Essays and Criticism
Female Confinement and Escape in "The Yellow Wallpaper"
In 1913, more than twenty years after the first publication of ''The Yellow Wallpaper," Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote that she devised the story, "to save people from being driven crazy." Gilman had suffered a near mental breakdown herself, and had been prescribed a rest treatment very similar to that prescribed to the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper." For Gilman, the act of resuming her normal life, which certainly included writing, was what restored her health. Though we don't know what became of Gilman's narrator, we can chronicle Gilman's own life after her near mental breakdown. If Gilman's narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" regressed into her insanity, Gilman certainly did not; unlike the narrator she created, she made her voice heard. She pursued her career as a writer and lecturer, and she wrote works of theory and social commentary that brought her international fame. Though she concentrated on feminist issues, her influence reached beyond the woman's sphere. She has been compared by some critics to the author George Bernard Shaw and the art critic John Ruskin, and the London Chronicle compared her book, Women and Economics, to the writings of John Stuart Mill.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" commands attention not only for the harrowing journey into madness it portrays, but also for its realism. It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that the "The Yellow Wallpaper" is autobiographical. In 1887, Charlotte Perkins Gilman placed herself...
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Gilman's Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in "The Yellow Wallpaper''
In the autumn of 1830, shortly before Emily Dickinson's birth, her mother made an unusual request. At a time when her pregnancy—or as it was then called, her "confinement"—might have been expected to absorb her attention, Mrs. Dickinson abruptly demanded new wallpaper for her bedroom. Apparently dismayed by this outburst of feminine whimsy, her stern-tempered husband refused, prompting Mrs. Dickinson to her only recorded act of wifely defiance. Though "the Hon. Edward Dickinson would not allow her to have it done," a neighbor's descendant recalled, "she went secretly to the paper hanger and asked him to come and paper her bedroom. This he did, while Emily was being born."
To place this incident in context, we should note that Mrs. Dickinson, aged twenty-six, had just moved into her father-in-law's Amherst mansion and now faced the grim prospect of living with her husband's unpredictable relatives, along with the even grimmer perils of early nineteenth-century childbirth. Although Mrs. Dickinson was by most accounts a submissive, self-abnegating, rather neurasthenic woman—in short, the nineteenth-century ideal—it is tempting to read the wallpaper incident as a desperate gesture of autonomy and self-assertion. Emily Dickinson's most recent biographer, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, suggests that "The little explosion of defiance signaled fear and distress, and it was the prelude to unhappy, silent acceptance."
Though the color of Mrs....
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Gilman's ''The Yellow Wallpaper": A Centenary
It seems no accident that important recent novels have been Tom Morrison's Beloved, about the power of a sacrificed child over her mourning mother's life, and Marilyn French's Her Mother's Daughter, a major fiction about four generations of women, linked together in their martyred and futile lives through the mother-daughter bond. For at least these hundred years, since Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote her controversial and relentlessly accurate "The Yellow Wallpaper," women writers have confronted the basic conflicts of women's lives: how to be both a person and a wife and mother; how to live with acceptable passivity in a patriarchal culture while yet being aggressive enough to stay alive; and how to be both "good" and sensual, supportive and necessarily selfish, and, above all, sane.
Of these many conflicts inherent in women's trying to lead acceptable female lives, perhaps the most troublesome is that of motherhood, its attendant responsibilities, and its almost inevitable loss of self-identity. Women who care for infants are almost literally used up in the process, the twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance subsuming their own mental and physical activities. No other human situation demands the same level of inexorable attention. Yet of the many controversies about women's roles, that of motherhood—and, as Dorothy Dinnerstein emphasized, the care-giving during childhood as much as the actual birthing—has seldom been discussed. It is...
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