Examining Oppression Through the Lives and Stories of Sylvia Plath and Charlotte Perkins Gilman

By Sandra L. Meyer
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

Sylvia Plath‘s The Bell Jar is about a young woman named Esther Greenwood entering college in the early 1950’s, a time before the second wave of the women’s movement had been implemented. Esther has dreams of becoming a famous writer while most of the women around her dream of finding a husband. Esther does not fit in with these women - no matter how hard she tries she knows she is meant for something more than domestic life. Her struggles between the world she knows and the world she wants create an inner turmoil that eventually sends her to an institution where she receives electrical shock treatments. These treatments are meant to stifle her creativity and desires, leaving her placid and docile – which is exactly what she feared she would become if she surrendered to the domestic life of wife and mother.

A similar theme is threaded throughout Charlotte Gilman Perkin’s The Yellow Wallpaper in that the female protagonist is also a writer who is struggling with her own identity. Gilman brilliantly takes her readers on a harrowing journey of a woman controlled completely by her husband, so much to the point that she has been imprisoned in a solitary room by his command. Gilman confirms the woman’s unimportance by not giving her a name, as she does to the other characters in the story. The woman, having recently had a baby, is suffering from post-partum depression. Her husband, however, insists her problems are a product of an overactive imagination. His solution is to take away all activities that may stimulate her imagination any further and instills the ill-fated rest cure. As a result of this treatment, the woman is confined from her friends, family, and creative abilities, and she spirals downward into a state of dementia, unable to return to her former life.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Sylvia Plath utilize their real life situations in these compelling works about how being a woman living in a patriarchal society ultimately caused their mental breakdowns. The labels of wife and mother that were coveted by many women during the Victorian era and still in the 1950’s, were not labels that appealed to Gilman and Plath. Instead, they felt stifled by these stereotypes and wanted to break the mold - society, however, had a different view. The oppression and creative stifling, faced by the female protagonists created by Charlotte Gilman and Sylvia Plath, fueled their problems, and ultimately led to their mental decline.

There have been many critical reviews of The Bell Jar over the years, and most agree, that the male dominated society in which the character of Esther Greenwood resided, attributed to her mental breakdown. Wendy Martin writes “Male writers are permitted to articulate their aggression, however violent or hostile; women writers are supposed to pretend that they are never angry. Sylvia Plath refuses to honor this concept of feminine decorum and dares to express her negative emotions.” (Martin 55-68). In her essay ― “’God‘s Lioness’ – Sylvia Plath, Her Prose and Poetry,’” Martin describes similarities between Plath and her character, Esther Greenwood and points out that Esther was fueled by Plath‘s anger at the treatment of women, and the limited options she felt were available to her because of her sex.

Critic Linda W. Wagner acknowledges the gender issues raised in The Bell Jar, and further describes the problems faced by Esther as being identity related, as well as the struggle of being a woman in a male dominated society. In her article: “A Ritual for Being Born Twice: Sylvia Plath‘s The Bell Jar,” Wagner analyzes the struggles that the character of Esther Greenwood faces in choosing between career and family. She summarizes that  “disease, whether mental or physical, is an index to the human inability to cope with an unlivable situation.” (Wagner 2). Another critical perspective comes from Marjorie G. Perloff, who concludes that Esther‘s issues stem from a battle between her  ‘inner self‘ and her ‘outer behavior‘, suggesting Esther suffers from schizophrenia. Perloff points to several situations in which Esther seems to divide herself into two separate personalities, each serving the purpose of survival of the self.  Perloff suggests though, that the struggles that Esther faces “seems to have a great deal to do with being a woman in a society whose guidelines for women she can neither accept nor reject” (Perloff 3).

The idea of the battle against self is further investigated in an article in Women’s Studies by Diane S. Bonds. Bonds suggests that The Bell Jar is a “collusion between the notion of a separate and separative self (or bounded, autonomous subject) and the cultural forces that have oppressed women” (Bonds 1). Bonds explores the idea of self exploration that Esther faces throughout the novel, and how the patriarchal atmosphere slowly causes her to actually lose pieces of herself as she fights the oppression. All of these perspectives have one thing in common – they all point back to the issue of oppression of women. Though each critic finds a different angle to discuss, each argument is founded on the basis of a woman trying to validate herself in a man‘s world. The ideas presented by these critics lend a great deal of insight into the tragic breakdown of Esther, however, could have further concentrated on the affect of her writing, or lack of writing, to her mental state. I will explore this in greater detail in my own analysis.

The story of The Yellow Wallpaper has been the subject of numerous critical reviews since its first publication in 1892. Some critics see this as a Gothic tale, meant to create the feelings of horror and shock that Poe‘s short stories achieved. Greg Johnson points out the Gothic themes in his critical analysis, but also identifies the narrator‘s need to write as an escape from her confinement. Johnson describes the story as  “a woman attempting to save herself through her own writing…” (Johnson 2).

While critics like Beverly Hume and Penelope Deutscher agree that Gilman‘s tale exemplifies the problems that stemmed from the narrator‘s desire to fight her oppression, others concentrate on the actual treatments that the narrator faces as additional causes for her unraveling. John S. Bak writes about a method of prisoner surveillance called Panopticon. Bak argues that the Panopticon method was very similar to the treatment in which the narrator was subjected to, and was shown to be detrimental to the emotional state of the prisoner to whom it was instated. Bak also notes that  “The Yellow Wallpaper, then became a feminist text that indicated the men who were responsible for the narrator‘s physical confinement and subsequent mental demise” (Bak 1). This is yet another critic agreeing that the way the narrator in this story was treated, was largely responsible for her eventual total breakdown.

Another facet to the treatment faced by Gilman‘s protagonist was the instilment of the famed ‘rest cure‘. Critics Paula A. Treichler and Linda Wagner-Martin touch on the rest cure and its effects on the narrator, agreeing that the treatment was often worse than the supposed illness. In regards to The Yellow Wallpaper, Treichler writes  “A feminist reading emphasizes the social and economic conditions which drive the narrator – and potentially all women – to madness” (Golden 195).

While there are an unlimited amount of positions that critics can argue in regards to this story, most agree that at the center lies the issue of the narrator’s forced subservience to her husband, John. John controls every aspect of her life, from her diet, to her sleeping routine, down to with whom she is allowed to interact. This complete relinquishment of freedom takes the narrator from a slight depression into the full throes of a mental breakdown in which she apparently never recovers. The aspects of oppression, submission, and failed medical treatments, will be further scrutinized in this paper, and proven to be key issues in the narrators‘ madness.

Gilman and Plath were creative and educated women who had a desire to live up to their full potentials, and not just the role of wife and mother that society had created for them. The characters that they wrote about had many of the same aspirations and faced many of the same obstacles. In writing The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath creates the character of Esther Greenwood as a way to deal with the emotions she wrestled with. Wendy Martin writes “Male writers are permitted to articulate their aggression, however violent or hostile; women writers are supposed to pretend that they are never angry. Sylvia Plath refuses to honor this concept of feminine decorum and dares to express her negative emotions” (Martin 55-68). The character of Esther Greenwood unabashedly describes her emotions about the resentment she has about the patriarchal society in which she lives. The only purpose that Esther sees in a man is so that she can lose her virginity. She does not desire marriage, instead she says, “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in anyway. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters” (Plath 76).

Esther defies her social role at every turn, dating a variety of men and thinking that men exist only to control women, a thought that keeps her running from any type of serious relationship. Life is viewed as meaningless if she does not have her own identity as a writer, and she refuses the notion of getting married, though she pursues love anyway. Martin writes that  “the bell jar is a symbol for the internal chaos and despair produced by excessive external prohibitions” (Martin 3). These  “prohibitions” consisted of the fact that Esther feels condemned to a life of domesticity based on the fact that she was born female. She believes that she could either have a career, or a family, but both would not be possible. Esther begins imagining marriage as she pursues men in New York in a quest to lose her virginity. She soon comes to the realization though, that  “in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard‘s kitchen mat” (Plath 85). This is not the life for which Esther has worked so hard - she did not spend years studying and proving her intelligence just to wind up as someone‘s property.

This battle between finding a man, and finding herself, is what ultimately unravels Esther, ensuing in her suicide attempt. She pursues many different men throughout the course of the story; however, she fears sinking into the mediocrity she feels all relationships bring. She says  “The same thing happened over and over: I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved closer I immediately saw he wouldn‘t do at all“ (Plath 83). Esther finds flaws in every man, because it is easier to not be in a relationship, then to risk losing her self in one. She does not want to accept that marriage is her only option, and she finds herself once again being swallowed by the bell jar. The problem she faces though, is that the men in her life can not believe that she does not want what they feel every woman should want: domesticity. When Esther tells Buddy Williard that she never wants to marry because of her work, he tells her that  “after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn‘t want to write poems anymore” (Plath 85). This statement by Buddy only reinforces what Esther has felt all  long, which is: “maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state” (Plath 85). This realization draws Esther further and further away from a meaningful relationship with any man, and makes her work and school that much more important to her in having her own identity.

Esther is caught in a dilemma of following her social order by getting married, or pursing her need for independence. Diane Bonds identifies The Bell Jar as a  “novel [that] dramatizes a double bind for women in which, on the one hand, an authentic self is one that is presumed to be autonomous and whole, entire to itself and clearly bounded, and yet in which, on the other hand, women have their identity primarily through relationship to a man” (Bond 49-64). Esther has spent a great deal of energy running from the men in her life, as well as running to them. She seeks them out for sexual purposes, and then flees from them if they seem to want more from her. Her hostility towards men is fueled by their inability to see her as a separate, intellectual being. Buddy refers to her poetry as ―a piece of dust,‖ completely belittling her work and life choices (Plath 56). Other men such as Marco consider women as ―sluts, all sluts,‖ further angering Esther against men (Plath 109). It seems that there is no man that will accept her as a bright, successful woman with a mind and desires of her own. Esther‘s emotional deterioration begins to increase with significant swiftness when Esther realizes that she has not been accepted into the writing program that she had desperately wanted. Now her choices feel limited to the docile life her mother lived and she returns home defeated, only to be encouraged by her mother to take shorthand classes - a sure sign of failure in Esther‘s eyes. Esther rebels against the only choice she feels she has left – a life of domesticity. Diane S. Bonds writes it is “the domestic servitude that Esther painfully recognizes as a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A‘s” (Bonds 4).

Esther‘s future is bleak - she can not summon her creativity to write the novel she aspires, though she tries. She creates a character disguised as her self in the hope that she can exorcise the demons she faces through this character. Unfortunately Esther‘s struggles cause an inability to focus on writing her novel, or deciding any aspect of future. This causes sleeplessness and eventually she contemplates taking her own life. Linda W. Wagner surmises “the bell jar presents no choices, no alternatives, except death” (Wagner 4). Ultimately Esther succumbs to her depression and plans several suicide attempts. She is almost successful when she takes a large dose of pills, but is found in time by her mother. She finds herself in an institution facing the electroshock therapy that she feared most. With each new day she fights her fears and slowly is given small freedoms to regain her life as her own. Esther, however, has not escaped her inner struggle. Upon her release from the institution she writes “I was my own woman. The next step was to find the proper sort of man” (Plath 223). These two statements are contradicting, and yet sum up Esther‘s lifetime conflict. Esther wants to be her own woman, and have a fulfilling career – yet the inherent desire to find a man haunts her. We are not given any details after Esther‘s release from the institution but are left with the impression that she is still unfulfilled - floating aimlessly through her life. She says “I had hoped at my departure, I would feel sure and knowledgeable about everything that lay ahead … Instead, all I could see were question marks” (Plath 243). Esther is still sitting in the symbolic fig tree, trying to determine a direction of her own choice, and struggling against a society dominated by men.

A very similar theme is threaded throughout Gilman‘s The Yellow Wallpaper in that the female protagonist is also a writer who is struggling with her own identity. Gilman brilliantly takes her readers on a harrowing journey of a woman controlled completely by her husband, so much to the point that she has been imprisoned in a solitary room of a rented home. Showing that this woman is of little or no importance, Gilman does not even give her a name her in this story. The woman having recently had a baby, is suffering from post-partum depression, however, her husband insists her problems are in her imagination, and therefore he takes away all activities that may stimulate her imagination any further, and instills the ill-fated rest cure. In an excerpt from The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper, Loralee Mac Pike writes:

“The narrator is to be forever imprisoned in childhood, forbidden to ‘escape’ into adulthood. She instinctively feels that, just as only her work can transport her out of the world of childhood, so too can it alone free her from her dependence upon her husband in particular and the male-created world in general” (138). Gilman‘s character is forbidden all of the activities that she loves, such as writing, socializing, and exercising, as if she were being punished for being a naughty child. As a result of this treatment she spirals downward into a state of dementia, unable to return to her former life.

Author and critic John S. Bak explores the imprisonment of the narrator, and ties it with an eighteenth century surveillance method called the Panopticon. According to Bak,  “The Panopticon‘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). Bak suggests that this form of observation had a detrimental affect on the person upon which it was inflicted. This theory is proven in the form of the narrator as we watch her descent into madness. At the beginning of her journal she is in good spirits considering her surroundings, and able to write about her experiences in clear terms. The woman begins to tell about the actual conditions of the room to which she has been banned. We learn about the bars on the windows and  that “there are rings and things in the walls” (Gilman 30). These “rings and things,” are restraining devices meant to keep her in place. She at first dismisses these things, but as her time in the room elapses, these items stir up agitation and paranoia. Not only has her husband removed her from her own home and her own child, but he has taken command of her as if she were his child.

The narrators‘ need to write becomes more of a focus as she grows tired of her mundane, inactive days. Greg Johnson concludes that “The Yellow Wallpaper is a kind of diary, an accurate record of her turbulent inward journey” (Johnson 2). The narrator wants to write, needs to write, but with each day of her imprisonment, she grows wearier . One journal entry begins with  “I don‘t know why I should write this. I don‘t want to. I don‘t feel able. … But I must say what I feel and think in some way – it is such a relief!” (Gilman 35). She is expressing the importance of her writing as a way to deal with her emotions, but the treatment she is receiving is taking its toll on her ability to think clearly. The absence of stimulation and socialization is draining her of any ambition she has to write, though she knows the importance of continuing this diary.

The woman is continually rebuked by her husband, and made to feel inadequate and childlike. When finding her awake one night he asks ―What is it, little girl?,‖ inferring that she is his child instead of his wife (Gilman 36). These demeaning remarks are a constant reminder to the narrator that she is under the complete control of her husband. Her need to find an escape escalates, but her strength declines. Eventually, the narrator turns from her obsession with her husband‘s close observation of her daily activities to the yellow wallpaper. She begins to feel now that it is the yellow wallpaper that is watching her every move. Bak states that ―Once aware of the “unblinking eyes,’ the narrator then believes that there is something behind the paper,… It is this sub-pattern, this fear of what lies behind the eyes of the paper, that consumes and ultimately presses her to madness‖ (Bak 3). She begins a peculiar relationship with the wallpaper, becoming more obsessed with it with each passing day. Se feels that if only she could decode the pattern in this wallpaper, she will gain her freedom. So much time had been spent being disconnected from the real world, and from challenges and stimulation, that she finds her only escape in the wallpaper. As she studies the wallpaper, she starts to see a figure of a woman inside of it. She writes “I didn‘t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman” (Gilman 37). The narrator has become so infatuated with the woman inside the wallpaper, that she begins watching the wallpaper at every waking moment. She begins resenting any visits from the people caring for her, and instead wants to be left alone to study the paper.

The “cure” bestowed upon her is not helping to heal her depression, nor is it enhancing her relationship with her husband or child. Beverly Hume writes “Instead she appears to move deliberately toward her final revelation of herself as the woman in the wallpaper, a woman suffering from the final and grotesque delusion that she has gained her freedom from her domestic situation by literally ripping the paper off her walls” (Hume 6).  Her mental deterioration has become so complete that she sees the wallpaper as a gateway to a new life. The woman behind the paper represents her doppelganger, the woman living a life of freedom and liberation that she so desperately wants. Since she has lost all control of her own life, she sees herself as being in charge of the woman behind the paper, writing “Besides, I don‘t want anybody to get that woman out at night but myself” (Gilman 40). She has lost all decision making for her self, so she exercises her need to be in command through her illusion of the woman in the wallpaper. This woman represents her self and every other woman in her time that has been oppressed by a male dominated society. She can relate to the woman in the wallpaper, because being in the wallpaper personifies being under the thumb of a man, and the narrator is under the thumb of her husband John. Shawn St. Jean writes “Many critics have noted that the narrator‘s descriptions of the wallpaper suggest the ‘front pattern’ of patriarchy strangling the creeping women beneath.” (St. Jean 2). This is exactly how she feels, that she is being strangled slowly by her husband and society‘s demands that she be hidden away for her depression, instead of treated openly with empathy and compassion. She is caught in a time when newly founded feminist ideals were being suffocated by Victorian ones. In her book Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Elizabeth Ammons suggests that the imprisonment of this woman was an attempt by her husband to “recycle Victorian idealogy” (Ammons 39). She is hidden away, and forced to follow her husband‘s every command in an attempt to break her spirit, and turn her into a complacent wife.

The storyteller begins to spend her days tearing at the paper, pulling yard after yard of the ugly paper from the walls in an effort to free the woman and herself. She becomes so totally engrossed in this activity that she no longer desires any company from her husband, or her nurse. In fact, she would rather be left alone completely so that she can concentrate on the task at hand, which is to rip the paper from the walls, figuratively ripping the bars from her prison. We can see an increase in her madness at this point, and her diary entries become more and more erratic as she feels she is gaining momentum in releasing her doppelganger. After another morning of stripping the paper from the walls she writes “I don‘t like to look out of the windows even – there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did” (Gilman 41). She begins to feel sorry for the women she sees creeping about the garden, and finds that she now enjoys the safety of her solitary confinement. Instead of having to creep along outside on the ground, she feels she can enjoy creeping in her own room with the smooth floors. And, if she doesn‘t leave the room – then she does not have to worry about getting lost.

In the final moments of her diary she writes that she has thrown away the key to the room, succumbing completely to her imprisonment. She no longer has any desire to fight the forces that brought her here, and instead has altered her mind so that she can survive her new life, hidden from the rest of the world. Though her madness has been apparent for the reader for quite some time, it is only when John finds her creeping crazily throughout the room, that his eyes are opened for the first time to what she has become. The realization is such a shock, that he faints - leaving her in complete astonishment that a strong man, like John, could faint.

The many critics that have written about The Yellow Wallpaper and The Bell Jar have given a vast array of material to complete this research paper. Their insights into the reasons for the mental decline of the female protagonists in these stories have lent credence to the thesis that oppression is a key cause in the problems these women faced. Oppression of any kind to anyone is never healthy, but it was particularly detrimental to women with creative inclinations such as the two women in these stories. Women in particular have felt the push and pull of finding an identity either based on a career, or on having a family. Both Gilman and Plath suffered through the very same identity crises that they described in the characters they created. Gilman was a feminist who believed in women’s rights, and she believed “women  have been limited to a savage-like state when confined to the home” (Deutscher 2 ). Gilman felt that it was crucial to a woman‘s emotional well being to have her own interests, and not be a slave to the domestic lifestyle. She felt that “home life makes men more selfish and women more degraded and self-abnegating. It physically weakens women‘s bodies and minds” (Deutsher 2). This viewpoint is seen clearly through Gilman‘s narrator as the reader is invited into her personal thoughts. The narrator loses all self worth and all desire to become part of the normal world after having all stimulation removed at the hands of her husband. John becomes her prison guard, doling out food and affection as he decides.

Sylvia Plath also knew first hand the suffering of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Her personal journals write very much like her novel The Bell Jar, emanating the torment she feels at having been born a woman, and therefore being born with limited choices. A passage in her diary states “I am at odds. I dislike being a girl, because as such I must come to realize that I cannot be a man” (Plath 54). She continues “My only free act is choosing or refusing that mate” (Plath 54). This sentiment is in clear agreement with the character of Esther Greenwood. Esther is not happy with her station in life. She does not want to do what society has molded her to do, which is get married and have kids, so she runs from man to man – exercising the only choice she feels she has – refusing or accepting a mate.

Both Gilman and Plath have done a remarkable job of putting the reader into the mind of the narrators‘ of their stories. We can feel the distress of these women as they muddle through a world that won‘t accept them for who they are, and we can feel their pain as they are forced into the mold they have tried so desperately to reject. Instead of having the freedom to pursue their dreams, as they felt that all men were entitled to, they instead had to hide in their own minds, creating a safer world in which no one could ever hurt them again. This was their descent into madness at the hands of the oppressive societies in which they lived.

Ammons, Elizabeth. "Writing Silence: 'The Yellow Wallpaper.'" Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. NY: Oxford UP, 1991

Bak, John S. "Escaping The Jaundiced Eye: Foucauldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper.". Studies in Short Fiction. 31.n1 (Wntr 1994): 39(8). General OneFile. Gale. TAMPA HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRAR. 9 Oct. 2008

Deutscher, Penelope. "The Descent of Man and the Evolution of Woman. " Hypatia. 19.2 (Spring 2004): 35(21). General OneFile. Gale. TAMPA HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRAR. 9 Oct. 2008

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. ―The Yellow Wallpaper.‖ The Yellow Wall-paper and the History of Its Publication and Reception. 6th ed. Ed. Julie Bates Dock. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998. 29–42. Meyer 17

MacPike, Loralee. ―Environment as Psychopathological Symbolism in ―The Yellow Wallpaper‖. The Captive Imagination : A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper. New York : Feminist Press at the City University of New York : Distributed by Talman, 1992. xiii

Hume, Beverly A. "Managing madness in Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper". Studies in American Fiction. 30.1 (Spring 2002): 3(18). General OneFile. Gale. TAMPA HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRAR. 9 Oct. 2008

Johnson, Greg. ―Gilman‘s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in =The Yellow Wallpaper‘‖. Studies in Short Fiction. 26.4 (Fall 1989)

Martin, Wendy. ―‘God‘s Lioness‘—Sylvia Plath, Her Prose and Poetry‖ Women‘s Studies 1 (1973)

Perloff, Marjorie G. ―‘A Ritual for Being Born Twice‘: Sylvia Plath‘s The Bell Jar‖ Contemporary Literature 13.4 (Autumn 1972) Meyer 18

Plath S. The Bell Jar. London: Faber & Faber, 1963

Plath, Sylvia. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Karen V. Kukil New York: Anchor Books, 2000

Wagner-Martin, Linda. ―The Yellow Wallpaper: Overview.‖ Reference Guide to Short Fiction Ed. Noelle Watson. St. James Press, 1994

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