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The Yellow Wallpaper
"The Yellow Wallpaper" (original title: "The Yellow Wall-paper. A Story") is a short story by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine. It is regarded as an important early work of American feminist literature, due to its illustration of the attitudes towards mental and physical health of women in the 19th century.
Narrated in the first person, the story is a collection of journal entries written by a woman whose physician husband (John) has rented an old mansion for the summer. Forgoing other rooms in the house, the couple moves into the upstairs nursery. As a form of treatment, the unnamed woman is forbidden from working, and is encouraged to eat well and get plenty of air, so she can recuperate from what he calls a "temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency", a diagnosis common to women during that period.
The story details the descent of a young woman into madness. Her supportive, though misunderstanding husband, John, believes it is in her best interests to go on a rest cure after experiencing symptoms of "temporary nervous depression". The family spends the summer at a colonial mansion that has, in the narrator's words, "something queer about it". She and her husband move into an upstairs room that she assumes was once a nursery. Her husband chooses for them to sleep there due to its multitude of windows, which provide the air so needed in her recovery. In addition to the couple, John's sister Jennie is present; she serves as their housekeeper. Like most nurseries at the time the windows are barred, the wallpaper has been torn, and the floor is scratched. The narrator attributes all these to children, as most of the damage is isolated to their reach. Ultimately, though, readers are left unsure as to the source of the room's state, leading them to see the ambiguities in the unreliability of the narrator.
The narrator devotes many journal entries to describing the wallpaper in the room – its "yellow" smell, its "breakneck" pattern, the missing patches, and the way it leaves yellow smears on the skin and clothing of anyone who touches it. She describes how the longer one stays in the bedroom, the more the wallpaper appears to mutate, especially in the moonlight. With no stimulus other than the wallpaper, the pattern and designs become increasingly intriguing to the narrator. She soon begins to see a figure in the design, and eventually comes to believe that a woman is creeping on all fours behind the pattern. Believing she must try to free the woman in the wallpaper, the woman begins to strip the remaining paper off the wall.
After many moments of tension between John and his sister, the story climaxes with the final day in the house. On the last day of summer, she locks herself in her room to strip the remains of the wallpaper. When John arrives home, she refuses to unlock the door. When he returns with the key, he finds her creeping around the room, circling the walls and touching the wallpaper. She asks excitedly, "I've got out at last,...in spite of you and Jane?", and her husband faints as she continues to circle the room, stepping over his inert body each time she passes, seeming to have become the personification of the woman trapped behind the yellow wallpaper.
Gilman used her writing to explore the role of women in America during the late 1800s and early 1900s. She highlighted many issues such as the lack of a life outside the home and the oppressive forces of the patriarchal society. Through her work, Gilman paved the way for writers such as Alice Walker and Sylvia Plath.
In The Yellow Wallpaper Gilman portrays the narrator's insanity as a way to protest the medical, professional, and societal oppression against women at the time. While under the impression that husbands and male doctors were acting with their best interests in mind, women were depicted as mentally weak and fragile. Women’s rights advocates of the era believed that the "outbreak" of this mental instability was the manifestation of their setbacks regarding the roles they were allowed to play in a male-dominated society. Women were even discouraged from writing, because it would ultimately create an identity and become a form of defiance. Gilman realized that writing became one of the only forms of existence for women at a time when they had very few rights.
Gilman explained that the idea for the story originated in her own experience as a patient: "the real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways". She had suffered years of depression and consulted a well-known specialist physician who prescribed a "rest cure" which required her to "live as domestic a life as possible". She was forbidden to touch pen, pencil, or brush, and was allowed only two hours of mental stimulation a day.
After three months and almost desperate, Gilman decided to contravene her diagnosis, along with the treatment methods, and started to work again. Aware of how close she had come to complete mental breakdown, the author wrote The Yellow Wallpaper with additions and exaggerations to illustrate her own criticism for the medical field. Gilman sent a copy to Mitchell but never received a response.
She added that The Yellow Wallpaper was "not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked". Gilman claimed that many years later she learned that Mitchell had changed his treatment methods, but literary historian Julie Bates Dock has discredited this. Mitchell continued his methods, and as late as 1908 – 16 years after "The Yellow Wallpaper" was published – was interested in creating entire hospitals devoted to the "rest cure" so that his treatments would be more widely accessible.
This story has been interpreted by feminist critics as a condemnation of the male control of the 19th-century medical profession. Throughout the short story the narrator offers many suggestions to help her get better such as exercising, working, or socializing with the outside world. Her ideas, though, are dismissed immediately while using language that stereotypes her as irrational and, therefore, unqualified to offer ideas about her own condition. This interpretation draws on the concept of the "domestic sphere" that women were held in during this period.
Many feminist critics focus on the degree of triumph at the end of the story. Although some claim the narrator slipped into insanity, others see the ending as a woman's assertion of agency in a marriage in which she felt trapped. The emphasis on reading and writing as gendered practices also illustrated the importance of the wallpaper. If the narrator were allowed neither to write in her journal nor to read, she would begin to "read" the wallpaper until she found the escape she was looking for. Through seeing the women in the wallpaper, the narrator realizes that she could not live her life locked up behind bars. At the end of the story, as her husband lies on the floor unconscious, she crawls over him, symbolically rising over him. This is interpreted as a victory over her husband, at the expense of her sanity.
In her article "Feminist Criticism ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, and the Politics of Color in America", Susan S. Lanser, a professor at Brandeis University, praises contemporary feminism and its role in changing the study and the interpretation of literature. "The Yellow Wallpaper" was one of many stories that lost authority in the literary world because of an ideology that determined the works' content to be disturbing or offensive. Critics such as the editor of the Atlantic Monthly rejected the short story because "[he] could not forgive [himself] if [he] made others as miserable as [he] made [himself]." Lanser argues that the same argument of devastation and misery can be said about the work of Edgar Allan Poe, but his work is still printed and studied by academics.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" provided feminists the tools to interpret literature in different ways. Lanser argues that the short story was a "particularly congenial medium for such a re-vision . . . because the narrator herself engages in a form of feminist interpretation when she tries to read the paper on her wall". The narrator in the story is trying to find a single meaning in the wallpaper. At first she focuses on contradictory style of the wallpaper: it is "flamboyant" while also "dull", "pronounced" yet also "lame" and "uncertain" (p. 13). She takes into account the patterns and tries to geometrically organize them, but she is further confused. The wallpaper changes colors when it reflects light and emits a distinct odor which the protagonist cannot recognize (p. 25). At night the narrator is able to see a woman behind bars within the complex design of the wallpaper. Lanser argues that the unnamed woman was able to find "a space of text on which she can locate whatever self-projection". Just like the narrator as a reader, when one comes into contact with a confusing and complicated text, one tries to find a single meaning. "How we were taught to read" as Lanser puts it, is why a reader cannot fully comprehend the text. The patriarchal ideology had kept many scholars from being able to interpret and appreciate stories such as "The Yellow Wallpaper." With the growth of feminist criticism, "The Yellow Wallpaper" has become a fundamental reading in the standard curriculum. Feminists have made a great contribution to the study of literature but, according to Lanser, are falling short because if "we acknowledge the participation of women writers and readers in dominant patterns of thought and social practice then perhaps our own patterns must also be deconstructed if we are to recover meanings still hidden or overlooked.
Martha J. Cutter discusses how in many of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's works she addresses this "struggle in which a male-dominated medical establishment attempts to silence women." Gilman's works challenge the social construction of women in patriarchal medical discourse who are seen as "silent, powerless, and passive". At the time in which her works take place, between 1840 and 1890, women were exceedingly defined as lesser than—sickly and weak. In this time period it was thought that "hysteria" (a disease stereotypically more common in women) was a result of too much education. It was understood that women who spent time in college or studying were over-stimulating their brains and consequently leading themselves into states of hysteria. In fact, many of the diseases recognized in women were seen as the result of a lack of self-control or self-rule. Different physicians argued that a physician must "assume a tone of authority" and that the idea of a "cured" woman is one who is "subdued, docile, silent, and above all subject to the will and voice of the physician". A hysterical woman is one who craves power and in order for her to be treated for her hysteria, she must submit to her physician whose role is to undermine her desires. Often women were prescribed bed rest as a form of treatment, which was meant to "tame" them and basically keep them imprisoned. Treatments such as this were a way of ridding women of rebelliousness and forcing them to conform to expected social roles. In her works Gilman, highlights that the harm caused by these types of treatments for woman i.e. "the rest cure" has to do with the way in which her voice is silenced. Paula Treichler explains "In this story diagnosis 'is powerful and public. . . . It is a male voice that . . . imposes controls on the female narrator and dictates how she is to perceive and talk about the world.' Diagnosis covertly functions to empower the male physician's voice and disempower the female patient's". The narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is not allowed to participate in her own treatment or diagnosis and is completely forced to succumb to everything in which her doctor and in this particular story, her husband, says. The male voice is the one in which forces controls on the female and decides how she is allowed to perceive and speak about the world around her.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" is sometimes referred to as an example of Gothic literature for its themes of madness and powerlessness. Alan Ryan, for example, introduced the story by writing: "quite apart from its origins [it] is one of the finest, and strongest, tales of horror ever written. It may be a ghost story. Worse yet, it may not." Pioneering horror author H. P. Lovecraft writes in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) that "'The Yellow Wall Paper' rises to a classic level in subtly delineating the madness which crawls over a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined."
Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, in her book Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper", concludes that "the story was a cri de coeur against [Gilman's first husband, artist Charles Walter] Stetson and the traditional marriage he had demanded." Gilman was attempting to deflect blame to protect Gilman's daughter Katharine and her step-mother, Gilman's friend Grace Channing.
Anglican Archbishop Peter Carnley used the story as a reference and a metaphor for the situation of women in the church in his sermon at the ordination of the first women priests in Australia on 7 March 1992 in St George's Cathedral, Perth.
In another interpretation, Sari Edelstein has argued that "The Yellow Wallpaper" is an allegory for Gilman's hatred of the emerging yellow journalism. Having created The Forerunner in November 1909, Gilman made it clear she wished the press to be more insightful and not rely upon exaggerated stories and flashy headlines. Gilman was often scandalized in the media and resented the sensationalism of the media. The relationship between the narrator and the wallpaper within the story parallels Gilman's relationship to the press. The protagonist describes the wallpaper as having "sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin". Edelstein argues that given Gilman’s distaste for the Yellow Press, this can also be seen as a description of tabloid newspapers of the day.
In Paula A. Treichler's article "Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in 'The Yellow Wallpaper'", she places her focus on the relationship portrayed in the short story between women and writing. Rather than write about the feminist themes which view the wallpaper as something along the lines of ". . . the 'pattern' which underlies sexual inequality, the external manifestation of neurasthenia, the narrator's unconscious, the narrator's situation within patriarchy," Treichler instead explains that the wallpaper can be a symbol to represent discourse and the fact that the narrator is alienated from the world in which she previously could somewhat express herself. Treichler illustrates that through this discussion of language and writing, in the story Charlotte Perkins Gilman is defying the ". . . sentence that the structure of patriarchal language imposes." While Treichler accepts the legitimacy of strictly feminist claims, she writes that a closer look at the text suggests that the wallpaper could be interpreted as women's language and discourse, and the woman found in the wallpaper could be the ". . . representation of women that becomes possible only after women obtain the right to speak." In making this claim, it suggests that the new struggle found within the text is between two forms of writing; one rather old and traditional, and the other new and exciting. This is supported in the fact that John, the narrator's husband, does not like his wife to write anything, which is the reason her journal containing the story is kept a secret and thus is known only by the narrator and reader. A look at the text shows that as the relationship between the narrator and the wallpaper grows stronger, so too does her language in her journal as she begins to increasingly write of her frustration and desperation.
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