Repression Of Women Presented In Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s 19th Century Yellow Wallpaper And Sylvia Plath’s 20th Century The Bell Jar

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How is the repression of women presented in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s 19th Century Yellow Wallpaper and Sylvia Plath’s 20th Century ‘The Bell Jar’

In both the Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath the theme of repression of women is explored very similarly. The Yellow Wallpaper informs us on the mental agony Victorian women faced in the 19th Century, meanwhile in Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ a woman’s struggles between the world she is in and the world she desires creates an inner turmoil which eventually leads her to an institution where she begins to receive electrical shock treatments. In the Yellow Wallpaper the repression of women is depicted by patriarchal figures, this is shown when the woman has been kept in a solitary room on her husband’s command. Both Gillman and Plath utilize their real life experiences in their literary texts about how patriarchy and repression eventually leads to their mental breakdown. Both writers portray their female characters as protagonists and portray the male characters as antagonists, therefore creating conflict between the reader and the main male characters. During the 19th Century (when ‘The Bell Jar’ was written) a stigma was attached towards the gender role of women; the roles of women were stereotyped as cooking and maintaining the household. Critic Linda A Wagner acknowledges gender issues faced by Esther as being identity related as well as the struggle of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Many critics have agreed that the male dominated society led to the mental decline of both female protagonists, one of these numerous critics is named Wendy Martin, she believes ‘Male writers are permitted to articulate their aggression, however violent or hostile; women writers are supposed to pretend that they are never angry’ this links back to the theme of female oppression and gives an example of the types of oppression writes Gillman and Plath would suffer due to the labels attached to different genders in society. Sylvia Plath opposes the idea of feminine decorum however, critic Martin further proceeds to point out similarities between Plath and her character in her literature piece ‘God’s Lioness.’ Critic Linda W. Wagner acknowledges gender issues brought up in ‘The Bell Jar’ and describes problems faced by Esther related to being related to identity, also the struggle of being a woman in a patriarchal society, therefore claiming patriarchy is to blame in both The Bell Jar and Yellow Wallpaper. In her article ‘A Ritual For Being Born Twice: Sylthia Plath’s The Bell Jar’ critic Wagner reviews the struggles the character of Esther Greenwood faces in between making a choice between career and family. However, critic Marjorie G. Perloff, holds the view, Esther’s issues come from a battle between her ‘outer behaviour’ and ‘inner self’. She believes that Esther suffers from schizophrenia. Perloff supports this by pointing to several events in the book where she divides herself between two separate personalities, each contributing to the sole purpose of the survival of the self. Also Perloff suggests that the struggles Esther faces ‘seem to have a great deal to do with being a woman in a society whose guidelines for women she can neither accept nor reject’.

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Plath uses the character of Esther as a representation of her genuine voice. Within Plath’s personal life she struggled for equality in her relationship with Ted Hughes. Plath does not explore physical abuse rather applies emphasis on mental abuse. In contrast to this in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ Gilman shows British society was oppressive to women and also shows that it was dangerous to fight back. The room the female protagonist is locked in is surrounded by hedges and also “gates that lock”. The room she is locked in contains no means of escape and is a metaphor for most women of British society being kept in their place, especially in marriage. The oppression of women is conveyed in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by the narrator’s repetition of the line ‘but what is one to do?’; she disagrees with the method of treatment ordered by her husband however, she is forced to use this method of treatment by her husband (John). The Bell Jar explores the oppression of women by trying to break through the stereotype of a woman as being the typical ‘homemaker’ Plath uses the character of Esther to express the way she feels about women being forced to carry out tasks at home and being oppressed from striving to play the ‘breadwinner’ role. Plath also uses the character of Esther to convey a message to female readers that they should strive for their endeavours in life. She gives this message when describing the tasks of Esther every day cooking and cleaning whilst her husband goes out to work; In the Bell Jar, the narrator writes ‘seemed a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s’ the tone used by the narrator coveys a feeling of pessimism towards the idea of marriage as the words ‘dreary’ and ‘wasted’ have negative connotations, this reinforces the idea of marriage acting as a form of oppression by applying the rules of patriarchy. A solemn tone is also used, therefore further portraying males as antagonists and them being the reason for the oppression of females in ‘The Bell Jar’. However, in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ Gilman uses a ‘quasiprison’ as a symbol of oppression, similarly, the image and title ‘The Bell Jar’ is a metaphor used by Esther symbolizing how the narrator feels towards being segregated from the rest of the world and being protected by the outside world due to one’s delicacy, this can be linked to the theme of female oppression and patriarchy as the female character is being cut off from the rest of the world as a result of the male character’s desires.

Critic John S.Bak speaks about the imprisonment of the narrator and links this with an eighteenth Century surveillance method called the Panopticon. Bak states “The Panoptican’s directive would be to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Bak 2). This theory is demonstrated in the Yellow Wallpaper as we see the narrator deteriorate more over time. Gillman shows this through using first person narration, as we see, through first person narration the sanity of The Yellow Wallpaperer at the beginning of the book, then we slowly see the deterioration of the Yellow Wallpaperer’s mental state as we proceed through the book. At the beginning of the book The Yellow Wallpaperer writes ‘I don’t know why I should write this. I don’t want to. I don’t feel able’ the repetition of the words ‘I don’t’ shows sanity as the narrator is questioning her thoughts but as we proceed through The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator’s mental state starts to deteriorate more, later on in the book The Yellow Wallpaperer writes ‘by moonlight it becomes bars’ this shows how she’s gone mad as she begins to see bars in the Yellow Wallpaper which symbolises the narrator being trapped inside, as we proceed through the book, the narrator writes ‘There are things in that paper which nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day’ the idea of getting ‘clearer every day’ is used by the writer to show a gradual deterioration of the narrator’s mental state. At the end of The Yellow Wallpaper, Gillman shows how oppression can be caused through madness when Gilman writes ‘I’ve got out at last, said I, in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’ Gilman writes this; it epitomizes how appalling the narrator’s mental state has become and sums up her transformation from sane to mad. Both writers Gilman and Plath put the reader into the mind of the narrators’ in both stories. Through both narrators as a reader we see into the minds of the writers’ themselves. Gilman was a feminist, she believed strongly in women’s rights, she also believed “women have been limited to a savage-like state when confined to the home” (Deutsher 2). Gilman stated in ‘Deutsher 2’ that “home life makes men more selfish and women more degraded and self-abnegating. It physically weakens women’s bodies and minds”.

In Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper the narrator also suffers oppression from the institution of marriage. John (the doctor) believes the Yellow wallpaperer is mentally ill, he responds to this by forcing her to go through harmful treatment to combat the supposed illness. The narrator states ‘So I take phosphates or phosphites – whichever it is, and tonics and journeys, and air and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again. Personally I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and chance, would do me good’. The anaphora of the word ‘Personally’ focus on the first person narrative Gillman is using, also by the narrator stating that ‘So I take phosphates or phosphites- whichever it is’ creates a mundane tone, Gillman creates this mundane tone to show the reader, the degree to which the narrator is exhausted of receiving treatment, she feels she doesn’t require. The mundane tone is also used by Gillman to show the beginning of the narrator’s journey into madness. This presents the theme of oppression through treatment the Yellow Wallpaperer ‘disagrees’ with. John keeps the Yellow Wallpaper on a heavy dose of medication, making her feel guilty for not believing she needs treatment. She states this in her journal when she writes ‘I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more’. One of the patriarchal figures in The Yellow Wallpaper (John) oppresses the narrator using forced treatment as he believes his knowledge is superior, this is one of Gilman’s ways of showing female repression in The Yellow Wallpaper.

In the Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator’s oppression is shown through the class system in The Victorian era due to the social expectations of wealthy women. In the Victorian era, wealthy women were allowed to do minimal amounts of work and were often allowed to do activities such as go on holiday for long durations of time and spend a lot of time entertaining family members and friends. The narrator refers to this in The Yellow Wallpaper when she writes ‘Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able to do, – to dress and entertain and order things’; this refers back to the wealthier women in the Victorian era, as they wore more delicate clothing in comparison to middle and lower class to establish their superior status, critic Jean Kennard says ‘by keeping her unemployed and isolated, John effectively ensures his wife’s dependence on him’. As readers we see the oppression and struggles upper class women had in comparison to lower class women. In comparison to this in ‘The Bell Jar’ Esther studies an idea of purity and impurity. She expresses her views on society’s idea that women should stays virgins until they’re married however, boys are given freedom to do what they want sexually. As readers we see these views reinforced in Esther’s family by her mother, Mrs Willard and Betsy when they send Esther pro-chastity pamphlets and distribute sexist maxims. In The Bell Jar, the narrator writes ‘Buddy was amazingly close to this mother. He was always quoting what she said about the relationship between a man and a woman, and I knew Mrs Willard was a real fanatic about virginity for men and women both’ this completely foreshadows Esther’s views on virginity but, it is stated that Mrs Willard was a ‘real fanatic’ for both men and women, therefore supporting the idea of equality. This can be considered as irony between both Mrs Willard and Esther; one of Esther’s concerns and why she was so obsessed with the idea of sexuality is because she believed there was a huge inequality towards the attitudes of society to both men and women, and their sexuality. However, Plath uses many female characters as a force of change towards women’s social expectations such as characters Joan Gilling, Dr Nolan and Doreen by using them as the characters to introduce her to a different way of thinking. Doreen is in a sexual relationship despite not married with Lenny Shepherd meanwhile, Dr Nolan tells Esther there’s nothing wrong with having sex before marriage and Esther gets an insight into a lesbian relationship through character Joan and her affair with DeeDee. The views of society in The Bell Jar are similar to those in The Yellow Wallpaper as there was a common double standard between men and women’s sexual lives and there were different expectations between male and female careers. Women were expected to be homemakers, and take care of the children which is the same views society held in the Victorian era when The Yellow Wallpaper was written however, the narrator in the Yellow Wallpaper holds different views to a middle or lower class woman in Victorian society since she’s a member of the upper class and has little or maybe even no responsibilities. In The Yellow Wallpaper, as a reader we get an insight into the life of a member of the upper class in society however, in The Bell Jar we get a scope into the life of someone in the middle and lower class. Mrs Willard (Esther’s mother) reinforces the view of society that women should have low expectations when she has faith in Esther having a lower level career as a secretary in oppose to pursuing her ambitions. However, Plath uses characters Nolan, Dr Quinn, Philomena Guinea and Jay Cee to encourage Esther to follow her ambitions and achieve highly. Similar to the Yellow Wallpaper, we see Plath as well as Gillman use the idea of patriarchy to convey female oppression, Plath does this through male characters like Buddy, when he assumes Esther is mentally inferior in comparison to him based on solely on the fact that she’s a woman. Buddy also assumes that Esther wants to play the role of a homemaker and get married and have children. Buddy completely disregards any idea of ambition towards female characters like Esther which reinforces Plath’s feminist views.

Plath also uses the imagery of the fig-tree to demonstrate how Esther has so many options however, due to different people in her life such as her mother and Buddy who encourage her to have little ambition and characters such as Nolan, Dr Quinn, Philomena Guinea and Jay Cee who encourage her to be highly ambitious and pursue her high ambitions it is written ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the top of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a happy husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor’ the imagery of the fig tree used by Plath is metaphorical of the difficult situation Esther faces of choosing the career path she believes is correct and conveys the sheer amount of opportunities she has. Plath uses the fig-tree as a significant turning point in the book; it is a visual representation of the amount of different career options Esther possesses. Plath also uses the imagery of the fig-tree to represent a long duration of time, Plath writes ‘I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest and as I sat there, unable to decide the figs began to wrinkle and go black ,and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet’ Plath uses the imagery of the ‘black’ and ‘wrinkled’ leaves to represent the rapid passing of time Esther has to make a decision. Plath also uses the repetition of ‘one by one’ to emphasise the number of options available for Esther to pursue. The fig tree is also representative of the influences of characters Nolan, Dr Quinn, Philomena Guinea and Jay Cee, whom desire for Esther’s high ambitions and characters like Buddy and Esther’s mother who want her to pursue a secretarial career. This shows conflict between characters and is significant; it shows which characters foreshadow eachother.

Plath also uses the character of Marco as another male antagonist to reinforce the idea of patriarchy leading to female oppression. He does this by using the character of Marco and his actions towards Esther, in particular the rape scene. Firstly, Marco forces Esther to ‘tango’ when she refuses, the narrator in The Bell Jar writes ‘Marco hooked an arm around my waist and jerked me up against his dazzling white suit’ Plath writes this to use the idea of physical force from Marco, to portray the oppression of women using the idea of patriarchy. The narrator also states ‘I seemed to be riveted to him, limb for limb, moving as he moved, without any will or knowledge of my own’ the use of the words ‘without will or knowledge’ are emphasised by Plath as she is trying to reinforce the message to the reader that Esther doesn’t consent to any of Marco’s advances, this presents Marco as a clear antagonist, thus relating back to the idea that patriarchy was the cause of female oppression in the 20th century. Plath also creates a feeling of resentment towards the character of Marco because of his dialogue, he constantly refers to Esther as a ‘Slut!’ the use of this profanity gives the reader a clear insight into how much of a ‘woman-hater’ Marco is, Plath also utilises punctuation to emphasise the degree to which Marco loathes women, The use of the profanity ‘Slut!’ has connotations of maliciousness and creates the dramatic effect of catharsis for the reader (since the profanity evokes a strong reaction). In comparison to this, in The Yellow Wallpaper, oppression is conveyed more mentally rather than physically, Plath in The Bell Jar uses the idea of rape as a metaphor for oppression however, in The Yellow Wallpaper, Gillman mainly uses the patriarchal figure of John to present oppression. The narrator writes ‘John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.’ and also ‘John is so queer now, that I don’t want to irritate him.’ this shows that the patriarchal figure (John) is clearly using his authority over the narrator, to provoke a feeling of intimidation for the narrator, this reinforces the idea of oppression being shown through patriarchy, Gillman uses the idea of John’s control and assertion of dominance verbally to oppress the Yellow Wallpaperer however, in The Bell Jar, Plath conveys the idea of patriarchy through the character of Marco, verbally by referring to Esther using derogatory profanities such as ‘Slut!’ however, also physically, for example being ‘riveted, limb for limb’ without Esther’s consent.

In conclusion, the theme of repression towards women is presented from similar viewpoints in both Yellow Wallpaper and The Bell Jar however, Plath’s feminist views are much more stronger than Gillman’s and are conveyed in a much more explicit and grotesque way, this leaves the reader shocked and allows the reader to fully comprehend with Plath’s radical views however, Plath uses characters like Gilling, Dr Nolan and Doleen as a force of change towards the oppression of women. She utilises characters like Mrs Willard as a representation of what society’s views were towards women in the 20th century. The rape scene is a metaphor for the repression women suffered. However, the fig-tree is also utilised by Plath to symbolise the opportunities Esther has, as time passes by Plath uses the image of the leaves falling off of the tree to resemble the loss of opportunity women faced as a result of the oppression females faced because of the stigmas attached to them from society. In comparison to The Bell Jar, Gillman uses the character of John to represent patriarchy as the reason to why women were oppressed in the 19th century. Views held by both 19th century writer Gillman and 20th century writer Esther are similar however, the views explained by 20th century writer Plath are conveyed in a much more impactful, explicit way.


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