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 under the care of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a well-known nerve specialist. She was suffering from depression, "nervous prostration" as diagnosed by the doctor, after the birth of her daughter. At that time, the medical profession had not yet distinguished between diseases of the mind and diseases of the brain; problems that would now be treated by psychiatrists, such as depression, were treated by neurologists such as Mitchell. The symptoms of depression—fatigue, hysteria, crying fits—were thought to stem from the body, and thus were treated through care of the body. Mitchell's treatment for breakdowns of the nervous system, and the treatment he prescribed for Gilman, included total bed rest and isolating the patient from family and familiar surroundings. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman demonstrates the horror that such a treatment could induce in its subject. When the narrator is threatened by her husband with being sent to Weir Mitchell if she does not get better quickly, she says: "But I don't want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!"
Gilman was sent home from Mitchell's sanitarium after one month, having been pronounced ''cured,'' with the following instructions: ''Live as domestic a life as possible ... Have but two hours' intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brash or pencil as long as you live." When Gilman heeded this advice she came, in her own words, ''perilously close to losing my mind." Mitchell's "rest cure" had been used on other literary figures—Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf—and other noted persons--Jane Addams and Winifred Howells, whose father, the editor William Dean Howells, was instrumental in the publication of "The Yellow Wallpaper." Woolf, Addams, and Howells, like Gilman, protested against the treatment (Woolf also attacked it in her novel Mrs. Dalloway). In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman chronicles what happens to a woman forced to succumb to the "rest cure" and thus, to her inflexible position in society as a prisoner of the domestic sphere.
Gilman claimed a purpose for everything she wrote. "The Yellow Wallpaper" pointed out the dangers of the medical treatment imposed by Mitchell and other doctors like him. Years later, Gilman learned that Mitchell had changed his treatment of nervous prostration after reading the story, so she won her victory. Yet, the story is far more than just a crying out for improvement in one facet of a woman's life; it touches on many issues relevant to women of the nineteenth century, particularly that of the limited roles available to them.
Despite Gilman's avowal that her story was not literature, it has been appreciated as such since its rediscovery in the 1960s (Gilman's works had been out of print since the 1930s). And just as "The Yellow Wallpaper" espoused Gilman's feminist views when she wrote it, critics have analyzed it as a feminist work—or a work that has feminist issues as its main concerns—for the past two decades. As is...
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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. Dickinson's wallpaper went unrecorded, the anecdote forms a striking parallel to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ''The Yellow Wallpaper,'' first published in 1892 but, like Emily Dickinson's work, under-appreciated until decades after her death. Both the domestic incident and the terrifying short story suggest the familiar Gothic themes of confinement and rebellion, forbidden desire and "irrational" fear. Both include such Gothic staples as the distraught heroine, the forbidding mansion, and the powerfully repressive male antagonist. If we focus on the issue of the Gothic world and its release of imaginative power, however, the stories form a dramatic contrast. A woman of ordinary abilities, the unimaginative Mrs. Dickinson would later represent the nadir of female selfhood to her brilliant, rebellious daughter. "Mother does not care for thought," the poet remarked dryly in 1862; and by 1870, she could issue this blunt dismissal: "I never had a mother." But Dickinson surely would have admired the unnamed heroine of "The Yellow Wallpaper," who willingly accepts madness over repression, refusing a life of ''unhappy, silent acceptance." The poet would have especially responded to the woman's identity as a writer, and to the way in which her story adroitly and at times parodically employs Gothic conventions to present an allegory of literary imagination unbinding the social, domestic, and psychological confinements of a nineteenth-century woman writer.
Rather than simply labeling the narrator a madwoman at the story's close, we might view her behavior as an expression of long-suppressed rage: a rage which causes a temporary breakdown (like those actually suffered by both Dickinson and Gilman) but which represents a prelude to psychic regeneration and artistic redemption. This reading accounts for two elements of the story usually ignored: its emphasis upon the narrator as a writer, who is keeping a journal and putting forth her own text—''The Yellow Wallpaper''—as an antithetical triumph over the actual wallpaper that had nearly been her undoing; and its brittle, macabre, relentlessly satiric humor that suggests, in the story's earlier sections, her barely suppressed and steadily mounting anger. As in many of Poe's tales, this seemingly incongruous humor serves only to accentuate the Gothic terror of the narrator's situation....
The narrative focus of "The Yellow Wallpaper'' moves relentlessly inward, detailing the narrator's gradual absorption into the Gothic world of psychic chaos and imaginative freedom; but Gilman controls her heroine's deepening subjectivity through repetition, irony, parodic humor, and allegorical patterns of imagery. The two worlds of the story—the narrator's husband and sister-in-law's daylight world of masculine order and domestic routine, and her own subjective sphere of deepening imaginative insight—are kept clearly focused and distinct. Most important, Gilman reminds the reader frequently that her narrator is a habitual writer for whom ''The Yellow Wallpaper" is a kind of diary, an accurate record of her turbulent inward journey. Drawing on Gilman's experience of post-partum depression and breakdown, the story is far more than an indictment of nineteenth-century attitudes toward women and an account of one woman's incipient psychosis. Gilman made her heroine a writer for purposes of art, not autobiography, and the story as a whole describes a woman attempting to save herself through her own writing, to transform what she calls "dead paper" into a vibrant Gothic world of creative dreamwork and self-revelation.
Two of the story's major structural devices are its contrasting of the husband's daylight world and his wife's nocturnal fantasy, and the religious imagery by which she highlights the liberating and redemptive qualities of her experience. When the story opens, she acknowledges that the idea of their rented summer house as a...
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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"...
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