As a tool of oppression, gender roles have been affecting the lives of women across the globe. The problem of rigid gender roles and the suffocating effect they produce on women and girls has been studied from various perspectives, including artistic and, particularly, literary works. In her seminal short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman examines the devastating effects of patriarchy on women and their self-expression by depicting a woman consumed by madness. Although her husband John clearly is the product of his time, he cannot be considered the villain of the story since the specified part is relegated to the stereotypical perceptions of gender roles and the restrictive nature of gender-based prejudices, which compel John to act in the way that ultimately harms the protagonist, thus, making the end of the story all the sadder and more tragic.
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It is exceptionally easy to represent John as the main villain and cast the blame for his wife’s madness entirely on him. However, none of his actions signify a malicious intent or the willingness to subjugate his wife and make her miserable. Instead, he remains unwillingly ignorant of the effects his actions have on his wife and the fact that he perpetuates the cycle of gender oppression with his choices. Indeed, in most scenes, John remains supportive and caring to the extent that he can: “Don’t go walking about like that—you’ll get cold” (Gilman, 1901, para. 133). Therefore, his lack of insight could be attributed not to his intentional moral blindness but to his lack of understanding of his wife’s needs, as well as the harmful nature of patriarchy. In other words, John generally remains benevolent, failing to understand the damage that he causes, which makes him not the villain but rather the tool of oppression.
Given the well-meaning and good-hearted nature of John’s efforts to help his wife, the story’s ending appears to be particularly sad and tragic. While the protagonist finds a way to liberate herself, it comes at the price of her own sanity, as well as her husband’s life and their relationships: “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall so that I had to creep over him every time!” (Gilman, 1901, para. 267). One could argue that the ending represents the main character’s liberation and her act of rebellion, her murdering John representing her casting off the shackles of the patriarchy. However, since the protagonist’s attack stems from her descent into madness, it cannot be seen as her claiming her autonomy. Instead, it is bound to portray the ultimate step in the continuous cycle of self-destruction.
Being represented as loving and caring, albeit rigid in his stereotypes, John is clearly not the villain of the story but, instead, an unwilling contributor to the protagonist’s madness and a product of his era. While John fails to understand the nature of the lead character’s pain and exacerbates it, he is overall well-meaning and does not intend to harm his wife. Therefore, even though John does nothing to help his wife, he cannot be deemed as the villain of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The described situation makes the ending of the story all the more tragic, emphasizing the depressing nature of the situation. Being undeniably sad and having no human antagonist, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a chilling metaphor for the devastating effects of the patriarchy.
Gilman, C. P. (1901). The yellow wallpaper. Project Guttenberg. Web.