Monday, July 18, 2011

Reader's Diary #736- Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Yellow Wallpaper

Back in December Teddy Rose reviewed Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and when I remarked that she had made it sound appealing, she replied that it was geared more towards women but was still interested in a male perspective. Not that I can comment on behalf of all men (far from it), but I still planned on giving it a go. Then, as often happens, I put it out of my head entirely. Thankfully Chris reviewed it Linkover at Chrisbookarama this past week (who also mentioned the feminist angle) and so here I am.

I have to admit, I tried hard to feel some empathy for the man.

Told from a woman's perspective, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is about her being confined to a room in a house that her doctor husband has rented for the summer. She has recently given birth and has been diagnosed, by her husband, as having "temporary nervous depression," but as the story goes on she becomes fixated on the wallpaper, convinces herself that there are women hiding behind it, and slips into madness.

At first, I felt sorry for John, the husband. I saw myself in his skepticism where supernatural phenomenon is concerned. I also considered when the story was written (late 1800s) and how new psychology as a science was at the time (though postpartum psychosis was recognized as early as 1850-- if that is, in fact, what the narrator was experiencing).

When I was in the delivery room with my wife when our children were born, I felt completely and utterly helpless and useless. She was clearly in pain and doing all the work, while I was just sort of in the way. I wanted to do anything to help. Instead I spilled coffee. The difference with John in Gilman's story was that he was a physician. He thought he was helping. In reality, he wasn't. He may have, in fact, been making matters worst. Suggesting that she stay alone in a room with weird wallpaper may not have been such a good idea.

And I'll concede that John turned out to be less than a helpless, well-meaning, but ultimately mistaken man. He turned out to be a patronizing jerk. But, while feminist themes could easily be found here, I would still stress that plenty of mentally ill men were also abused by physicians and psychiatrists in those days.

There are a few more theories about the story as well. First off, are we sure that the woman wasn't so mentally unstable in the beginning that she wasn't an unreliable narrator from the get go? Or what if the husband was even more evil than a neglecting chauvinist know-it-all but instead planned the whole thing? Couldn't he have been slipping something into her food? He was after all a physician and would have had access to such things. Then there's the whole Napoleon connection. You see, Napoleon's hair was analyzed in the 1960s and traces of arsenic were found. At first people suspected he was poisoned by a murderer, but now a popular theory suggests that arsenic in his wallpaper did him in. While most people don't think that Napoleon went crazy because of this arsenic, arsenic is porphyrogenic and symptoms of porphyria include hallucinations, depression and anxiety. Some people believe that King George III suffered this condition due to arsenic. But, though "The Yellow Wallpaper" is said to be semi-autobiographical and it might be that these theories simply didn't occur to Gilman as she experienced similar situations (hence the lack of hints), I admit that they're not as plausible as the more accepted interpretations. Still, it's fun to play CSI for a while, isn't it?

By the way, when I was a child my grandmother used to have a very similar wallpaper to this in the guest room where I sometimes slept:

See all those circular swirls? I used to imagine those as eyes. I could easily understand while the woman in "the Yellow Wallpaper" would start to have her mind run wild after staring at such a thing all day everyday. All this and the whole Napoleon thing? I'm surprised there isn't a phrase coined to describe a fear of wallpaper. Oh wait, there is: ricoculophobia.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)


Chrisbookarama said...

I'm glad you read it!

I did try to empathize with John but he was just so damn sure of himself- and calling her 'little girl' creeped me out.

I read the Napoleon article and that would put a new spin on it. The maid in the story complains that the yellow is coming off on their clothes. So maybe that wallpaper was driving her mad but in a different way. (Yes, it is fun to play CSI.)

Julie @ Read Handed said...

Thanks for the male perspective on this feminist story. Regardless of the mental illness involved, feminists see some of the story's aspects as symbolic - a man telling a woman she must stay in a room, essentially trapping her, can symbolize men in general stifling woman in society, insisting they stay in the home rather than venture out into the world. Considering that this story became popular in this vein during the 60s or 70s I believe, one can argue that the literary critics were reading that theme back into the text and the author did not intend it at all. Who knows?
I read a very different story today - "Scarlet Stockings" by Louisa May Alcott.

John Mutford said...

Chris: Yes, the yellow coming off on their clothes, and at one point the narrator says it looks like someone smeared a streak of something around the walls, could support the theory that the husband was trying to do her off. This story needed a Miss Marple.

Julie: Absolutely, and the women trapped behind the wallpaper would also support the feminist symbolism interpretation.

SuziQoregon said...

At first I wasn't that interested in this story, but the more I read of your theories the more interested I became. Putting this on on my list to read. I'm also wondering how I can manage to work my new found knowledge of the term for fear of wallpaper into conversation ;-)

I read another Agatha Christie this week. I'm working my way through the collection "The Thirteen Problems". This week's story is called The Blood-Stained Pavement.

JoAnn said...

It's great to have a male perspective on this story. I was especially interested to read the Napoleon angle... perhaps it's time for a reread!

My post is about "Story of a Madman" by Emile Zola.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed eading your eview, John. You give a whole new dimension to this story.