Gender Identity in The Yellow Wallpaper
“The problem of identity is... the problem of sexuality. Traditionally the power of sexuality is the power of reproduction... But the root cause of horror in the genre is the protagonist’s inability to control sexuality, to thus define masculine and feminine and create legitimate identity” (Day 1985: 84-5).
Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores this particular aspect of the Gothic in her novella, The Yellow Wallpaper. There is no question that the sexuality of the characters serves as one of the most important themes in the story and is a direct reflection of the author's intention when writing it. The perception of female hysteria and the treatment prescribed in the 19th century was admittedly the motivation behind Gilman's creation.
When asked why she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman told a story about having been diagnosed with hysteria herself. She claimed that by following the directions of the doctor, she was almost driven mad. In her statement she expressed: "Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it."
At the time it was medically suggested to live this sort of lifestyle. Now what I am prone to suggest (although I don't know firsthand) that this would never be expected of a man in that time. Little moments of this gender divide are constantly suggested in the work. There is no question that Gilman hints at the control men have over women in her society, and by making the husband in the novel a physician she is doubly asserting the powerlessness a woman in such a position would have.
Her husband has obviously acknowledged that she is not well in that he has taken her to a house in the country to recover, however he is constantly belittling her feelings. "John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage" (Gilman 1). Wow. So I guess I can't deny that I hope that if I'm ever married my husband and I can tease one another, but there is more to be said fore this quote. One (a woman) is supposed to expect not to be taken seriously in a marriage.
So it is with this idea of the feminine that we are introduced to our protagonist and narrator. She blindly accepts her husband's diagnosis of her illness and lets him make her believe that he wants what is best for her. From the beginning, she expresses her discomfort in the room that he has picked out for her. Again she bends to his will because they need the "great heavy bed" for both of them to sleep (Gilman 8). What is interesting here is that despite the fact that John does not see her to be fit to move about and act normally, he still expects her to continue her roles as his wife. His command over her sexuality would be astonishing in this day and age, but at the time it was completely average.
In the case of this novel the protagonist has no aspect of Day's "traditional power of sexuality" because even as she has reproduced, she cannot be a mother to her child. Thus we return to the idea that her husband is the one who has control of her sexuality, thus giving him power over her mind. This is why his wife cannot recover to a normal state of being. She has only her husband's definition- and society's definition at that- of "the masculine and the feminine" and no way of grasping a sense of her "legitimate identity".
This is why I think the reader is left without an concrete idea of whether or not we have read the story of a madwoman, or if the happenings in that room were supposed to reflect an actual incident.