Tag Archives: feminism

Symbolism, Characterization, and Themes in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Below is my detailed literary analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for my students and for me … and for you. I used to review and analyze every story that I studied in graduate school, and later, every story I taught. I’ve decided that I want to do that again to help me with my own teaching. My thoughts from 2003 on this story can be found on the blog here, but I thought it was worth updating. My teaching materials for this story – which are extensive – will be available at some time, too, hopefully in the near future.


“The Yellow Wallpaper” (originally the title appeared as “The Yellow Wall-paper”) was first published in 1892 and is based largely on the author’s own experiences. Like many women of her time, including Virginia Woolf (who address this in Mrs. Dalloway), Gilman (then Stetson) was subjected to the “rest cure” a treatment for (generally postpartum) depression. Pioneered by Silas Weir Mitchell – who is called out by name in Gilman’s story – it involved keeping the woman’s mind unstimulated by forbidding reading and writing (aka thinking), and prescribing bed rest that generally included no exercise or socializing. Added to this was a diet heavy in often raw meat, and high fat foods such as butter and milk; this was due to Mitchell’s belief that women’s depression was caused by a lack of “blood and fat,” which the rest cure was meant to remedy. The treatment was worse than the disease for many women, and Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” was considered an indictment of the treatment, and which directly contributed to its discontinuation. Gilman also explained this in her brief essay, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,which you can read online here.


Unnamed Narrator: As tempted as everyone is to call her “Charlotte,” the narrator of the story has no name. She is taken to a house and subjected to the “rest cure,” which gradually drives her insane. She writes the story as a diary or series of letters over the period of her confinement. At the end of the story she has descended completely into madness.

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Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

File this post under blasts from the past(s). As my 10 years blogiversary approaches, I was feeling nostalgic about my old, hand-coded website, so of course I looked it up on the Wayback Machine. I was braced for something really amazing, and instead I found a website with roughly ten book reviews and three recipes on it. Despite its failure to live up to my memory of it, there were some good things there, and below are reviews of Herland and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” both by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, that I wrote way back in 2003.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I first heard about Herland in my Introduction to Women’s Studies class in Fall 2000, but I didn’t get around to reading it for almost three years. I bought a collected works of Gilman, and I’m incredibly happy with it, though it’s important to say right off the bat that this book is not for everyone. People with absolutely no interest in women’s studies, philosophy, anthropology or even cultural studies aren’t going to get much out of it, though I would still strongly recommend her short stories (particularly “The Yellow Wallpaper”).

Herland is the story of three men, all of whom are explorers, during their stay in the eponymous Herland. They stumble upon this all-female society quite by accident and attempt to learn about their culture while shielding the women of Herland from the truths about their own. They fail miserably, but are accepted into the society, and all three eventually marry. The men in the book are very much stereotypes; there is the southern gentleman who worships the women of Herland, the womanizer who goes near-insane and leaves loathing the women, and the balanced down-to-earth guy who takes his better half back to his (our) society so that she may be able to send a report back home. The women are less stereotypes, but more homogenized, they are all extremely similar and all of the women of Herland embody all of the basic values of our society, both male and female. For example: independence, intelligence, athleticism, temperance, kindness, and self-awareness to name a few.

The real strength of this book is as a work of philosophy, using fiction as an illustrative tool that serves to show how bizarre sex and gender divides really are in society and how their maintenance is out of habit more than practicality. I don’t want to judge this as a work of fiction alone because I really think it’s an amazing piece of fictional philosophy. In short: I liked this book but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone not interested in the fields it directly pertains to.

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Stop Using the Word “Seminal”

Ages ago, when I was applying to graduate school, I had a new professor and recent doctoral graduate look over the paper I was using as my writing sample. She only had one comment: “You need to not use the word ‘seminal’ … ever preferably, but especially when you’re discussing women.” At the time I had no idea what the issue with “seminal” was, now I do.

In the literary field the word “seminal” used to be very much in fashion, and it still surfaces from time to time, usually from newer authors. It’s a very “college” word, one people tend to use to make themselves look fancy, like “eponymous” (which I am guilty of overusing) or “mimetic.” Recently I saw “seminal” used in a talk about Toni Morrison – I winced. Why? Well let’s look at the definition of “seminal”:

  1. of, relating to, or consisting of seed or semen
  2. containing or contributing the seeds of later development

First of all, in the literary field, the term is (almost always) used when referring to a person’s best-known or most highly-regarded work, so even if we’re using definition #2 it’s being used incorrectly. Second, even the dictionary is giving primacy to a definition that is explicitly and exclusively linked to male biology. Problematic. If there’s one thing Morrison’s work is not it’s seminal as in definition #1, perhaps you can use it correctly when discussing Song on Solomon, but what about Sula? Even if you can use the word doesn’t mean that you should want to use it. Going deeper into the etymology of seminal we need to look at its Latin root.

from Latin seminalis, from semin-, semen seed

Wow, “semin, semen seed” that is one seminal Lain root right there. So what’s the big deal? Basically in using the word “seminal” to describe a literary work, even if you have definition #2 in mind, you’re still referencing a Lain root use that is grounded in male sexual reproduction. This is problematic because it implies that the origin of a work is male, regardless of who wrote it. This is not about being “PC” (which in moderation it not the worst thing that could happen to the world*), it is about retiring a word from academic use – for both students and scholars – that places the locus of origin not simply in masculinity, but in biological maleness.

The Man's Journal for Men

Perhaps if you want to publish in The Man’s Journal for Men: Bildungroman and Hemingway Edition then by all means, use the word, I won’t complain. Heck, I’d love to see that journal, it sounds tense. For everyone/thing else, using “seminal” will elicit eye rolls and admonishments from informed members of your audience. If I’m there, I might just “boo” you, and wouldn’t that be unpleasant? Use of “seminal” will communicate to your audience that you are out of touch or, even worse, being purposefully disrespectful to the author or work that you are discussing.

* I cannot help but think of a 1960s newspaper article I stumbled upon with an op-ed about the “high heel fashion trend” from a respected, male, war correspondent. In it he related an anecdote about a fat woman (yes, he literally calls her out for being fat) who got her high heel stuck in a grate on the street and had to be rescued by the writer. Even though she’s stupid, he notes, at least it gave him a chance to be chivalrous, which is a dying profession because of stupid feminism. What a gentleman.

Lolita x Feminism = Parfait Doll

The borderland between feminism and cute/kawaii/feminine/girly culture is one that I’ve thought about for a long time. My blog is one long document of struggle. If you look back through the pages you’ll see literary scholarship parsed with doll announcements. Even some of my Zombuki dolls are feminist revisions of anti-woman myths (Leda and the Swan, the Crane Wife). However I still feel that, were I to blog about, oh say, a new Hello Kitty Re-Ment set, it would somehow throw my legitimacy as a “serious” scholar, educator, artist, and perhaps even feminist into question. I need to get over this.

The amazing feminist lolita blog Parfait Doll does a stunning job of navigating this space. She is clearly a brilliant young woman who absolutely feels that her lolita lifestyle is perfectly in step with her feminism. She is a hero. Here is an excerpt from her spotlight of Subversive Kawaii:

Just because I’m cute and enjoy cute things, doesn’t mean you can walk on me. Just because I like pink and ribbons and glitter, doesn’t mean I’ll stand for being treated like a little girl without opinions of my own. Here’s the thing. When I am angry and have choice words and hand gestures for Paul Ryan on my television set, I am tired of being told to act like a lady and express my anger in a more respectful way. I don’t owe these guys my respect. I am five foot two, I have pink hair and I am wearing a tiara and I do not have to show you respect if I choose not to. I do not have to play nice.

First of all: applause! Second of all, I need to be able to get to this place of comfort with myself. Reading her blog I realize that I’m not there yet, and I need to be. Having (now wanting to have) pink hair, loving Hello Kitty, collecting dolls, and watching children’s movies (or regular sitcoms, but things without violence/drama) has led to a a lot personal criticism: that I am a baby, a child, that I don’t want to grow up, or that I want to be Japanese. I need to tell those people to bite me. Bowing to it, not publishing Hello Kitty next to scholarship, letting it effect me, letting it change how I act or what I do, it all tells those people that they are right, that I should change, that I am the problem instead of them.

I need to work on this, and I am going to, and if you at all get where I’m coming from go subscribe to Parfait Doll, I think you will really enjoy it.