Through her stories, “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Making a Change,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman portrays two contrasting views of women in similarly restrictive circumstances. Both the women are young mothers with creative talents that are being squelched by their husbands and families. The difference lies in what the two women do within these contexts.
While one woman takes control of the situation, ultimately renewing and empowering herself, the other submits to the forces pushing against her, eventually going crazy. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a woman, Jane, struggles for mental independence.She has been diagnosed with “temporary nervous depression” by her husband, who is a doctor. She purports, however, that she is neither nervous nor depressed.
She simply wants mental and social stimulation, both of which are not being allowed her because of her “condition. ” Instead of receiving visitors and enjoying the countryside, Jane is confined to a room that used to be a nursery. This is just one of the evidences of how she is treated like a child throughout the whole story. The one characteristic of the room that haunts Jane is the wallpaper – it is yellow, grotesque and glaring.
She spends her spare time watching it and writing about it. The color and pattern intrigue her so much that she cannot sleep for thinking about it and looking at it. Although Jane is “on vacation” with her family, she sees little of her husband. He is a doctor and spends most of his time out of the house, working with his patients.
In the meantime, Jane stays in the house, seldom even venturing downstairs or into the garden. The only people in the house with her are her own young baby and her sister-in-law, Jennie. Jane writes that she “cannot be with” her baby.It is obvious that she loves the child, but she has little desire to care for it and nurse it.
Such a statement coming from a nineteenth century mother would be considered radical and crazy in itself. According to society and her own family, Jane’s place was in the home, caring for her husband and children. Whether Jane can be considered a “writer” or not, she makes it very clear that she enjoys and is gifted at writing. She finds that it is an outlet for her mental and emotional creativity.
This is yet another thing that brands Jane as unusual for her time.Her husband feels that it is detrimental for her to write anything, or even imagine anything. This ban on her creative talents only makes Jane more secretive and introverted. She has to sneak in her writing times when everyone is out of the house or at least when she is alone in the room.
As Jane spends more time in the room, observing and analyzing the wallpaper, she becomes more subdued and gentle. Her intrigue with the wallpaper makes her forget about recovering from her condition. Her husband believes that she is getting better, but, in fact, she is hardly sleeping or eating.She allows him to continue believing this, submitting to his advice with hardly a question.
The drama that Jane imagines is happening within the wallpaper eventually drives her to destroy it, then lock herself in the room and crawl around it. At one point she even considers jumping out of the window. She hallucinates and believes that there is a woman behind or within the wallpaper who is desperately trying to get out. By the end of the story, Jane’s behavior can easily be called crazy.
She rips off the wallpaper, trying to get the woman out.In the final moments of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Jane is crawling on all fours around the nursery, her shoulder pressed against the wall. While “Making a Change” has a far less dramatic ending, it has many elements in common with “The Yellow Wallpaper. ” Julie and Frank are a typical late nineteenth-century couple.
Gilman, in these stories, chooses typical scenarios for her characters to work through. Jane has a condition that many women have been diagnosed with; Julie is a very normal housewife, facing the same challenges that many women of her day would have encountered.This carries over even into the marriage of Frank and Julia. When they fell in love and were married, Julia decided to give up her musical activities so that she could be a homemaker, caring for her husband and later, their baby.
Julia had been a fairly accomplished pianist and violinist and spent her single life teaching music and giving lessons. Like Jane’s writing, music was an outlet for Julia. Not only did it give her emotional and mental relief; it allowed her a considerable amount of economic independence. Julia’s marriage to Frank changes all of this, and she hardly even takes time to play her instruments.
They lie idle and unused. Instead, Julia spends her days and nights in their city apartment. Frank is away all day at his professional job. He is an engineer.
Frank has almost no idea what goes on in his home all day. While he is an affectionate husband and has an intimate relationship with Julia, it never seems to occur to him that she is struggling within the restricting walls that her new family has put up around her. Frank’s treatment of Julia is similar to John’s of Jane. He calls her “Girlie,” just as John calls Jane “little girl.
Like John, Frank does not have “the faintest appreciation of her state of mind. “Julia’s only companion is her strong-willed mother-in-law, Mrs. Gordon. And of course the baby.
Julia cares for the baby meticulously, but the job seems to overwhelm her. The baby is not happy, and Julia is even less so. Like Jane, Julia finds motherhood to be a burden, especially since she takes the complete responsibility of it on herself. Julia’s spirit becomes more weighed down as even her husband blames her for the baby’s crankiness.
Her mother-in-law is almost a threatening presence in the home.Mrs. Gordon offers to care for the baby, but Julia will not let her, feeling that it is a matter of her own pride and standing in the home. The truth is that Julia is just not “gifted” in caring for babies.
Finally, on the morning described in the story, Julia breaks down. She goes to her bedroom, starts a fire, and almost succeeds at killing herself. It is at this point in the story that “Making a Change” completely departs from the direction “The Yellow Wallpaper” takes. Julia has one thing that Jane does not – an advocate, a fellow woman.
This is characteristic of any women’s liberation movement of any time period – that women join together, supporting, encouraging, and helping one another. Mrs. Gordon does just that – she heroically saves Julia from the fire in her room. Afterward, they sit down to talk and reveal their vulnerabilities to each other.
Finally, Julia and Mrs. Gordon come up with a plan to combine their resources and talents in order to maintain a lifestyle that allows them a break from domestic ties and relieves the tremendous tension threatening their home life. Julia does not go crazy.She remakes her situation, manipulating factors that are under her control.
As a result, the economic situation of the household is improved. Julia and her mother-in-law are practically independent, together paying the rent and other household expenses. One could almost say that Frank is no longer needed. Julie and Mrs.
Gordon together improve their quality of life without any assistance from the male figure. Not only is the family better off financially, but both Julia and Mrs. Gordon can get beyond the restricting walls of their little apartment and receive stimulation from their “professional” occupations.Julia gives music lessons and Mrs.
Gordon conducts a day care for neighborhood babies. Jane and Julia may seem like very different characters, but I believe the only difference is in the choices they make. Jane chooses to let the wallpaper overwhelm her. She chooses to be afraid and not communicate with her husband what she honestly thinks.
She succumbs to his assessment of who she is, and then becomes what he believes her to be. She is a child, crawling around the nursery, needing to be cared for and nurtured, but not listened to.Julia, on the other hand, becomes vulnerable to another woman, admitting her weaknesses. As she opens up to the senior Mrs.
Gordon, Julia realizes that they are not so different after all. Both women have been trapping themselves. They are not each other’s enemies. Neither is Frank their enemy.
Instead, they have been untrue to themselves by not demanding some type of audience for their minds. They have allowed themselves to become dependent upon what everyone else thinks of them — what Frank thinks of them, what they think of each other. Jane had done just the same thing.She let everyone else’s opinions of her dictate who she was.
Gilman wants every woman to create an identity for herself, one that is distinct from the home and marriage duties. These things may be contributors to a woman’s identity, but they are certainly not the beginning and ending of her existence as a human being. For Julia, the menial duties of motherhood are not an integral part of her identity. She is a mechanical mother.
Motherhood does not provide the “current of expression” that she needs to survive. However, caring for little babies does bring immense joy and personal satisfaction to senior Mrs.Gordon. Gilman is making the point here that every woman needs an outlet to express her abilities and intelligence.
It might be music for one woman, writing for another, or even day care for children, as in Mrs. Gordon’s case. Mrs. Gordon is a major character in the plot, one that can be said to have changed the entire outcome of the story.
However, I believe she is no more important in her relationship to Julie than Jennie is to Jane in “The Yellow Wallpaper. ” The difference is, once again, Julia’s choices. Jane had someone in her life, a woman, that she could have reached out to for assistance.But she chose to alienate herself from this source of help.
She let Jennie become an enemy and looked upon her with hostility. Julia accepted the help that Mrs. Gordon offered, sharing her frailty with her mother-in-law, coming to terms with the fact that there was another woman in the house who could possibly empathize with her situation. Would things have been different for Jane if she had not closed herself off even from Jennie? If Jane had viewed Jennie as an equal, a woman who might have struggled with similar things as Jane, she would have had one supporter, one voice to join in with her own.
Both Jane and Julia thought their problems were impossible to overcome. The truth was that they were not. All these women needed to overcome was their own fear of changing the world in which they lived. Julia did it.
Jane did not. What Gilman brings it down to is choice. Every woman has her choice. She can submit, she can “sell out” and give in to the controls that will inevitably be placed about her.
Or she can take control and create a world in which she can satisfy the needs of her soul, then nourish those around her from the overflow.