Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-paper"—Writing Women
For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia—and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded that there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to 'live as domestic a life as possible,' to 'have but two hours' intelligent life a day,' and 'never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as I lived.' This was in 1887…
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wall-paper," 1913
Every kind of creature is developed by the exercise of its functions. If denied the exercise of its functions, it can not develop in the fullest degree.
—Charlotte Perkins Stetson (Gilman),
from Hearing of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., January 28, 1896
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wall-paper" was written during a time of great change. In the early- to mid-nineteenth century, "domestic ideology" positioned American middle class women as the spiritual and moral leaders of their home. Such "separate spheres" ideals suggested that a woman's place was in the private domain of the home, where she should carry out her prescribed roles of wife and mother. Men, on the other hand, would rule the public domain through work, politics, and economics. By the middle of the century, this way of thinking began to change as the seeds of early women's rights were planted. By the end of the 1800s, feminists were gaining momentum in favor of change. The concept of "The New Woman," for example, began to circulate in the 1890s–1910s as women pushed for broader roles outside their home-roles that could draw on women's intelligence and non-domestic skills and talents.
Gilman advocated revised roles for women, whom, Gilman believed, should be on much more equal economic, social, and political footing with men. In her famous work of nonfiction Women and Economics (1898), Gilman argued that women should strive-and be able-to work outside the home. Gilman also believed that women should be financially independent from men, and she promoted the then-radical idea that men and women even should share domestic work.
First appearing in the New England Magazine in January 1892, "The Yellow Wall-paper," according to many literary critics, is a narrative study of Gilman's own depression and "nervousness." Gilman, like the narrator of her story, sought medical help from the famous neurologist S. Weir Mitchell. Mitchell prescribed his famous "rest cure," which restricted women from anything that labored and taxed their minds (e.g., thinking, reading, writing) and bodies. More than just a psychological study of postpartum depression, Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-paper" offers a compelling study of Gilman's own feminism and of roles for women in the 1890s and 1910s.
This lesson plan, the second part of a two-part lesson, should be completed after students examine and understand the historical, social, cultural, and economic context of Gilman's story in Lesson One. This lesson requires a close reading of "The Yellow Wall-paper" itself within the context of students' research and analysis in the first part of the full lesson. This lesson is also suitable as a stand-alone lesson plan focusing on a close reading of Gilman's story, exploring such literary concepts as setting, narrative style, symbol, and characterization.
What does Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wall-paper" suggest about middle-class women's place and role(s) in this society?
Upon completing this lesson, students will strengthen their understanding of literary devices such as setting, narrative style, symbol, and characterization.
Students will gain an understanding of the rapidly changing roles of American women in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Students will be able to provide a well-supported analysis of how the narrator of "The Yellow Wall-paper" represents Gilman's feminism.