‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892, is often viewed as a classic feminist short story. Mary, a nursemaid, is only mentioned once, yet the character holds some significance in interpreting and understanding the story.
Background to the Story
The short story ”The Yellow Wallpaper” tells the first-person narrative of an unnamed wife and new mother near the end of the nineteenth century. Nervous and uncertain, she is diagnosed by both her physician husband and other male practitioners as ill and in need of a rest cure.
Unfortunately, the isolation and inactivity prescribed for her lead the young woman to lose contact with her own identity. As the story progresses, mental illness overtakes her and her imagined world becomes more real than reality.
The Feminist Aspect
Perhaps you have been asked to read this story for a class, and you may have also been introduced to the story as feminist literature. You may be asking yourself why this would be feminist when the main female character has no power and no control over her own fate.
One answer to this question is that, even though she succumbs to the pressure of patriarchal culture, she is a writer. Even that impulse to claim one’s own voice represents a tiny surfacing of integrity and free will.
The protagonist’s other connection to the new woman of a new century lies in the fact that she refuses to fulfill the domestic role expected of her. True, she resorts to madness to accomplish her escape. Yet, she may still be seen as nonconforming.
Who is Mary?
The character of Mary is mentioned only once in the beginning of the tale, when the narrator/protagonist is lamenting her inability to care for her baby son. She is thankful that the nursemaid, Mary, is ”so good with the baby”.
On first reading, you might have skipped right over the name and the tiny piece of information about her. And if you only read a summary of the story, you probably never even hear of Mary. Yet, there is some significance to her role in the family, and even to her name.
Some critics have suggested that the name Mary, given to the baby’s caretaker, has some connection to the Virgin Mary. In the Christian faith, Mary is the ideal of purity and virtue. In one way, we might look at Mary the nursemaid as representing the ideal of the mother and caretaker role that the protagonist is not able to be…or perhaps does not want to be.
At the time that Mary is mentioned, the young mother is still aware of her baby and relieved that Mary does well with him. By the end of the story, when the protagonist slips completely into madness, the reader might feel thankful that the poor abandoned little boy has Mary to care for him. It seems doubtful that the child’s own mother will ever be well enough to serve as his caretaker, even though she may want to.
Social Context for the Story
You may now be wondering how the protagonist’s physician husband, John, fails to realize that the prescribed rest cure is pushing his wife into madness. Not only does he ignore the signs of her decline, he actually encourages his wife to leave behind her writing for a life of so little activity and stimulation.
The modern woman is used to the idea of an active life, including career and motherhood. But, little more than one hundred years ago, the standard for upper-class women was to be gentle, passive, and a help-mate to her husband. The rest cure described in this story was commonly prescribed for nervous conditions of women by the male medical community. So John is simply following societal norms by treating his wife like an anxious child.
John expects his wife to be more like his sister Jennie, or even the nursemaid Mary, who we can assume is quiet, obedient, and always accommodating. The idea of this angel in the house came from a poem with the same title by Coventry Patmore, first published in 1854. The poem was not popular at first, but began to take on as the description of a housewife’s goal for marriage later in the century. Some qualities described in the poem are submissiveness, nurturing, and serving as a safe haven for her family from the cruel outside world of commerce.
Of course, the reader never actually meets Mary the nursemaid, or has any idea what she is really like. Perhaps because she is left to the reader’s imagination, we tend to shift over to Mary the typically feminine role that the protagonist is unable to fulfill.
Unlike the protagonist, who is made less capable of mothering her child and running her household by the rest cure imposed on her, Mary can be relied upon to do her duty and fulfill the role expected of her. Indeed, the author claimed that her primary motivation for writing ”The Yellow Wallpaper” was to bring to light the harm done to women through the rest cure.
”The Yellow Wallpaper” describes a young wife and mother at the end of the 19th century who descends into madness. As a writer, she has some wish to be part of the wave of early feminism that created the new woman of the 20th century. But her husband is determined to mold her into a typical angel in the house through a rest cure that pushes her into insanity. The nursemaid Mary represents the mothering role associated with the gentle nurturing housewife desired by the husband and society.