Structuralism and Feminist Theory in the Yellow Wallpaper

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Svetlana Kryzhanovskaya
Prof. Grajeda
ENC 3014-MidTerm Paper
March 12, 2012
Structuralism & Feminist Theory
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ written by Charlotte Gilman can be affectively analyzed from two schools of thought structuralism and feminist theory. Though structuralists’ deny the work of literature any connection to its author (it must be what it is, no underlying meaning) feminist theory must first and foremost be understood in its historical framework. By the turn of the century, journals, art galleries, and works of fiction were swamped with notions about how to be a proper woman in middle class society. With industrialization, urbanization, declining birth rates, amplified divorce rates, the shift away from the home and the rise in the number of single men and women in the professional class, Americans dreaded that their families would disintegrate. Thus, one of the most important changes to American culture in the late 19th century was the change in the perception and illustration of gender roles. Besides the changes in social order, Americans experienced intense economic modifications. Large corporations replaced small family businesses and people were reliant on their employers. The gap between the rich and the poor radically increased. These changes resulted in an understanding of the home as the last refuge for traditional values for both men and women. Despite the new feminist activism inspired in part by women's roles in the Abolitionist movement, as well as the Temperance and Suffrage movements, women were supposed to exemplify the conventional values represented by the home. In this way, women were associated with the home; both were emblems of the ethics Americans hoped to maintain. The home turned out to be a female gendered domestic space in which women, as the custodians of customs and ethics, both attained and lost power. Glorified as morally better members of society who would protect the family from the harms of business and modernity, women were expected to be chaste, benevolent, self-sacrificing, cultivated, cheerful, compassionate, well-read in the appropriate fields and economical. Most significantly, by relegating women to the conjugal sphere, many women were barred from the new economy and therefore were more and more reliant on their husbands for income. Without the establishment of the separate female gendered domestic sphere, the process of developing a male centered corporate culture would not have been probable. During the 19th century, domesticity was romanticized in literature, mostly in literature by women. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, politicized the home by making it central to social action. By the turn of the century, women like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, produced novels that flouted conventional women's roles in the home. In each text, the female character fantasizes about escape and freedom. Women are depicted as functioning “as a display of her husband's wealth” as suggested in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics regarding the wife’s function which is “to dress and entertain, and order things.”Society and religious conviction, as forms of patriarchy, blind women to the limitations of their gendered individualities and encourage the “angel in the house” image of perfection as their happiest function; that of the “mother-woman”. The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman describes the conventional gender roles of the late 1800’s, through the viewpoint of male supremacy in marriage, with female existence coordinated to a more compliant, or passive position. This story also presents the social relationship between male dominance through accepted “norms” and female “imprisonment”, within the household. The role of women in society is demonstrated distinctly in the depiction of John’s sister in The Yellow Wallpaper. The woman writes, “There comes John’s sister…I must not let her find me writing. She is a perfectionist and...
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