Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Yellow Wallpaper - madness in confinement

Following my recent post on female hysteria, my thoughts are still on the representation of madness in 19th century literature - how it was perceived to affect women, and how female authors dealt with both the perceived affliction and society's tolerance (or otherwise) of the afflicted, while at the same time, subverting this image through their writing.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story The Yellow Wallpaper has not met with universal acclaim but is, I think, a really strong piece of writing about a woman struggling with various aspects of her life. Maybe it says something about me that I can identify with her - I almost want to crawl into the wallpaper with her...

You can read the full story
here but if you don't have time, here is a very brief synopsis:

The first person narration is by a woman who is diagnosed by the men in her life (her husband and her brother, both of whom are physicians) as having a nervous disposition and "a slight hysterical tendency". She is thus prescribed various drugs to keep her "happy". She is removed from her usual surroundings and taken on holiday (hmm...) to a rather old and spooky house where she is given a room upstairs, away from the rest of the household. She assumes this to be an old nursery, later used as a gym, due to the presence of bars on the windows and iron rings in the walls. We can assume this is in fact an old asylum and she is being misled by the men (and women) around her. It's notable that her room is located upstairs - it is attic-like - she in effect becomes the 'madwoman in the attic' like Bertha in Jane Eyre.

Anyway, long story short, the yellow wallpaper in the room becomes a focus for her and she begins to see images of another woman, and herself, inside the paper. Her psychosis deepens to the point where she sees "creeping" women not just in the wallpaper, but outside and eventually her psychosis takes over and she becomes the creeping woman in the wallpaper.

What I find most arresting in this story is not Perkins' description of her heroine's mental illness (yes, I'm going to call her a heroine), although this is done convincingly well, but the little hints throughout the text that point to external reasons for her experiencing this breakdown, as opposed to any internal or inherently female causes (notably that of female hysteria).

Like many women of the time, our heroine is defined by her sex, her role as a wife and as a mother. She is not named at all. Not once (unless I'm mistaken. Which I might be. Stranger things have happened as Mr Darcy will tell you...). Mention is made of her baby son, but we never see her with her baby. She has been deemed too ill to look after him. Neither does she seem to fulfill her role as a wife - she is a poor hostess and barely spends any time with her husband who is away most of the time. When he is with her he treats her like a child, not an equal, and certainly not a sexual, partner. Instead she is in the charge of "Jennie" who acts as housemaid, nurse and eventually, effectively, jailor, whom she distrusts.

Her one passion is writing and this is strictly prohibited for the sake of her health. She writes in secret when her husband and Jennie aren't looking. But this passion begins to dull as her psychosis (and the slow-drip of the drugs) kicks in.

So here is a woman who has had her liberties and rights taken away from her. And all under the guise of treatment for her hysteria.

What Perkins does so well in this short piece of writing is to get inside the mind of a woman struggling with the everyday pressures of 19th century life. We are all products of our environment (discuss!) and our heroine's fateful lapse into mental illness is perhaps inevitable given not only the way she is treated, but the expectations that are made of her - expectations of which she is fully aware and which become therefore self-fulfilling.

In presenting the situation thus, Gilman shows us that society is at fault here. She is very consciously subverting the accepted social norm in an implicit, rather than explicit way. As modern readers of this text, understanding the sociohistorical context, we can appreciate her courage and skill as an author in addressing this horror (for this is what the treatment of the protagonist amounts to).


Read up on Gilman, she's an interesting 19th century author. She was herself subjected to "rest cure", forbidden to work, kept to a domestic/docile* (delete as applicable) routine and wrote The Yellow Wallpaper as a reaction to this.

No comments:

Post a Comment