Interpretive Essay on "The Yellow Wallpaper"
"The Yellow Wallpaper" tells the story of a woman living in the nineteenth century who suffers from postpartum depression. The true meaning implicit in Charlotte's story goes beyond a simple psychological speculation. The story consists of a series of cleverly constructed short paragraphs, in which the author illustrates, through the unnamed protagonist's experiences, the possible outcome of women's acceptance of men's supposed intellectual superiority. The rigid social norms of the nineteenth century, characterized by oppression and discrimination against women, are supposedly among the causes of the protagonist's depression. However, it is her husband's tyrannical attitude what ultimately worsened her emotional problems to the point of insanity.
John, the protagonist's husband, is a round character in Gilman's story who represents the prototype of manhood in the Victorian era. In a review of Michael Kimmel's book, "Manhood in America: A Cultural History," the author explores Kimmel's social and historical analysis of masculinity in the nineteenth century (Furumota). He identifies what Kimmel calls the Self-Made Man: a masculine ideal who originated out of a capitalist economic system and became the dominant ideal in that period. His identity derives, among other factors, from accumulated wealth and status, which defines the Self-Made Man as the personification of economic autonomy. According to Kimmel, his "success had to be earned and manhood had to be proved without end" (qtd. in Furumota). As a consequence, men competed among themselves in a society considered a white man's world. The Self-Made Man would do anything to protect his supremacy and to proof his manhood to others and to himself. In the process, he excluded blacks and women from equal opportunity to work, to be educated, and to express their political rights.
The events that marked the last decades of the nineteenth century led to important historical changes that resulted in a wide crisis of masculinity. Economic growth and advances in technology attracted immigrants to America and soon less-skilled workers outnumbered the highly skilled ones. Men's self-making abilities were challenged by two factors: the increased competition, and the growing women's influence in the public arena. In order to fight these pressures and elevate their sense of manhood, the native-born men turned to "social Darwinist arguments that relegated blacks, immigrants and women to rungs of the evolutionary ladder below white Anglo-Saxon men" (qtd. in Furumota). Men's anxieties further increased with the public emergence of homosexuality in society. For the Middle class men, heterosexuality became a symbol of manhood, "and heterosexual men began to define themselves in opposition to anything considered feminine" (qtd. in Furumota).
These factors constitute what Kimmel defines as "the central themes of American manhood at the turn of the century...