Aug 20, 2010

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story is one of those classics I had missed out on completely until my fellow book bloggers convinced me that my life was incomplete without it – and with good reason. “The Yellow Wallpaper” tells the story of a woman’s supposed descent into madness – the protagonist, an unreliable narrator who tells her tale through brief undated journal entries, is spending the summer at a rented house to undergo a rest cure for a “slight hysterical tendency”. At the advice of her husband John, who also happens to be her doctor, she spends most of her time confined in a bedroom upstairs. She’s told to avoid all kinds of stimulation, including writing, and as a result she’s forced to write her journal secretly. Eventually she becomes obsessed with the ugly pattern of the yellow wallpaper that covers the small bedroom, and in the end—well, I won’t tell you what happens then.

I was prompted to finally write about “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which I first read some months ago, by Pickygirl’s fabulous review of Sarah Waters’ Affinity. She very aptly compares the novel to Gilman’s short story, which reminded me that one of the first bloggers to recommend it to me was Claire, exactly after I read Affinity. At the time she also mentioned Marghanita Laski's The Victorian Chaise-Lounge, and if I were to pick a third comparison myself it would be The Awakening by Kate Chopin. All four are extraordinarily powerful stories that deal with how stifling women’s lives often were in the Victorian era.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman makes excellent use of the unreliable narrator. The protagonist is seemingly acquiescent and ready to accept her husband’s diagnosis, as well as his judgement as superior to her own. But reading between the lines, we get glimpses of the anger, frustration and despair that she was not allowed to voice:
You see he does not believe I am sick!
And what can one do?
If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?
(...)
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?
What she craves is the very opposite of a “rest cure” – it’s stimulation and a temporary escape from an oppressive domestic existence, as well as being allowed to find solace in her writing. But her own ideas are dismissed because she’s “irrational” and “hysterical”. As a man, a husband and a doctor, John has full power over her, and even the best of intentions don’t change the fact that the result of his treatment is her devoicing and imprisonment. Furthermore, his pep talks about “strength”, “will” and “self-control” are not in the least encouraging – in fact, they amount to a form of victim-blaming.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” was first published in 1891, at a time when madness was the most common way to explain away female behaviour that didn’t fit the mould*, and it was used as a powerful tool of control - again, Affinity is a perfect example of this. (Note to self: read Mad, Bad and Sad soon.) In “Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper”, an article from 1913, Gilman tells the story of her own domestic entrapment and of her experiences with the Victorian medical establishment. Being kept away from her writing and from other forms of stimulation, she says, was the worst possible advice she could have been given, and the only thing that saved her was going against it.

I was amazed that Gilman was able to pack so much in only 6000 words. This is a story I definitely won’t soon forget. A few of my favourite passages:
He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction. I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.
(I found these lines immensely saddening and unsettling, especially in the context of happens in the end.)
At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.
I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman.
(...)
Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over
(I worry about spoiling the story for those of you who haven’t read it yet if I share more, so I’ll just say that I found the final image of the prison bars incredibly powerful and expressive.)

They read it too:
Bibliographing
Booklust
Fleur Fisher Reads
Stuck in a Book
The Reading Life
Notes From the North

(Have I missed yours?)

*Spoilerish note: The story seems to suggest at one point that the protagonist might have been suffering from postpartum depression, and I don’t mean to suggest that this is not deserving of medical attention– just not on the disempowering terms that are established here, of course.

44 comments:

  1. Ooh, I'm glad you got to this...

    I haven't come across The awakening, so as I liked the other ones that you mention I will look it out.

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  2. I've this book in my pile!
    And this is so sad: "The Yellow Wallpaper” was first published in 1891, at a time when madness was the most common way to explain away female behaviour that didn’t fit the mould*, and it was used as a powerful tool of control"

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  3. I LOVE this short story! You are right, Gilman manages to pack so incredibly much into such a short space. It is one of those stories my (poor?) students will be reading, just so I can re-read it every year ;)

    I reviewed it on the blog last year http://readinginthenorth.blogspot.com/2009/11/review-yellow-wallpaper.html

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  4. I don't think I've even heard of this but it does remind me of a short story I read a long time ago.

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  6. Ha, apparently I am more insightful at times than I think with the comparison to Affinity (normally I liken it to The Awakening too)! You obviously brought forth something in your review of Affinity that had me recognising the same themes so thank you.

    Delighted that you finally read this - your life is now complete (or it will be once you read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Maria: or, the Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft(.

    I have still to read Mad, Bad and Sad myself (*another mental reminder to do so*)

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  7. OK, I am going to find this one for sure. But even more importantly, you have reminded me that I haven't read Affinity yet. I have such a huge love for Waters, and because she has such a small number of books, I've only been allowing myself to read them slowly, stretching it out for as long as possible. I think I'm due for another.

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  8. P.S. Just got both on my Kindle!!!

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  9. Dissecting this in my English class was a very fun week indeed.

    You're quite right- it's amazing how much Gilman can pack into such a short little story, and how patronizing John is. I'm always very interested in the empowerment of characters, and the end can be construed as a triumph over John. Oh, good times.

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  10. "Unsettling" is the perfect word for this story.

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  11. This is a great story, and I agree with your comparison to The Awakening (my daughter is reading it now for school). Love the quotes you've selected. Like Sandy, I need to read Affinity.

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  12. I bet that is good. I think they used the threat of madness as a way to control women back then.

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  13. That is a rather wonderful little article you linked to! I love the line "came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over". Gilman sounds so proud of herself in that article, and she should be. "The Yellow Wallpaper" is one of my favorite short stories. There's this line in Buffy (that is not a hint! :p) where someone says "Chilling, isn't it? She's so full of good intention," and I always think of that line in relation to John in this story.

    ("Two hours of intellectual activity a day" would kill me dead. What on earth was she supposed to do with the other twenty-two?)

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  14. I think I read this book in school, but like so many classics, I have forgotten what it was about and whether or not I found anything significant about it. I'll have to give it a reread.

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  15. I need to reread this. At the time it was given to me to read, my thoughts towards it were very skewed.

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  16. I picked up this book a few months ago after reading Aarti's wonderful review on it, but have not yet read it. After reading what you have to say about it, I realize I need to make the time for it. It sounds frightening for a lot of reasons, but also very compelling. I am glad you loved it!!

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  17. This is one of my favorite stories. I once started a friendship based solely on our mutual affinity for it.

    I just re-read it last year - after reading an aggravating article that summarized it as "a woman with a mental illness" who "becomes more and more obsessed each day with her bedroom yellow wallpaper" - and it was just as amazing as ever.

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  18. +2 to my TBR list. I love all things of the psyche - this sounds very intriguing. Husband as physician / jailer.

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  19. This is the first I'm hearing of The Yellow Wallpaper, actually. It does sound really interesting, and I mean that in the truest sense of the word! I've got to check this out.

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  20. Yea! Yea! Yea! And thanks for the link. The Yellow Wallpaper was one of those life-changing stories for me, particularly once I began doing research with it for my thesis. To have written that extensively about it and still like it is a testament to Gilman for sure.

    There's so much good stuff in this story, and what qualified as "sick" is fascinating. Dr. Weird Mitchell, whom she mentions, was actually her doctor. He treated women for an array of symptoms, all labeled as hysteria. A lot of times he blamed them for not wanting to do domestic work and longing for the rest cure.

    When I teach this story, I make the students drop cell phones and iPods at the front of the class. We then have a discussion of how long it would take them to go crazy without them. It's always fun to see their thinking of the story change.

    I'd love to do a chat about this somewhere where we weren't afraid of spoilers. I love seeing others' take on it.

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  21. I love this story, and am so glad you did, too! The first time I read it, for some reason, I was reminded of the scene in 'Madeleine' where she starts to imagine the crakcs in the hospital ceiling look like a rabbit - I honestly didn't know why I made the association, at first, beyond the obvious, but the farther I get from it, hte more the two moments feel similar - like MAdeleine is the way the husband would have imagined the story going - a girl can have some 'spunk', that's adorable, just so long as she knows that she's a troublesome child, and must be disciplined and ketp to with in her bounds. If you keep someone within a boundary, they find ways to subvert the meaning of what's within their narrow borders, I guess. That makes less sense now that I write it down, but hopefully you'll know kind of what I mean...

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  22. I've read enough about this that I know it would make me too infuriated and sad to read it!

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  23. I will be reading The Victorian Chaise-Longue soon! Maybe add this one to the tbr...

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  24. Times were hard for the women I write about, but as far as Gilman's time, you wonder how an intelligent woman could have kept from going stark raving mad.

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  25. This was my introduction to Gilman..absolutely loved it and had to write a paper about it!! I think she was a fascinating writer.

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  26. I read this one in college and I remember it led to a great discussion.

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  27. Ooh I read Affinity not too long ago.. this one is going on the list! Thanks for the review.

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  28. A sociologist friend recommended this story to my daughter and me several years ago, and I still haven't gotten to it. You've definitely rekindled my interest.

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  29. I used to teach this story a lot to my students taking the mind/body module on the comparative paper on The Body that we had at university. It is as you say an amazing condensation of themes and images. My thought about it is how un-hysterical it is in the writing. If you look closely at the narrator's voice you can see how lucidly she charts the descent into madness. This is a book about hysteria, but it's a cool, hard, unflinching appraisal of an unjust society, as much as it's a text of illness. I must have reviewed it on my blog at some point, but probably years ago now!

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  30. I often teach this story in my courses, and students tend to enjoy the different issues being presented and of course the final image is very powerful for a group used to watching films. There's something about the image that is highly disturbing...

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  31. Glad you read it and enjoyed it nymeth. I read this one a while ago and never forgot it.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  32. I wonder how many women during this time period were labeled hysterical but were really just vibrant, creative, passionate women who were longing to have a voice.

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  33. I'll be reading The Victorian Chaise-Longue soon, yay! And thinking about The Yellow Paper next..

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  34. OK, I officially need to read this! It sounds incredible.

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  35. Thanks for bring my attention to this short. I just downloaded it to my e-reader. I love to get short story recommendations and this sounds like a good won.

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  36. I love short stories- I can’t believe I missed this one! Thank you for the great review.
    “Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
    Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
    But what is one to do?”

    Isn’t it amazing how much we can learn and understand about a character with such few words…

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  37. I agree this is a very powerful story-it appears to be her only short story as far as I could find-thanks for linking to my review and I learned a lot from your post

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  38. The idea of this book always scares me too much to read it. Hysteria is just one of the scariest catch alls, because it could effectively rob a woman of all freedom and there was no way she could dispprove it. Thinking about it makes me want to magic up a time machine with Tardis like capacity and bundle all Victorian women into it.

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  39. I haven't read this yet, so I guess my life isn't complete ;) However, I have read Wide Sargasso Sea which was wonderful. I loved Affinity which I read earlier in the year and am definitely going to read Mad, Bad and Sad soon. Really soon.

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  40. Verity, I think you'd definitely enjoy The Awakening a lot!

    Melody: Yes, isn't it? :\

    Zee: Thank you for your link! And I think your students are actually quite fortunate :P I'd have loved to discuss this in a class.

    Jen: Maybe you read it but have forgotten the title?

    Claire: I've read and loved Wide Sargasso Sea, so I'm only one book away from completeness ;) I do need to get my hands on Maria - it's Mary Wollstonecraft, after all!

    Sandy: Hooray - I'm glad to hear you got them both! Enjoy :D

    Clare: I can imagine the fun!

    Emily Jane: It is, isn't it?

    JoAnn: You both need to read Affinity! So sad, but so so good.

    Kathy: Yes, exactly. Kind of horrifying to think about :\

    Jenny: Ha, it *should* be a hint :P At least the DVDs are light and I can easily take them :P And I can't imagine what I'd do with the rest of my day either!

    Meghan: Do! I think it'd stay with you this time around.

    Amanda: I'd love to hear what you think!

    Zibilee: Aarti's review really was wonderful, and it was one of the things that encouraged me to read it at last!

    even pretty girls need to read said: Sounds like a perfectly good reason to start a friendship to me! And argh, I'd hate to see the plot summarised like that too :\ when re-reading the draft of my post I had to add that "supposed", because otherwise it just sounded so wrong.

    Elisabeth: I hope you'll find it as interesting as I did!

    Emidy: You can read it online, and it'll take you 15 minutes at the most!

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  41. Loved this story! Didn't expect to be drawn in so quickly or so deeply to a short story, but Gilman definitely got me on board very quickly!

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  42. I read this in college, but at the time, I don't think I was fully able to grasp all that it meant. I'll have to dig out my copy and re-read it. As always, great review!

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  43. pickygirl: Thank you for nudging me to write about it! The fact that you're still so passionate about the story after studying it so intensely does say a lot about its quality. I read a bit about Mitchell on Wikipedia, and eek - for all my love of the Victorians I'm extremely grateful not to be one. And yes, a spoilers-allowed discussion of this would be wonderful!

    Jason: It actually DOES make perfect sense once written down, worry not. I love what you said about how a girl it's allowed to have some "spunk" as long as it doesn't go too far. And as much as things have improved, that mindset is still scarily contemporary.

    Jill: It would, but I'm sure you'd love it!

    Casey: Do add it! It's wonderful and a perfect follow-up to the Laski.

    Shelley: You really do. It's almost like madness was the only appropriate response :\

    Staci: She really was. I need to read Herland one of these days.

    Stephanie: I can imagine!

    Elise: You're welcome! I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    Other Stephanie: I think both you and your daughter would get a lot out of it.

    Litlove: That's such a good point - she sounds calm, collected and perfectly rational to the very end, which makes for a wonderful contrast with the diagnosis she supposedly accepts.

    Trisha: It really is. I loved that image - it says SO much.

    Naida, I don't think I will either!

    Kathleen: Sadly, probably countless women :\

    Claire: I can't wait to hear what you think of The Victorian Chaise-Longue! And of this when you get to it :)

    Amy, you absolutely do!

    Teddy Rose, I think you'll enjoy it a lot!

    Lua: Yes! It really is. The writing is wonderfully compact and effective.

    Mel U: You're most welcome! I loved reading your thoughts on this.

    Jodie: It really is :\ And you can count me in for #teamtimemachine

    Sakura: Wide Sargasso Sea and Affinity are indeed wonderful! And since you loved those, I've no doubt you'll love this too.

    Aarti: Yes, exactly! Thank you for encouraging me to read it earlier this year :)

    Anna: I suspect this is one of those stories that get more and more rewarding when you revisit them. Enjoy your re-read!

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  44. Can you believe that in high school, I performed parts of this as a dramatic monologue? I was horrible!!! And I think I didn't really understand the whole concept as I only read the the excerpt for the monologue part. I should go back and reread this!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.