Thursday, January 05, 2017

"The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892)

Read story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman online.

This story is now a landmark of feminist literature, but I encountered it first as a story in a horror collection (I wrote about it a couple years ago here). It qualified as horror probably because it deals with madness, a recurring theme of horror, along with the institutions that house the afflicted. But it's easy now to see the feminist themes too. The first-person narrator, who remains unnamed (a common device among short stories, I am seeing), has suffered some kind of nervous breakdown. Her husband John is a doctor and orders bed rest for her and a minimum of mental stimulation. She has nothing to read and is forbidden to write—a certain hell for some of us. The story is her journal, kept in secret. With a minimum of outside stimulation, she becomes fascinated and obsessed with the pattern of the yellow wallpaper in the room where she is confined. She tries to analyze the intricate patterns—"I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry"—but she can't. Eventually she believes she sees the figure of a woman moving behind the pattern, trapped behind the pattern, struggling to get out. Eventually she identifies that woman as herself. It's also possible to read this as a straightforward profile of mental illness, when her perceptions go to such extremes—more in the line of conventional horror. But other details tell. She may be confined but she's not exactly isolated. Her husband sleeps there with her at night. She notes frightful details about the room—the wallpaper has been previously torn away in spots, "the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there," and the bed is nailed to the floor. It's all a bit like the movie The Tenant. No one else in this story particularly registers these terrible details, yet they feel more concrete than the delusions of a sick mind and/or feminist allegory of a woman's position in society. It feels more like a chamber of horrors somehow. At the same time, the woman also feels genuinely unstable. Something is wrong with her and also with that room, that wallpaper. The story still affects me strangely. But it makes all sense as a feminist parable too, which is the way Gilman intended it. While we're at it, it's also a good indictment of attitudes toward mental illness that prevail yet today. It's a remarkable story.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

No comments:

Post a Comment