Thursday, August 4, 2011

Great Novellas: The Yellow Wallpaper

Ok, so perhaps it's a little bit of a stretch to label "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman as a novella, but I think it is nevertheless a good place to start the series.  I recently discovered a neat blog focused on feminist literature, so my mind is currently aimed in that direction.  I have a feeling that many of you have read this story before, (or you at least pretended to while your class in high school or college discussed it).  It's very popular - for good reason - and it seems like a great place to start focusing on a little bit of literature of less length. 

If you aren't familiar with the story, or if you completely forget it, it is about a woman who is so suffocated by the people in her life that she goes a bit nuts.  We get everything from her perspective as one writing in a journal, which is more and more interesting as she becomes increasingly paranoid.  We understand that before she began this journal, she expressed to her husband that she wasn't feeling well but couldn't pinpoint the problem.  We also know that she recently had a baby, and some have interpreted her illness to be post-partum depression.  Regardless of her initial problem, the real problem emerges from the treatment that is prescribed for her.  Her husband decides that the best way for her to get better is to be locked up in a cramped room with strange yellow wallpaper and avoid all activity.  This "avoiding all activity" encompasses everything - thinking, writing, socializing, walking, talking, etc.  So you can imagine why she might go a little crazy after several weeks of this.

Although she doesn't often directly criticize the men in her life, I think all readers are happy to do it for her when we hear about the way they treat her.  Her husband is the primary male figure, and we learn that he dismisses her thoughts, limits her actions, and ignores her feelings.  He expects her to be a quiet, submissive wife who would never challenge or oppose him.  He cannot take her seriously, not as a partner or an intellectual human being of any kind.  Moreover, he is also a doctor, so he commands power over her from a medical standpoint and not just a marital one.  He insists that his medical knowledge and treatment recommendation is infallible, despite her feelings and concerns.  She also mentions her brother from time to time, who is also a doctor and seems to agree with her husband to form a united front against her.  I think it's also worth noting that her child was a boy and yet another male figure who brought her to this point of powerlessness.

Significantly, we never learn the protagonist's name, even though we do know the name of her husband and several other characters who appear.  Her inability to identify herself in the story eventually leads to her taking on the new identity of the woman in the wall.  The ugly, yellow wallpaper in the room is the only thing she can focus on while she is quarantined in there.  Peeling from the walls, its confusing, dizzying patterns irritate her until she becomes obsessed with them.  She begins to believe that there is a woman trapped behind the paper who is shaking at the patterns like a prisoner against iron bars.  She thinks the woman creeps beneath the paper and watches her suspiciously.  Ultimately, the protagonist takes this persona on herself and thinks she has freed herself from the paper when she rips it apart and creeps around the corners of the room.

I love this story on many levels.  I think my favorite thing about it is simply the unique narrator perspective.  I like to be able to get inside the mind of someone who views the world with an abnormal outlook.  There are a couple other books I've read in the past that have done this as well, which I would be happy to recommend if you like this too.  I just think it's fascinating to be able to separate what you know to be true as reader and what you see that the character perceives to be true as narrator.

Another thing I love about this story is the rebellion of the entrapped woman.  At first, she acquiesces to the men in her life, agreeing that John must know best and thinking that her objections are "unreasonable."  But eventually, she coaxes him into the room in order to startle him with her new, more powerful (yet admittedly crazy) persona.  Even though I recognize it is a sad way for her personality to develop, I am still intrigued by the way she changes and the new assertive person she becomes.

Finally, I love the story for the feminist implications.  I have read that Gilman claimed the story was more about the problems within psychiatric care than within social gender roles.  However, the feminist issues in the story are almost unavoidable.  We are shown just how absurd the treatment of women was.  Remember, this was written in 1899, and John's interaction with his wife was probably not wholly unusual at the time.  I think it was courageous and intriguing for Gilman to explore and exaggerate the consequences of this inequity, and it's a huge part of the reason her story still has an impact in literature today.

Although I cheated with a short story as my first novella entry, I hope this helps get the series and the discussion started in a positive direction.


Story said...

Great post! I have been wanting to read this for a long time. . .now I think I will be reading it sooner than later

Brian Bither said...

Just catching up on your blog. I love this essay! I first read the Yellow Wallpaper in high school and had no idea what it meant until someone unlocked its symbolism for me. This opened my eyes to the world of feminism, as I got a little insight, for the first time, the kind of pressure one must feel under the hegemony of a (still) masculine-dominant society.

I appreciated your review because I haven't read this in a long time and had forgotten that the men in the story were also doctors. Your comment about the power-dynamics involved with doctors was profound! A major part of Foucault's work was identifying the oppressive role that the medical industry plays in our society. This piece beautifully demonstrates that point in narrative form, showing how the subtle patronization of "medical legislators" have tremendous power over the rest of us, and how powerless many feel as the recipients of diagnosis. It's amazing that Gilman anticipates this so many decades before Foucault!