We’re all living in “The Yellow Wallpaper” now

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed people of all genders to the oppression of mandatory domesticity.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed people of all genders to the oppression of mandatory domesticity.
Image: AP Images
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Being stuck at home can drive a person mad. That’s one of big takeaways from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which a woman, diagnosed by her physician husband as suffering from “temporary nervous depression,” develops a psychologically complex relationship with the ugly wallpaper she has to stare at all day while confined to her bedroom. She loses her mind, of course.

The problem isn’t the depression, but her husband’s cure. She’s not allowed to socialize or write or exert herself or go anywhere; she’s not supposed to experience mental stimulation at all. There are bars on her bedroom windows and a gate at the top of the stairs.

Gilman’s conceit was a metaphor for the ways in which the domestic sphere can often double as a prison for women. But the public-health imperative to stay inside throughout the coronavirus pandemic gives her tale new meaning. We’re all living in “The Yellow Wallpaper” now.

Well, the luckiest among us are, anyway. It’s a privilege to be stuck at home in the first place. Healthcare workers, grocery-store clerks, couriers, and others whose labor has been deemed essential continue to put their own lives at risk. So, too, is it a privilege to have living quarters with sufficient space for practicing social distancing, or indeed to have a roof over our heads at all. Those of us who can count ourselves safe from violence and abuse in our homes are fortunate, too.

But none of this means that staying home all the time, day after day, is easy for any of us. Nor is it fun. The stay-at-home mandate—necessary though it is—has introduced us to the limitations of domestic confinement. We are now navigating restrictions not dissimilar from those the women’s rights movement has revolted against for more than a century.

The claustrophobia of home

Patriarchal societies have always sought to impose limitations on women’s ability to participate in life outside the home. While conditions are certainly better today, women are still frequently told that it’s dangerous to travel alone or go hiking by themselves or walk home unaccompanied after dark.

Now everyone, regardless of their sex or gender, is encouraged to stay inside. Any forays into the public sphere, even for something as mundane as groceries or exercise, are imbued with a sense of potential danger. There are times when it’s acceptable to leave the house and times when the social imperative is to stay inside. (Paris, for example, recently banned its residents from exercising during the daytime.) Some have decided that it’s safest, and perhaps most moral, not to leave the house at all.

Living with all these restrictions helps save lives. But it’s also distressing for a lot of people, as both psychological research and recent protests against stay-at-home orders in the US suggest. It’s upsetting to lack the freedom to move through the world and socialize as we please. Even homebodies and introverts say that self-isolation feels different when it’s not your choice.

It’s equally frustrating to feel as if you’re constantly being judged for your behavior in the public sphere. Civilians are policing one another’s behavior, on the alert for those who buy too much flour or unnecessarily nab grocery-delivery slots or otherwise violate the new social code. It’s a scenario that’s familiar to many women, who already risk social approbation and scrutiny over any decision they make to leave family and hearth, whether that involves going back to work after having a baby or wearing leggings in public or eating at a restaurant on their own.

An uneven burden

This is not to suggest that our new indoor lives under Covid-19 are equally difficult for everyone. Women are bearing the brunt of childcare and household work during self-isolation—just like normal times, only worse. Helen Lewis warned in The Atlantic that the pandemic will send couples back to the 1950s. “The coronavirus smashes up the bargain that so many dual-earner couples have made in the developed world: We can both work, because someone else is looking after our children,” she writes. “Instead, couples will have to decide which one of them takes the hit.”

Because women earn less than men (pdf) and are more likely than men to work part-time jobs, the decision often gets made for them.

Bread-baking and desperation

While men and women with young children may find themselves reverting to antiquated divisions of labor, others with more time on their hands are turning to domestic pastimes straight out of bygone eras. Seemingly everyone’s baking bread, or taking up any hobby that will keep their hands busy: music, painting, knitting, calligraphy.

All this can be quite enjoyable. But there’s no getting around that the reason people are turning to these activities with vigor because there’s nowhere they can go and nothing else to do. Like one of Jane Austen’s Regency heroines or a Mad Men-era housewife, many of us are resorting to indoor activities that promise to keep ourselves from dwelling on the claustrophobia of our circumstances. Speaking for myself, up to my elbows in flour and yeast, I now understand that domesticity loses a good part of its appeal when there’s no alternative.

Andrew Potter, an associate professor at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy and the author of The Authenticity Hoax, argued recently in a newsletter that this rush to domestic hobbies is a prime example of conspicuous leisure:

So if you are one of the millions people who have taken to Instagram to show off the results of your sourdough efforts during the pandemic, one or more of the following are true: You have a lot of free time, so you either don’t have to work, or you have the kind of job that gives you a great deal of flexibility; you don’t have young kids at home out of school, or you have a live-in caregiver, or they are in a private school that is providing them with over-the-internet education; you have access to a large supply of flour (something that is increasingly hard to find) and other baking ingredients. These are all, it probably doesn’t need saying, very clear class markers.

It’s undeniably true that there is a status-seeking element to the impulse to share our latest forays into bread-baking or embroidery. (I recently posted online about knitting a small scarf for my dog.) But these Instagram posts gain poignancy when we understand them simultaneously as distress signals.

Contemporary ideology still communicates to women that the main thing they need to lead a fulfilling life is a happy home life, complete with a partner and 2.5 kids (and now, also, a sourdough starter). Even before Covid-19, we were seeing a broader cultural turn toward the homebody lifestyle for people in their 20s and 30s, with much celebration about the joys of canceling plans and just staying in.

Now the pandemic has deprived us of the social life we often undervalue to the detriment of our own happiness; the daily world of casual chats with colleagues and baristas and fellow dog-walkers, dinner parties and movie dates and exercise classes. This way of living is necessary, for now. But it makes us lonely and sad.

This pandemic is a reminder not only that domestic labor is real and valuable work, but that for many of us, what gives our lives meaning isn’t just creating a domestic life we love, but loving what we do when we leave it.