises women as a whole from the start. The women that the reader meets in the novella could be meant to find fulfilment within the home, while the men in the story hold positions as high ranking physicians. The narrators lack of a name also reinforces the notion that she is speaking as the voice of women collectively, rather than as an individual, which also shows that Shumaker may he correct in saying that the term “imaginative” is
decidedly gendered, as the narrator speaks for the whole of the female population.
The structure of The Yellow Wallpaper creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy, and Gilman chooses to write in a journal-style, first person narrative
“The Yellow Wallpaper” can be seen as a feminist story in that women’s confinement is shown by the use of the yellow wallpaper. The female narrator of the story is in a prison cell, the nursery room which has solid signs of imprisonment, such as barred windows, and is being under scrutiny by his physician husband to see if she shows the proper behaviour expected of her. This story has been viewed by many critics as a “feminist declaration of liberty”. The paranoia of being under an incessant watch makes the narrator go insane, however, this seeming madness liberates her from the patriarchal concepts of appropriate feminine behaviour.
The Bell Jar challenges the prevailing notion in the 1950s that women were inferior to, and dependent upon, men. Regardless of their individual talents and desires, women were expected to become wives and mothers, and, failing that, secretaries. Bright young women such as Esther were expected to sacrifice their own dreams to the needs of their husbands. The novel mocks the assumption that women are inferior to men by showing the hypocrisy and moral weakness of the male characters. But it also takes an axe to the myth of maternity as the epitome of womanhood through its grotesque images of pregnancy and birth. Merriam-Webster describes a Bildungsroman as “a class of novel derived from the German literature that deals with the formative years of the main character, whose morals and psychological development is depicted. It typically ends on a positive note, with the hero’s foolish mistakes and painful disappointment behind him and a life of usefulness ahead.” Throughout the novel it becomes increasingly clear that this is a typical example of a Bildungsroman as Esther fails so tragically, and arguably never crosses the bridge into adult life and gets closure from this experience. This may be due to her increasingly overwhelming mental illness, which is all consuming for Esther,
The similarities between the two protagonists’ lives suggest that these two works of literature are not simple accounts of a sick person’s struggle with mental illness; but, rather, distressing signs of an overarching and much larger problem. Their similar slow progressions into mental breakdowns have already been established. However, another strong similarity between the two works is their titles. The Yellow Wallpaper in Gilman’s novel creates a quasi- prison and symbolises the narrator’s feelings of being trapped by her overbearing husband and the idealised Victorian femininity. Furthermore, the image of a bell jar, as both the title of the novel and an important metaphor used by Esther herself, symbolises the feeling of being cut-off from the world, isolated, and protected from the outside due to one’s delicacy. Another important connection is the author’s use of their works to critique psychiatric medicine, a field historically dominated by men. John has complete authority over his wife’s medical care and recovery. From his professional diagnosis as a doctor, he declares, “there is really nothing the matter with her but temporary nervous depression” and she is “absolutely forbidden to write” until she gets better. He confines her to the room and discourages her from writing or talking about her condition by waving it off as a basic depression. Esther encounters something similar with her male doctors. Dr. Gordon, a psychiatrist, displays the same lack of empathy as John when seeing Esther and she fails to make any progress. John and Dr. Gordon, both doctors, represent the pervasive presence of patriarchy in society, where men dominate the public sphere and women’s voices are silenced. It is not until Esther sees a woman doctor, Dr. Nolan, that her voice is actually heard and the treatment options allow for self-expression and growth. The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not so fortunate and it remains unknown whether or not she recovers from her breakdown. These individual similarities between the works studied together provide evidence that the authors aim to attack a larger problem. The cages that trap the two women reflect society’s constraining of women, the high expectations to fill those roles, and the smothering of one’s ambitions, hopes, and expressions.
The tragic side to Esther Greenwood’s imagination is that Esther’s self critical attitude can be so ruthless as to be self destructive, to the point where Esther feels split in two and that she’s a stranger to herself. When she looks in the mirror she doesn’t see herself: she sees a disembodied face. These cracks in Esther’s personality come through when she literally takes on another personality, particularly when she meets men, Elly Higginbottom is a prime example of this.
But it is perhaps because Esther is so intimate with the experience of being a stranger herself that she can identify with people on the margins of American society – people who are considered outsiders or strangers or criminals or mentally ill just because they dont fit into the mainstream definition of what an American should be. This may be something to do with Esther’s self consciousness about her German background, her growing up in a non-tradition
Throughout the novel, the reader sees Esther’s problems grow, perhaps as she has never had a successful relationship with a man; her father died when she was nine and she explains in the beginning of the book that this was the last time she was happy. It can be said that it is from this point Esther’s mental state begins to deteriorate and starts on her downwards spiral of depression. This may be one of the reasons that she turns to her imagination, in order to escape her own world into her fantasy, idealistic world. Esther’s relationship with Buddy Willard is noteable, as it is uncertain whether the two are truly in love, particularly as Esther says “ever since Buddy Willard had told me about that waitress I had been thinking I ought to go sleep with somebody myself. Sleeping with Buddy wouldn’t count, though, because he would still be one person ahead of me, it would have to be with somebody else” the fact that Esther is so young begs the question of whether the “love” she has for Buddy is more of an obsession than actual love, which links to Conrad Shumaker’s argument, as Buddy is not depicted to have any sort of obsession for Esther, nor is he exaggerating the relationship they have in the same way that Esther is.
Sylvia Plath’s life closely parallels the protagonist’s
Bell jar is her imagination and not an autobiography
Fine line between imagination and insanity