Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"The yellow wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one of those stories that albeit short (about 6000 words) it can be read on many separate levels that any dissertation should discuss in order to avoid a void in the interpretative function.

At first, Gilman's story can be simply classified as Gothic fiction. In the story we have the classical unreliable narrator, a strange situation, an uncanny event and some satellite characters that are unable to understand what is happening, worsening the whole situation. As in Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart", the narration is obsessed with something or someone, although it should be noted that the typologies of obsessions are slightly different. Poe's narrator tries to find freedom from the evil eye but committing a murder, which is a traumatic event external to the problem. Gilman's narrator tries to find freedom by using, spoiling and interpretating the meaning of tapestry, which is an event intrinsic to the problem. In other words, Gilman's narrator needs the tapestry, while Poe's narrator wants to get rid of it. In both stories we do not know much of the details of the narrator; however in "The Yellow Wallpaper" we know that she is diagnosed with some sort of post-partum depression. For this reason her husband decides to confine her to the attic, removing any sort of intellectual stimuli. She desires to do some work around the house, but she is not allowed to. She desires to do something than just getting bored, but she is not allowed. Bored to death, she starts believing that the wallpaper is not just a regular yellow wallpaper but it hides some mysterious secret. Day and night she is so obsessed in her belief that she starts seeing it move. Her condition worsening, she thinks that women are hidden behind it and come out at night and by tearing it apart she will free them and free herself. In the final scene, the husbands finds out that her condition is now unrecoverable (I won't spoil the precise ending).
The story itself is quite intriguing, and it interesting to observe how the narrator's mental health worsens daily.

The second level of interpretation of this story is feminism. Gilman's story is a small manifesto for woman's liberation. Here's where the husband comes in play. Although he may seem a simple single dimensional character (honestly, in part he is), he is actually the stereotype of the possessive husband, very popular in the years Gilman lived in but being a doctor he has seemingly good motivations for his choices. He is a doctor convinced that is wife is going crazy and he tries to cure her. His solution? Drive her even crazier. The problem which Gilman is clearly talking about is not that the husband is wrong, but that he does not listen to what she says. In every conversation he never believes her (and he is right) and never listen to her suggestion (and he is plainly wrong). Clearly he works as a metaphor for the low value that men placed on women's opinion back then. With her story, Gilman tries to explain that a woman by the use of her head is free, no matter what chain is she constrained to. 

Another level is the scientific one. By researching online (well... reading on wikipedia) it becomes clear that Gilman had issues with an early psychologist/doctor who treated her depression by removing almost all distractions from her. In a figure of speech, there is not much difference between Gilman and the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper". Clearly, the author wants to criticize certain scientific methods that are based on traditions, guesswork and little else. She also criticizes those doctors that don't listen to patients because they are so sure of their methods that they would not change them even if hard proof is in front of them. Until irreparable damage is done.
Obviously, I strongly suggest reading this classic. It was one of Lovecraft's favorites and for a good reason. The text is freely available on Project Gutenberg. In addition two movies, one transposition by BBC and one that took some liberties, have been made (I haven't seen either).

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