Taylor that this is a common theme

Taylor (2012) argues in
his study of why men oppress women, that ‘most women throughout history
have been enslaved by men’ and this is shown in both The Yellow Wallpaper and
The Bell Jar. Taylor (2012) also mentions how it is the built-up society
which ‘drives them to dominate and oppress women.’ After looking closely at
Gilmans short story The Yellow Wallpaper along with other pieces of her
work such as If I Was a Man we become aware that this is a common theme
throughout her work and addresses the stereotypes of women, arguably to portray
her own struggles in the society she was living in. After a close analysis of
the contemporary piece of Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, although there
have been developments in society, the traditional gender roles of its time are
still present and that of which mental illness is a consequence of.

 

 

Many
approach the first-person narrative as a way of the author to make a closer connection
to the reader, as it is the narrator’s personal perspective. Gilman’s first-person
narrative is effective as the whole short story is written in a journal, and
gives the reader the privilege as it is only shared with the reader as the
narrator has to be ‘so sly about it’ around the other characters in the short
story, including her husband. Because of this it also sparks the reader with
significant distrust with John (the husband and her doctor) as well as his
motives due to his hatred towards the narrator engaging with literature, which
is evident as the narrator shares that ‘he hates to have me write a word.’.
Gilman may present the narrator through this form, as a way to connote the
oppression of women due to the traditional gender roles, which consisted of
having a purpose of being a wife, not someone who is intellectual and educated.
 Plath builds a similar trust between the
narrator and the reader within The Bell Jar as the majority of the novel
is recollections or inner dialogue. However, in The Bell Jar it can also
be viewed as a limited narrative as the narrator could be pursued as detached
and cold when recollecting her memories. Although, Plath may be presenting
Esther in this detached way as a representation of a result of the pressure of
traditional gender roles.

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 It has also been closely argued that both of
the first-person narratives in both The Yellow Wallpaper and The Bell
Jar, are untrustworthy and unreliable due to their mental health or mental
disorder. This is clearly seen in The Yellow Wallpaper where the
narrator rhetorically asks “you see he does not believe I am sick! And what is
one to do”, this powerful rhetoric can be viewed as presenting the beginning of
the deterioration of the protagonist and through this clearly revealing the oppression
and ignorance within the household. Gilman also does this in her short story If
I Were a Man, although done in second-person narrative the protagonist,
Mollie expresses the oppression which inevitably comes with being a woman and
its traditional role. The protagonist describes the world as she enters the
body of her husband, Gerald’s perspective as something which would be ‘”foreign”‘
for a woman, and a world which is only fully “lived in” “by men”. Through this
Gilman perhaps is addressing her negative attitude towards the traditional
gender role of women, such as expected not to work and having to stay within a
household to be a wife. However, by following this traditional gender role it
is evident that Gilman is perhaps trying to address that by doing so, we are
excluding women from the world itself.

 

Plath plays
on the idea of dark humor in The Bell Jar with the protagonist as a way
to emphasize the tragedy of traditional gender roles, which potentially could
be mental illness. This is evident when Esther mentions “The cadaver’s head,
floated up behind my eggs and bacon at breakfast.”. This effective dark humor,
not only foreshadows the tragedy of her mental illness, similarly shows through
this simile how traumatized Esther gradually becomes by everyday objects and
how her mind allows those images to take over. The gothic ‘cadaverous face’ is
also significantly mentioned at the end of the novel suggesting that the social
expectations of women no matter what has followed her throughout her life. The
emphasis of the pressures of traditional gender roles in society, are
undoubtedly presented by Gilman and Plath’s first-person narrative and as
readers we become aware of the personal effects it is having on the narrators,
which convinces the reader that ‘going mad’ is the only viable option left for
these women and their unavoidable social pressures, therefore strongly
supporting that mental illness is a consequence of traditional gender roles.

 

It can be
argued that the deterioration of their mental illness is not due to the
traditional gender roles, however, due to the actual treatment of them.
Alternatively, there is the view that their mental illness sparks due to
traditional gender roles, and it is the treatment of them which is a catalyst
of a more severe mental illness in the future. However, in The Yellow
Wallpaper published in 1892, the development of psychiatry had just begun,
therefore the treatment of the effected narrator is something that had yet to
be fully researched or even thoroughly understood by doctors. Because of the
lack of research and understanding of mental illness, doctors and evidently the
narrator’s husband, John would rely on social ideas about mental illness and
how they should be treated (Matosevic, 2015). On top of that, husbands and
fathers at the time would be controlling over the choices of women, this would
isolate them and leave them with a lack of freedom, which unsurprisingly would
lead to depression anxiety. Men would also control the treatment of the mental
illness, qualified or not, and would once again isolate them by putting the patients
in asylums (Hunter,
J. M., G. W. Shannon & S. L. Sambrook. 1986.). However, it was also commonly done not to primarily treat their
mental illness but also to exclude them as families would be ashamed to be
having someone with a mental illness. Similarly, this is done with the narrator
as her husband John, who is a doctor, completely isolates her. Because he is a
qualified doctor this can be seen as a substantial way of treating her,
however, this could also be seen as his justified way of John and the rest of
the family, including her brother, to isolate her because they feel ashamed of
her mental health problems.  John’s
shameful attitude comes across from his belittling names of calling the
narrator, “little girl” and “darling”, which suggests his lack of treatment as
well as disregarding her opinions in a way that they are not valid, almost as a
way of stating the superiority of his gender at the time.

 

Contrastingly,
in The Bell Jar, Plath includes the electroconvulsive therapy (shock
therapy) as a treatment for Esther’s mental illness. In the 20TH century
this was seen as a great development to the treatment of mental illness and
correction (Shepley 1944). Because it was brought out to me a complex
treatment, only experienced doctors were known to carry out this procedure,
however although it was a development, just like in The Yellow Wallpaper,
mental illness treatments were still a complicated issue to understand and
treat and even this huge development still had many side effects such as
amnesia or their mental state could even worsen. Dr Gordon in The Bell Jar,
displays lack of empathy, where Esther is asked to explain what she thinks is
wrong with her “suppose you try and tell me what you think is wrong”, which is
ignorant in the way that when you do have a mental illness, as a victim of it,
it is very unlikely that you know yourself that you have it. This lack of
empathy is very similar to John’s in The Yellow Wallpaper, as Esther
also fails to make progress after her first shock treatment. This worsening of
the mental illness can be seen when Esther becomes obsessive over examples of
suicide in the media and eventually attempts suicides, most significantly after
her first electroshock treatment. This significant attempt of suicide after her
first electroshock treatment could also be seen as not a result of the
treatment and as an unavoidable event that would’ve eventually happened
regardless of the side effects of the treatment. Also, because of the further
understanding of mental illnesses and the close attention that the patients
actually need, Esther does get hospitalized. Plath may have presented this in a
way to reveal that, despite the developments made since the 19th
century, the understanding and treatment of mental illness still had a long way
to go to successfully treat its patients in a safe and controllable way.

 

Although the
stories are set at different time periods both the women narrators struggle to
into their society’s gender roles. In the 19th century time period,
there was a rise in consciousness of women, however, Gilman may be trying to
address the fact that although there has been a rise, is it not enough for
women to feel like they have the freedom they deserve. This can be seen where
she uses the wallpaper as an impactful metaphor of a cage to represent women’s
confinement. Even in her short story If I Were a Man, she expresses how
the narrator feels ‘comfort’ with ‘such freedom’ that comes with being a man at
the time. Alternatively, the wallpaper may also represent the catalyst to the
narrator’s nervous breakdown. It can be argued, just like Susan Bordo has in
her analytical essay (Susan 1993) , she examines mental illnesses common to
women during certain eras to argue that their illnesses are a reflection of and
objection to the ‘traditional’ gender roles of their times. The bars on the
patter of the wallpaper, perhaps symbolize bars on windows of a room, almost as
if the wallpaper is haunting her. As mentioned before, the treatment of
isolation was proven to be an ineffective care for her mental illness in the 19th
century. Something like Postpartum depression can also develop into something
more serious when there is a lack of treatment. The wallpaper may also
represent the freedom for women, as women at the time didn’t have the right to
vote, therefore not having a voice or could even express themselves freely and
the wallpaper may be there to represent the cry for help from women and how
they feel trapped (Kimberly M. Radek-Hall, 2001.) . Woolf (1929) mentioned, that a
room when it comes to the concept of a cage, it could be seen as a literal cage
for the woman (narrator) to be trapped in, but metaphorically one for all women
of society including the narrator. Because patriarchal values were the most
pronounced and expecting women to behave under strict rules, it may explain her
nervous breakdown at the end of the story, as a result of her husband’s
behavior which was ultimately constructed by a patriarchal society.

 

Plath also
shows the oppression of women at the time in the 20th century
through a similar valued society like in The Yellow Wallpaper. As readers,
we instantly become aware of the fact that Esther in a young and intelligent
woman through her mentions of a scholarship and her academic successes. Through
this, we become aware that she is torn between conforming to women’s
traditional role in society, or living the way she wants to. This is also
strongly supported by the way that Plath makes it very evident that Esther is
disillusioned by society around her as she knew very little career orientated
women, therefore not really having a role model or someone to aspire to be
like. “Wherever I sat… I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar,
stewing in my own sour air”, this is not only metaphorical in the way that
Esther can see right through into the outside world, it also has the
contrasting idea of disillusionment of having freedom yet still being trapped.
This is symbolic to gender oppression because perhaps when women are free and
equal to men, women are somehow oppressed and having an assigned place in
society that is impossible to break through.

 

 

The concern
for both narrators in the short story and novel arises. Each author indirectly
and directly addresses the issues of society and how although society has
traditional gender roles to keep a certain structure they both show the
negative effects it may have of women. Both narrators are presented as women
who are highly educated and victims of the traditional gender roles of society
at their time.  Gilman also presents its
narrator as a victim of someone under the control of a man who has been
indoctrinated by a patriarchal society. Whereas Plath, presents Esther as
someone struggling to want to break away from the traditional gender roles and
because of the struggle and uncertainty, it leads to her downfall and her
mental illness. It is important to point out that traditional gender roles are
unavoidably always present in society, even in the modern world and how the
increase in pressure and oppression of women to fit into these traditional
gender roles may lead to them having a certain downfall whether it’d be a
mental illness. 

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