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 over 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.)