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~ Misery, thy name is Woman ~
Have you ever noticed that some of the shortest books are also the saddest? It's almost as if we need multiple words to express joy and barely a few to plunge the depths of human misery. Such is the case in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's tiny book 'The Yellow Wallpaper" which was published in 1892. It's also hard to imagine that in modern times anyone would be able to get a story of just 28 pages published, unless it were one of the shorter contributions to a book of short stories. 'The Yellow Wallpaper' despite its brevity is hailed as a 'Literary Masterpiece' - at least that's what it says on the cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition in its 2002 reprint.
'The Yellow Wallpaper' took me a very short time to read - half a bath to be precise. The other half polished off the 'Afterword', an essay about the book which is longer than the tale itself. Reviewing it takes longer than reading it and the thoughts it stirs up last much longer than the actual act of reading.
~ Surely all a woman NEEDS is a husband and a baby?~
The story is told entirely in the first person by a young mother whose husband, a doctor, has taken a 3 month rental on a run down country house for her to spend a summer convalescing after a case of what we'd probably now identify as a blend of post-natal depression and an overwhelming sense of the pointlessness of the life of a comfortably off woman in the late 1800s in the USA. Both her husband and other medical advisers want the woman to engage in total rest, banning her from any kind of work, including her writing. However in order to afford the rental of the house, her husband goes away to work every day leaving her with only household staff and a nanny for her child. Every decision with which she disagrees is dismissed as being 'for your own good' and so she finds herself incarcerated in the attic nursery of the house, rather than in a bright, breezy, pretty room she prefers on the ground floor where the window is trimmed with roses.
Despite being told not to work, the woman rebels and scratches out her story secretly against doctors' orders. She becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in the room, an ugly pattern in which she feels sure she could wrestle back some control of her life is only she could only follow and order the pattern. The colour reminds her of all the bad yellow things that she has ever seen rather than the heart-lifting brightness of flowers, egg yolks or sunshine. The patterns of the paper and the mouldy shadows convince her that there is a woman trapped behind the paper who comes out at night and creeps around the room and the garden. Then there are more women - there must be, she can see them and as time passes the fantasies of the wallpaper build in her troubled mind until she finally completes her descent into madness, precipitated by the room.
~ Horror or Human Breakdown?~
If you choose to take it all at face value, this could be a horror story of Edgar Allen Poe proportions. Taken literally perhaps there ARE women behind the paper, perhaps she will be the next to be eaten by the walls like a character in an episode of Dr Who. But most will see this as a less supernatural story of mental decline and madness.
If you wish, you can of course stop when the book ends and skip the afterword and there are arguments that suggest that any book that takes more pages to explain itself than to tell its tale has failed somewhere along the line. However, I did feel I ought to read the afterword if only the justify the price of the book which would otherwise run at about 18p per page. The slightly heavy academic treatment of Elaine R Hedges' attempt to report on the author's life, the significance of the work and the way in which it captures the dis-empowered role of the wife of a professional man is interesting but contrasts sharply with the book itself in which the main delivers its message so clearly that explanation is superfluous. I suspect the afterword is more for the benefit of generations of earnest young American women students dissecting the text for deeper meanings and arguments about women's suffering and loss of sense of self.
~ World famous (amongst people who've heard of her) ~
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was - we are told - one of the most commanding feminists of her time. Who knew? OK, lots of Americans students of feminist literature perhaps but not me. She married, had a daughter and separated from her husband. She wrote, edited, lectured and taught and it's assumed that 'The Yellow Wallpaper', published a few years after her separation, drew on her stifling experience of motherhood and her first marriage. Obviously she didn't descend into the insanity of her narrator in 'The Yellow Wallpaper' but she did commit suicide 4 decades later, not through depression but as a result of a conscious decision brought on by the death of her second husband and her own incurable breast cancer.
It's hard to know whether to recommend the book or even to remember where I got it from but I'm glad to have read it and spent time thinking about both how far we have come as women since the 1890s and how much better mental health is now understood yet at the same time, how many of the problems of the mental health of young mothers are still not taken as seriously as they perhaps need to be.
~ Details ~
The Yellow Wallpaper (Virago Modern Classics)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This is a now hugely underrated text and one of the important texts in the feminist movement (but no Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and, regardless of your views on feminism, a very interesting read. (Though, as a very short story, I feel I can only detail so much without ruining it or just listing the many interpretations of the texts - which in a sense ruins it also!) The story is told via a seamless series of journal entries from an unnamed female narrator depicting her oppressive husband and her growing insanity - seemingly caused by postnatal depression. The tone is immediately set, opening with the fairly wealthy narrator introducing her and her husband, John as 'mere ordinary people' followed by a mention of John laughing at her, with 'one expects that in a marriage'.
In an Edgar Allen-Poe-esque gothic style, and very typical of the time, the narrator and John are staying in a secluded summer house to cure her of her 'temporary nervous depression'. John enforces Weir Mitchell's 'resting cure', forcing her into silence, and subsequently forbids her from writing; her journals are kept hidden. As a short text, the characters are not greatly developed and dialogue is scarce, but John's character is a well known stereotype of the time - a male physician with little care for anything impractical. He takes on the role of her doctor, locking her away in a bedroom to aid her rest - and here we are introduced to the yellow wallpaper. Her dislike of the yellow wallpaper in the bedroom is obscurely intense from the start, but it increases throughout, becoming a strong obsession as she describes in depth the 'yellow smell' and the 'old foul, bad yellow things' it makes her think of.
She becomes increasing sure that there is a woman trapped behind the wallpaper - cue huge metaphor for women being trapped in domestication. But a few things don't add up in the narrator's account of the unexplained destruction of things in her room; her unreliability highlighting her madness, as she begins her determination to 'free' the woman from the wallpaper, who she is sure creeps out at night. As gothic as it sounds, the narrator is never scared of the woman, just intrigued to an obsessive degree. As well as her journals, she hides her obsession with the wallpaper and the woman from her husband, hoping to avoid more treatment and to eventually free the woman.
Gilman was a key American feminist, this being her best known work, written in 1892 shortly after she herself had experience postnatal depression and poor treatment for it. Gilman is a fascinating woman and this short story is most definitely one to be read. (Short enough that the whole story is widely published online and won't kill your eyes to read the whole thing there!) The text has clear feminist implications, particularly criticizing the male dominated medical profession that Gilman suffered, but is very open to interpretation on a lot of matters. However, in an Orwell's Animal Farm-esque fashion, the text can be taken literally or opened to a much deeper meaning; making it a good read for competent young readers as well as older readers (and making it safe for Gilman to publish such a strong feminist text at the time as people just took it as a creepy tale of an insane woman).
Gilman wanted to help people - saying she hadn't "intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked". Her main criticism is of the 'rest cure'; during her depression she was treated by Weir Mitchell who forced her into subservience as means of a cure - as with the narrator and John (minus the husband/wife relationship). It is reported that having recovered from her poor treatment and misdiagnoses, she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper and sent a copy to Mitchell, who failed to reply. If that doesn't make you say 'you go girl!' what will? The text is fast paced and a very different approach to the feminist message. I'm yet to find someone who didn't like this text and who didn't want to discuss it after reading (and hey, even if you hate it, it doesn't take much more than half an hour to read!)
Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a very important short story, and among the most notable as it used the themes and characterisation of the text to act as a mouthpiece for the author's own views on female subjugation and imprisonment,
The Yellow Wallpaper chronicles the descent into madness of an unnamed female protagonist. From the onset of what her husband, a doctor, calls "temporary nervous depression", he takes her to a summer holiday home for what is called a "rest cure" (whereby work, such as writing, is prohibited). However, her condition worsens, and she begins to see images of people in the wallpaper of the room she is essentially incarcerated within, whilst her husband ignores her requests for freedom.
At a most basic unconscious level, the text is a reactionary piece to the andocentric hegemony that existed in great abundance during Gilman's lifetime. It has been said that "the ideal woman was not only assigned a social role that locked her into her home, but she was also expected to like it, to be cheerful and gay, smiling and good humored". Moreover, a female writing any piece of literature that opposes the dominant ideology of the time would likely be deemed insane, and so this goes a length to explain Gilman's decision to disguise the literal meaning of the text within the narrative and its associated themes. In response to claims that "such a story ought not to be written...it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it", Gilman claimed that she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper in order "to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked".
Gilman crafts the unconscious of her text first through an attack on the precept of marriage - the protagonist's husband, John, essentially imprisons her, preventing her from writing through his rest cure, and it can even be said that this only serves to exacerbate the declivity of her mental state. In commenting upon the constraints of marriage, Gilman herself attested that "her thoughts, her acts, her whole life would be centered on husband and children. To do the work she needed to do, she must be free".
Indeed, Gilman's tale very much draws upon her own experiences, taking events from her life, interpolating them with those of her nameless protagonist, and disguising them in such a way that they are not overtly clear to the reader, but nonetheless subversive. For instance, Gilman herself suffered from severe depression, and was an unsuccessful patient of the infamous rest cure, claiming "the physician...so nearly drove me mad". The underlying commentary of The Yellow Wallpaper appears to suggest that these pseudo-scientific remedies, guarded by a metaphorical glass ceiling, are a contributory cause to, rather than a solution to the protagonist's ailment, and in reality, what men appear to think is correct, in subjugating the interests of women for their own supposed betterment, is in fact detrimental to their wellbeing.
The grand, psychotic finale of the text appears to espouse the view that in a patriarchal, masculine world, to enjoy a change of psychotic tides is one's only escape. In a tragic, dark irony, Gilman's protagonist becomes better able to understand her harsh reality as her lucidity declines - in this unfair world, where she is cared for by an overzealous, ignorant male, where she is prohibited from writing, all that is left is to either assume the archetypal female role of the time (the mother), or to go insane, and Gilman posits that the two are perhaps very much intertwined. In a final, cutting blow, the protagonist asks of us "I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?", a considerably less subtle allusion to Gilman's inherent criticisms of the social hegemony of the time.
This reading of The Yellow Wallpaper is unconscious in the sense that it is not wholly, or even at all apparent to most individuals upon first reading the text, yet when it is given appropriate context, the unconscious, the latent content, becomes manifest content to the reader.
The Yellow Wallpaper is thus a landmark short story that is a dark depiction of the dominion men hold over women. It has been very influential and remained a mainstay of many University literature courses.