Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper is a short fiction by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It is available for free at Gutenberg.org. Wikipedia says of her that she is a feminist. This story is somewhat confounding and not for a gentle reader looking for a simple escape. The meaning is complex and offers much food for thought.

A woman is a prisoner in her own home. Her jailer is her husband, who is also a doctor, and a servant. She is stuck in a room on the second floor. There are bars on her window. She cannot leave her room voluntarily. She is not allowed to write. She has no entertainment, and her instructions are basically that she is to get as much rest as she can.

Her attention is drawn to the yellow wall paper. In the yellow wallpaper is a woman who is struggling to be free. But, it is no haunted house. It is a reflection of herself. It is her that needs to escape from her room. The end result is that she is crazy.

I must say, I am struggling with this story to identify whether these are metaphors or if the images of bars, wall paper, creeping women, etc., are to be taken figuratively. The paper, I suspect, is her own skin. She has peeled her own skin off of herself; torn it off. That would be the only reasonable explanation for what caused her husband to faint (a doctor being someone who is resistant to such effects).

Wikipedia writes that she suffers from understimulation. While this is quite evidently so, we are only
given a very narrow view into the last months of her transformation into deep psychosis. To be perfectly honest, there is more than a passing resemblance to Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" (published in 1915) which describes the life of a supernatural transformation from a man into a kind of caterpillar.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper" Gilman portrays the narrator's insanity as a way to protest the medical and professional 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. At the time women’s rights advocates believed that the outbreak of women being diagnosed as mentally ill 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 their writing would ultimately create an identity and become a form of defiance for them. - Wikipedia.org.
The article on Wikipedia suggests that everything in this story is literal, and that we are simply viewing the world from the eyes of someone who has gone mad. However, I cannot account for that theory in the idea that John, her husband, faints. It seems to be something deeper, more deeply disturbing perhaps, that is hinted at. However, throughout the various criticisms of the story, I did not find any support for my thought on this.

But, Lovecraft is quoted,
"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."
Does he refer to the inner insane mind of a woman who was outwardly sane? Or does he mean that there was some kind of ghost which was eventually released by the narrator?

Certainly, this is one of those kinds of stories which would do well in a literary class. There is much debate available for a contentious literary group!

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