Thursday, 12 March 2015

Review: 'The Yellow Wall-Paper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Book Cover: The Yellow Wallpaper: Little Black Classics: Penguin 80s'The Yellow Wall-Paper' is one of the most seminal feminist short stories ever written. This is not just my opinion but is as close to fact as you can get in literature. Perkins Gilman encapsulated within her story the frustrations and fears of generations of women before and after her. I was really excited to find this Penguin Little Black Book edition of the story, which also includes 'The Rocking Chair' and 'Old Water'.

Pub. Date:25/02/2015
Original Pub. Date: 01/1892
Publisher: Penguin Classics
First published in 1892, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is written as the secret journal of a woman who, failing to relish the joys of marriage and motherhood, is sentenced to a country rest cure. Though she longs to write, her husband and doctor forbid it, prescribing instead complete passivity. In the involuntary confinement of her bedroom, the hero creates a reality of her own beyond the hypnotic pattern of the faded yellow wallpaper--a pattern that has come to symbolize her own imprisonment. Narrated with superb psychological and dramatic precision, "The Yellow Wallpaper" stands out not only for the imaginative authenticity with which it depicts one woman’s descent into insanity, but also for the power of its testimony to the importance of freedom and self-empowerment for women.
'The Yellow Wall-Paper' is a horrifying story. In the 19th century many women were reduced to confinement within the domestic sphere after being diagnosed with what the narrator of 'The Yellow Wall-Paper' calls 'temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency'. Throughout the 19th century, the image of woman as easily excitable and prone to illness was maintained throughout the Western culture, both through literature and art and the every day life experience of women. 'The Yellow Wall-Paper' is one of the best testaments as to the consequences that this kind of confinement and the belittling of female experience has. Perkins Gilman masterly transfigures her narrative and writing style, the same way that her protagonist's mind is warped by the wall-paper. Written in the first person, the story becomes incredibly claustrophobic and the reader finds themselves equally fascinated with the wall-paper and the women behind it.Her writing style is entrancing and pulls the reader along mercilessly. Although first person narration can go terribly wrong it works really well within 'The Yellow Wall-Paper'. As Jane is stuck in the house, so the reader is stuck with her. The claustrophobia caused by this and the rancour towards those that hold her there becomes part of the reader's feelings.

What is key to understanding Perkins Gilman's protagonist, 'Jane', is having an understanding of the oppression of society. Many women found their thoughts and feelings repeatedly put down as being imaginations and fantasies. The medical professionals in the 19th century were obsessed with the 'rest cure', depriving women of any kind of mental and physical stimulation "for their own good", thereby actively limiting the role women could play in a male-dominated society. What Perkins Gilman shows perfectly is the havoc that this wreaks on a person's idea of self. Jane questions her own actions, her own motives and her own capabilities, fearing the consequences if she were to speak out about what she thinks. Madness for Jane is an escape and towards the end she in a position where her husband's actions have no effect on her anymore, effectually liberating her from the yoke of the patriarchy. By making the end both tragic and liberating for Jane, Perkins Gilman beautifully explains the paradox with which women found themselves saddled in the 19th century.

The two other stories in this little booklet are 'The Rocking-Chair' and 'Old Water'. 'The Rocking-Chair' is a ghost-story, of sorts, while also exploring the relationship between men and women. Especially interesting about this one was Gilman's take on the men's idea of having a right to a woman and how their obsession with "owning" or "possessing" her leads to disaster in the end. My favourite of these two was 'Old Water', however. Like no other story I have read it shows a man's obsession with someone he thinks he loves, idolizing her and consequently causing distress for all involved. Deconstructing the idea that idolizing a woman is a good thing, 'Old Water' almost brutally deals with the consequences of this act. As the male protagonist lavishes unwanted attention upon the heroine, basking in her "unformed mind" which he can perfect, the reader is made aware of his delusion by Perkins Gilman and finds themselves more than relieved at the heroine's escape.

I give these short stories...

5 Universes!

Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wall-Paper' is a story that has to be read. Her insight into the consequences of the repression of women is fascinating and her writing paved the way for many female authors, such as Alice Walker and Sylvia Plath. All three stories in this Penguin edition show her keen awareness into the workings of gender-relations and you're bound to walk away from it with a bigger understanding of current gender roles.

1 comment:

  1. I remember hearing about this story in high school but I don't believe we ever read it. Now that you remind me of it, I should finally check it out! I think I'm better equipped to appreciate it now.

    Cayt @ Vicarious Caytastrophe