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 obses
sed 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.

12 comments:

  1. Sorry, me again. I love this book. Not very coherent criticism, but it's late. PS. check out the Virago Modern Classics posts on my blog. See what I mean? Similar enthusiasms. Though you may hate Daphne du Maurier...

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  2. Simon. What a great tour and review of the book. Pah! I've stopped reading forwards and afterwards almost entirely... unless, of course, they are of interest in their own right (and some are).

    The Virago Modern Classics...sigh. I should have purchased Mary Cholmondelay's (sp?) Red Pottage when I had the chance. Actually, I should have purchased as many as I could get my hands on when they first came out (well before your time?). They are treasures all.

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  3. Simon. Sorry if this gets posted twice. Something funky happened and I wasn't sure it went through.

    What a great tour and review of the book. Pah! I've stopped reading forwards and afterwards almost entirely... unless, of course, they are of interest in their own right (and some are).

    The Virago Modern Classics...sigh. I should have purchased Mary Cholmondelay's (sp?) Red Pottage when I had the chance. Actually, I should have purchased as many as I could get my hands on when they first came out (well before your time?). They are treasures all.

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  4. Great cartoon, Simon. I shan't be buying the wallpaper, somehow 'a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight' just doesn't appeal, but how can I resist reading The Yellow Wallpaper after reading your review?

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  5. Thanks Margaret - yes, do read! The actual story is only about 35 pages, so short but powerful.

    Deborah - thanks! I haven't come across Red Pottage or Mary C (I've cheated cos I don't know how it's spelt...) will keep an eye out.

    Justine - loved your post on VMCs, and there are just so many out there to be read...

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  6. It's such a fantastic book, and even as a Mad Feminist it sounds like the afterword goes too far. It was CPG writing furiously about "rest cures" that were popular at the time in the treatment of depression etc in women. CPG wrote it after having suffered from post-natal depression and being given the rest cure by her doctor. Imagine being told that you can't even read or write! I know I'd go mad.

    It's not an attack on marriage, it's an attack on the psychiatric profession of the time. Tsk indeed!

    So glad you enjoyed it though Simon. It's one of my very favourites.

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  7. I'm so glad you're so enthusiastic about The Yellow Wallpaper. I loved it, if love is the right word for this extraordinary, honest, compelling, subtle, sad, excoriatingly human book.

    And there's a fascinating (Freud would say intentional, I'm sure) typo in your Gilman quote: 'destory' instead of (I assume) 'destroy'. I think destory is better. Would that she were alive so that you could suggest it ... .

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  8. I also love The Yellow Wallpaper, a fascinating exploration of depression, madness, call it what you will. Also agree that you should read Red Pottage, I enjoyed it very much when I read it many years ago, I think you would like it. I wish I had the Virago edition, but it's in print from Dodo Press.

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  9. Ha! Yes, Angela - think I'll leave 'destory' in, much better!

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  10. I just read this as well several weeks back and I totally agree--what a great story! I read it online and now must find a copy of the book to own. Doesn't she do a wonderful job of showing her descent into madness--I could (almost) feel what she was feeling. Another one of those---why didn't I read this a long time ago!!

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  11. So glad you enjoyed it! I think it's a powerful little tale and you describe it beautifully.

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  12. Just so you know, the narrator is not infact annoymous. Her name is Jane as at the end she says "I escaped despite you and Jane!" when the narrator appears to believe she herself is the woman from the wall paper. And no, Jane is not the sister/house keeper, that girls name is Jennie. Jane is not mentioned until that time, logically seeing as it would be Jane writing the story.

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