— As Expressed in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” —
Often ideas presented in literature make value judgments concerning contemporary beliefs. These ideas are frequently obscured due to forms of censorship or oppression and require some effort to discover. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the repression of women in the nineteenth century is related to racist ideologies held at the same time. Through her careful insinuations of racism and its relation to the oppression that women experience, the patriarchal society of the nineteenth century is condemned as a savage one.
In order to recognize and understand the insinuations of race for what they are, one must first have a basic understanding of the history behind such insinuations. Racism, in short, is frequently an irrational reaction to a real or perceived threat to the status quo. This can be brought on by the sudden immigration of highly visible groups of foreigners and radical changes in the racial composition of a neighbourhood. When gold was discovered in the United States in 1848 and during the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, from 1864 to 1869, large numbers of Chinese came to the west coast of the United States. This gave rise to the alarmist cry of ‘Yellow peril’ and the “economic competition between Chinese and white American laborers led to anti-Chinese agitation, which intensified during the depression of the 1870s and culminated in 1877 in anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco.”¹ In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act suspended Chinese immigration completely for 10 years, but this act was extended and continued to remain in effect until the law was repealed in 1943. These anti-Chinese sentiments were also held against the thousands of Japanese that had settled in the states of California, Oregon and Washington. The white American residents of these states demanded the exclusion of the Japanese by legislation similar to the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882, 1892 and 1902. This agitation was led by American labor unions who resented the Japanese, as they did the Chinese, for the fact that Japanese laborers were willing to work for lower wages and longer hours than the white Americans. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was most likely aware of such racist ideologies when she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” because they were prevalent during her life and indeed a Chinese Exclusion Act was even passed in the same year (1892) that “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written. Therefore it is understandable that she insinuates race to reflect her own feelings of being the target of discrimination, which in her case is sexism.
The insinuations of race can be found throughout “The Yellow Wallpaper” when she describes the wallpaper itself and are often unpleasant and pejorative in tone. The color of the wallpaper itself alludes to Mongoloid skin. She finds “the color . . . repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow . . . a dull yet lurid orange . . . a sickly sulphur tint” (34). As well, Charlotte Perkins Gilman refers to “a yellow smell” (181) which can interpreted to signify the odor which Mongoloids may seem to have due to the different foods that they eat. She doesn’t find it awful or sweet, but simply “a peculiar odor . . . quite the subtlest, most enduring odor I have ever met” (177,178). Charlotte Perkins Gilman makes reference to the uniquely shaped Mongoloid eyes, due to a fold of skin (the epicanthic fold) that covers at least the inner corner of the eyes and gives it an almond shaped appearance, and the vast population of Mongoloids while talking about the wallpaper. As Gilman writes, “it has so many heads . . . the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, makes there eyes white” (189,190) , and “two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down” (64) and “all those strangled heads and bulbous eyes” (239) and “those absurd unblinking eyes are everywhere” (65). Indeed to many white people the Mongoloid eye, so alien to Caucasians, and the sheer population of the Mongoloid peoples would be frighteningly strange and cause feelings of panic resulting in unfounded racist ideologies. Gilman reflects these feelings of confusion, disgust, and fright in her insinuations of race to sympathize with her situation in a repressive society which supports sexist ideologies.
Much like the Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the United States, Gilman experiences discrimination. However, she is not discriminated against due to her skin pigmentation or the shape of her eyes, rather she is suppressed because of her gender. The traditional male dominated society accepts and continues to contribute to this oppression. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” she feels this stifling atmosphere and is driven to madness. John, her husband, keeps her locked in her room like a child to let her get better. He “hates to have [her] write” (36) ,condemns her concerns to being mere “fancies” (49) and calls her “a blessed little goose” (53) and a “little girl” (129). Through these demeaning actions, John lowers his wife’s status to less than an equal. In effect, he becomes her master and father, as opposed to a husband and partner. He tells her that she is “his darling and his comfort and all he [has], and that [she] must take care of [herself] for his sake, and keep well” (112). This trivializes her as his possession and it seems that he is worried about her for his sake, worrying about his precious possession, rather than about her well being for her own sake. She relates to the woman that she sees “always creeping” (195) behind the wallpaper and outside, because they are both imprisoned. Later she is reduced to a crawling, creeping woman who believes that she has “come out of that wallpaper” (243).
The yellow wallpaper represents the oppression that she has felt from John’s actions, and on a macroscopic level, the repression of women from the patriarchal society of the nineteenth century. As well, it can serve as a symbol of the oppression that the Chinese, Japanese and other Mongoloid peoples have experienced from Caucasian dominated societies. Through her tearing of the wallpaper, she expresses her disagreement with both forms of discrimination and her sympathy for the plight of other oppressed peoples who are “trying to climb through” (189) the oppression which is the yellow wallpaper.
Elliot, Robert Barkan. “Immigration.” The World Book Encyclopedia. United States: World Book, 1968. I:83-85.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper” The Harbrace Anthology of Literature. Ed. Jon C. Stott, Raymond E. Jones, and Rick Bowers. Toronto: Harcourt, 1993. 850-909.
Mcfarland, Gerald W. “Chinese Exclusion Acts.” The Software Toolworks Multimedia Encyclopedia. United States: The Software Toolworks, 1992.
Sung, Betty Lee. Mountain of Gold: The Story of the Chinese in America. New York: Macmillan, 1972.