Structuralism and the Yellow Wallpaper
Structuralism and Stetson’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”
In Charlotte Perkins Stetson’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a chilling and darker side of the Victorian woman is exposed. In the story, a young Victorian housewife is believed to be sick by her husband and subsequently locked up in a room, where she slowly begins to loose her grip on reality. In essence, the story demonstrates the extreme power men at the time had over a much more helpless female role, primarily because the structure of society took away all power the women had over their own bodies, lifestyles, and being. In the story, the term insanity and all the meaning behind it becomes a charged method for a patriarchal society to take away power from women; as the author begins to embrace her perceived insanity she begins to solidify her role within this complex and oppressive gender hierarchy, being completely powerless to fight it.
The language of a story goes much further than just to entertain. It represents a whole slew of deeper embedded meanings and charged social representations. After all, “language is a social institution” (De Saussure 59). Thus, the description and labeling of the narrator as insane is a social application of language to serve certain gender and power roles from within the larger Victorian society. In this, there is clearly a “relationship between the historical facts and the language-state” (De Saussure 64). From a structuralism perspective, the important parts of a story are the embedded meanings of the systems that created that story (Cherry 1). Ultimately, this means the representation of the social system that influenced Stetson to write such a story to begin with. According to the text, “language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of others” (De Saussure 66). Thus, terms and concepts brought up within any given story can help readers from a different time period begin to digest the complex social structures that were present within the time the story itself was written. Modern audiences may view specific words and ideas differently, and thus must take on a structuralist approach to dissecting the charged meaning behind given words to better understand the social context behind them.
For example, the way the word insane is used within the context of Stetson’s story differs dramatically from the way it might be used today. Throughout the story, the narrator debates her sanity over the sanity of her husband and other male figures she encounters. Her husband is a physician, and is thus the epitome of reason from society’s perspective. She claims, “John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (Sttson 647). Clearly, the husband is the epitome of the enlightened Victorian man. He represents not only power, but knowledge, being that he is a physician and that he only believes in what he can record as observable evidence. This directly conflicts with the position of the narrator, who seems to believe that the yellow wallpaper is alive. Thus, there is a sense of empowerment her husband has in regards to her own welfare. The language used to describe the narrator’s illness becomes a prescription for the disenfranchisement of her gender. She, as a female, looses all power to her husband because of the ascription of her insanity compared to his sanity. There is an underlying acceptance of her insanity because it comes from the patriarchal source of power, the narrator’s husband. John even takes away her freedom to choose what room she resides in. She initially “wanted one downstairs that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings, but John would not hear of it,” (Stetson 648). The narrator describes her husband as caring, yet extremely authoritarian over her decisions and condition. He uses her gender to label her as inferior, thus putting all power and decisions in his hands and not hers. Yet, clearly, he does not act in her best interest. Locking her up in such a desolate room only exacerbates her condition, one which probably never really fully existed in the first place. Instead, the label of insanity here represents the female form, which had no place in Victorian patriarchal society. Insanity, it seems, is equivalent to femininity at this point.
Powerless over her own condition, the author’s symbolic representation of her insanity begins to change. The narrator explains how she has lost touch with her creativity and has not written nearly as much as she used to. This exemplifies how her husband has begun to take away the very nature of her being. He uses his power over her to force her into a submissive position, one which does not allow her any sense of individuality or freedom. Rather than accepting her doomed fate through a negative connotation of insanity, the narrator seems to begin to accept it, which ultimately changes the meaning of the word. She claims that “life is very much more exciting now than it used to be,” signifying how embracing her insanity has given her the only sense of freedom she can find, as strange as that may sound to a modern reader (654). Rather than fight a hopeless battle against the power of the male role within Victorian society, Stetson is relinquishing herself and her power, accepting a submissive position within the extreme gender hierarchy. She really believes that she is insane, and subsequently gives in to the battle against patriarchal domination.
Clearly, the language here signifies the power struggle between men and women within the Victorian age. The word insane essentially replaces the word for female, and all aspects of femininity are replaced with a sense of madness as the male figure enforces his will and domination over his helpless wife. With no way to defend her own condition, the narrator relinquishes herself and eventually becomes as insane as her husband labeled her in the beginning.
Cherry, Kendra. “Structuralism and Functionalism.” About Psychology. Web. http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/structuralism.htm
De Saussure, Ferdinand. “Course in General Linguistics.”
Stetson, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
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