Wednesday, 2 April 2008
The Yellow Wallpaper
Two of the least successful advertising campaigns imaginable, there...
Sorry, starting in a frivolous mood. It shan't persist, promise.
I've got this bug that's going round (isn't there always one going round?) and spent much of the day in bed - what better, thought I, than The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman? When I mentioned it the other day, there was quite a response from you guys telling me to drop everything and read it (including Angela, who writes about the book here). I'm nothing if not obedient...
Wow. I don't know whether to call The Yellow Wallpaper a novel or a short story, probably the latter, but whatever it is: wow. What an effect, and what writing.
Sorry, I appear to be dissolving into cheerleaderdom - but sometimes a work is written so excellently that no other response is possible.
An unnamed woman is suffering from a nervous complaint ("nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression") and sent to rest in a rented house, while her own (and her physician husband's) is being repaired. She is given the large old nursery, at the top of the house, which has windows on all sides and is covered in patterned, yellow wallpaper. Her reaction to this wallpaper is measured and aesthetically based, at first:
'I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide - plunge off at outrageous angles, destory themselves in unheard of contractions. The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.'
There are already hints of extremity - the suicide metaphor; the intense description of the colour. As the story continues, the heroine becomes increasingly obsessed by the wallpaper - trying to understand the pattern, and whatever may be secreted behind it.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman subtly portrays the woman's plight through a naive and confused first person voice, and sublimation of her depression into obsession with the wallpaper. Many now think the story depicts post-natal depression ('Such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous.') and it does so extremely sensitively. Deservedly a classic, The Yellow Wallpaper makes subtle mastery seem easy - but was almost certainly far from it.
It's great to have this story in one of those beautiful Virago Modern Classics editions, but sadly it comes with an appalling afterword by Elaine R. Hedges. Hedges takes what is a poignant and deep example of sensitive feminist writing, and tries to turn it into the most militant variety. The sort which throws around terms like "marriage institution" and claims that no woman has ever voluntarily entered marriage, and all men seek to control and destroy women. She crushes all the beauty of Perkins Gilman's story, and I found the whole Afterword belittled post-natal depression and insulted those who suffer from it, as though it were not significant enough an issue to which to devote a narrative. Tsk.
But - to end on a positive note - what a story. Thank you for pushing it to the top of tbr pile, folks.