Friday, February 29, 2008

"I'm getting fond of the room in spite of the yellow wallpaper..."

No matter how dedicated a reader I have been for the greater part of my reading life, I've managed to miss or skip so many classic literary works. Recently Litlove discussed Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, which I had not even realized was a short story rather than a novel. I had never gotten around to reading it, but my curiosity was piqued. She mentioned "The Yellow Wallpaper" along with "The Turn of the Screw" (which I read a couple of years ago) as classic tales of hysteria. I'm not sure which I liked better, but taken on its own, I like "The Yellow Wallpaper" very much. This would be an excellent story to read as part of a larger discussion, as Gilman raises so many issues about women and society and science.

The narrator, a young woman who's recently given birth, has been ordered to take bed rest by her physician husband. They've rented a "queer" mansion (why has it been so long untenanted?) and take an old nursery at the top of the house for their sleeping quarters.

"John is a physician, and PERHAPS--(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)--PERHAPS that is one reason I do not get well faster."

Her husband doesn't believe she's sick--there is really nothing the matter with her but temporary nervous depression--a slight hysterical tendency. She's allowed nothing but rest. No books, nothing. She herself feels a bit of "congenial work" and a little change would actually be beneficial, but she's not permitted. She surreptitiously takes to writing in her journal, and it is there that we come to see her downward spiral into madness. It's the yellow wallpaper, you see--a smouldering unclean yellow, dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.

"The paint and paper look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off--the paper--in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life."

"One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin."

As stories go, this one is excellently told. As you read you feel the inner turmoil and torment that the narrator feels. She really does spiral out of control. It's no wonder she lost it having nothing to do all day, day after day, but look at that horrible yellow wallpaper. After a while she perceives a pattern to it of sorts. It's like a trellis, and behind it is a woman trying to get out. No doubt much like how she felt.

"This wall-paper has a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then."

"But in the places where it isn't faded and where the sun is just so--I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design."

There's so much to think about in this story. I found a critical guide about it in my library filled with essays on everything from motherhood to sickness to sexuality. More than I can possibly try and contemplate here. Charlotte Perkins Gilman is quite an interesting person herself. She underwent "the cure" as well, so she knew what she was writing about. She later committed suicide. In the critical edition I borrowed, the editor writes:

""The Yellow Wallpaper first appeared in the New England Magazine in 1892 and has since become the focus of feminine controversy, as well as celebration, concerning the heroine's confrontation with patriarchy and social duties. Gilman hoped to instruct her audience through her depiction of a woman who wants to write, who wants to do anything to avoid the boredom of isolation and the tedium of mothering."

Gilman had been treated for a breakdown after the birth of her daughter. She wanted so badly to be productive and get well that she underwent treatment that was used for "nervous prostration" invented for shell shock of Civil War victims. Gilman's cure consisted of:

"I was put to bed and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed, and responded with the vigorous body of twenty-six. As far as he (her doctor) could see there was nothing the matter with me, so after a month of this agreeable treatment he sent me home, with this prescription:

'Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time.' (Be it remarked that if I did but dress the baby it left me shaking and crying--certainly far from a healthy companionship for her, to say nothing of the effect on me.) 'Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours' intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live."
It's no wonder her doctor's cure led her to "progressive insanity", according to the text--what is known today as manic-depressive illness. Yet another frightening example of how women were "handled". I know I say this every weekend about every story/author I write about--but I do really want to read more of her work. The critical edition I borrowed included the story, so I will be adding her name to my list and will be looking for her work in the bookstore next time I drop by.

Cross posted at A Work in Progress.

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