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Yellow Wallpaper Although critics of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper have noted the dark incongruities between the narrators world and that of her husband, none have dealt with its humorous implications to an understanding of the narrative (Lane, Gilman 5). More typically, critics of this rediscovered realistic narrative (School-Schilling) interpret the narrative as one that offers the detailed and chilling account of a womans entrapment, defeat, and movement toward madness one caused by patriarchy, that is, by obtusely sexist men such as the narrators husband John or nineteenth-century psychiatrists like S. Weir Mitchell. In a more recent Lacanian revision of this feminist critique, Jeanette King and Pam Morris argue that the narrator displays psychological shortcomings, misreads the yellow wallpaper, her other self, and in this way seeks to limit the play of its signifier's (32), an error, they maintain, that readers of the text should not make. In this essay, I further their argument that the narrator misreads the yellow wallpaper, but not because of her psychological aberrations. Rather, I maintain that, as a writer, she fails to recognize the significance of the comically grotesque texture of her tale.
Because of this artistic failure, she assumes the grotesque proportions of the yellow wallpaper, becomes a grotesque figure, and, in so doing, transforms her narrative into a disturbing, startling, and darkly ironic tale about nineteenth-century American womanhood. In her autobiography, Gilman claimed to have based The Yellow Wallpaper on her experiences with S. Weir Mitchells rest cure treatment, observing that the real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways (121).
Despite her stated didactic intent, there are marked discrepancies between Gilman's autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown and her narrators in The Yellow Wallpaper. Although Gilman describes her husband as one more victimized than victimizing (96 - 97), the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper directly implicates her husband John, along with Jennie, S. Weir Mitchell, and others suffering from gender-encoded misconceptions, in her movement toward madness. Whether Gilman understood the complexity of this narrators madness remains uncertain. However, between her penchant for didactic satire and her personal anguish, Gilman did create, quite consciously, a narrator who not only challenges gender stereotyping, but does so in grotesquely comedic terms. John is mechanistic, rigid, predictable, and sexist; he combines, as Rachel Du Plessis notes, the professional authority of the physician with the legal and emotional authority of the husband (92), eventually to become a caricature of both.
John is practical in the extreme, Gilman's narrator candidly observes. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures (3). Accordingly, when the narrator suggests to her ever-practical husband that she senses there is something wrong with the house, that there is something queer about the house, he laughs at me, of course (3, 6). Neither does he take her anxiety about the wallpaper seriously, and when she frantically expresses a desire to move downstairs, he persists in his laughter, calling her a blessed little goose, and [saying] he would go down cellar [sic], if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain (8). He also does not permit her to have companions, and when she inquires about visiting with Cousin Henry and Julia, he boorishly quips that he would as soon put fireworks in my pillowcase as to let me have those stimulating people about now (7).
As the narrators understanding of the meaning of the yellow wallpaper intensifies, so does her irritation with John, who remains doggedly true to his limited perspective. When John is finally made aware of the severity of his wifes disorder, he reacts by fainting, altering his conventional role as a soothing, masculine figure to that of a stereotypically weak nineteenth-century female. To intensify the irony of his transformation, Gilman has her narrator aggressively express her annoyance that John has fainted since she now has to run right over him. He is now in the way of her creeping, an activity she earlier attributed to the woman in the wallpaper, an activity that seems not only subversive, but also undefined, repetitive, and comical or to use Henri Bergson's words, like something mechanical encrusted onto the living (108).
At the same time, Gilman grants her narrator an artistic sensibility, one that evidently begins to resurface the moment that John locks her away to affect her cure. At the beginning, she briefly contemplates using the gothic genre to explain her dilemma, a genre in which not only ghostly presences live in ancient, decaying mansions, but conventional madwomen flourish as well. It is very seldom, states the narrator with her first utterance that mere ordinary people like John and I secure ancestral halls in the summer. A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house and reach the height of romantic felicity but that would be asking too much of fate! (3) The narrator does, however, finally define the nature of her narrative. After her initial uneasiness, she begins to perceive new figures in the wallpaper and to grow fond of her room, perhaps because of the wallpaper (9). The paper becomes comic to her; more, it becomes grotesque.
There is, she states, a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down (7). This figure has a certain impertinence and ever lastingness that follow you everywhere with absurd unblinking eyes (7). Later, tracing the pattern becomes as good as gymnastics, I assure you (9), as the narrator not only presents her interests as a game, but details her amused impressions. Its patterns, she says, are a kind of debased Romanesque with delirium tremens that go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity (9). Then, the narrator not only clarifies the design of the wallpaper, but of her fiction: I can almost fancy radiation after allah interminable grotesque seems to form around a common center and rush off in headlong plunges of equal distraction (10).
Gilman's narrator uses this interminable grotesque to further her contrast between the rigidly mannered and socially acceptable behavior of her husband (and, less emphatically, of Jennie) and her increasing dissatisfaction with such behavior. Her description of the grotesque comes at the end of the third section of her six narrative segments, offering the reader a structural pattern that, like the narrators wallpaper, is given coherence by a common center, even as it rushes off in headlong plunges of equal distraction (about John, herself, Jennies spying, the woman in the wallpaper, and so forth). By self-consciously defining her narrative as a rebellious work that is unified by a central grotesque image, the narrator not only reveals her unconscious awareness of her fictive design, but also leads her readers toward an understanding both of the terror and dark amusement she feels as she confronts herself a prisoner inside the yellow wallpaper, an unsavory social text created and sustained not only by men like John, but by women like Jennie, and, most horribly, herself. Instead of being freed by this aesthetic and potentially liberating confrontation, however, she is defeated, destroyed, and driven to madness enabling her author, Gilman, not only to transform her into a grotesque figure, but to make a pointed, darkly satiric, comment against those conventional gender patterns that have imprisoned her. Because of her representation and implicit perspective on the grotesque in The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman does not seem to be primarily concerned with patriarchy, as many recent critics have argued.
Like Jennie, the complying housekeeper, and the narrator herself, patriarchy is, in the context of The Yellow Wallpaper, only an aspect of the interminable grotesque that permeates the narrative; and it is, like the grotesque, represented as an inexplicable, unreadable force. That is, it is meant to be felt, to have an impact, but not to be explained or comprehended rationally. Commenting upon why she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman observed, it was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked (20). Through her narrator, Gilman does suggest why women have been defeated by cultural or psychological circumstances; that is, either failing to see or becoming unduly preoccupied with the grotesque nature of such circumstances, they move toward an increasingly distorted understanding of themselves. In the case of Gilman's narrator, the specific circumstance is that of the impact of gender stereotypes and medical ignorance upon a normal but relatively intelligent nineteenth-century woman, a married and literate woman with a penchant for the pen.
Both the structure and the narrators felt dilemma in The Yellow Wallpaper suggest that Gilman felt that the brutality of such a circumstance could be best represented through a darkly humorous treatment of a domestic situation, one in which a husbands rigid and mechanistic sense of propriety is juxtaposed against his wifes increasingly distorted relation to the hideous yellow wallpaper in her room. As Gilman's narrator moves toward insanity and a strangely grotesque status, however, Gilman's narrative enables her readers to see that status in a startling social perspective. For when Gilman's narrator asks her final question, Now why should that man have fainted? , it reveals not only her transformation into a grotesque figure, a madwoman, but also, in the context of Gilman's conscious use of the interminable grotesque, the darkly ironic nature of such a transformation. Bibliography: Bergson, Henri.
Laughter. Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. New York: Doubleday, 1956. Berwick, Frederick.
The Haunted Eye: Perception and the Grotesque in English and German Romanticism. Heidelberg: Winter, 1987. Du Plessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. Gilbert, Sandra M. , and Susan Gear.
The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
New York: Arno, 1972. The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader. Ed. Ann J. Lane. New York: Pantheon, 1980.
When I Was a Witch. Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader 21 - 31. The Yellow Wallpaper. Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader 3 - 22. Haney-Period, Janice. Monumental Feminism and Literatures Ancestral House: Another Look at The Yellow Wallpaper.
Womens Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12. 2 (1986): 113 - 28. Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982. Hedges, Elaine R.
Afterword. The Yellow Wallpaper. By Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1973.
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