Sunday, June 9, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 47: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wall Paper (#178)

A procedural note: I line up the seven random stories for every week after the LoA announces what new story they have for that week. (Note: I might be a week ahead.) That way, the latest stories have a chance to get into the rotation. This is something I thought I would say today since this story just came up.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wall Paper" (1892) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

It's hard to know how to approach Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall Paper": Gilman was big into social reform and feminism and very much before her time. (Not only did she get divorced, but she sent her child to live with her ex and his new wife, saying, among other things, that father's have parental rights; and that her daughter's "second mother" was as good as her first. So when people started writing utopian novels where children were raised by the whole of society, you can bet she got in on that.)

But that's not what makes this story hard to approach. What makes it hard to approach is that, since about the 1970s when it was rediscovered, it has taken a central position in our history of American women's writing. Here's a fun chart I made using Google Ngram, where I charted how often the phrase "The Yellow Wall Paper" (and some variations) appeared over time; do you notice that rise in the 1970s leading to a huge boom in the mid-90s?

So there's lots to say here about this story and its reception: rejected at some magazines for being too dark, published in 1892, republished in a great short story anthology in the 1920s, then kind of disappearing. Honestly, here's a story that would be both super uncomfortable and super fitting for the 1950s and the hystericization of nonconformity.

But if we try to step away from the social reception, what do you get if you just read this story by itself? Coincidentally enough, this was the first question I faced in grad school, where we had to do a close-reading of the story. But you don't really need a degree to see how Gilman repeatedly sets us up and then pulls the rug out from under us:
But what is one to do? I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.
The narrator seems to admit that writing is exhausting work--and then hits us with the Woolfian idea that what's exhausting is having to hide it. (If only she had a room of her own!)
I don’t blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight!
I always lock the door when I creep by daylight.
Here the narrator seems to be a little insane, seeing a woman in the wallpaper and ascribing certain feelings to her--and then she hits us with this crazy notion that she's also a creeping woman. (Which will then blossom into the idea that she was the woman caught in the wallpaper.)

That's not the only rhetorical trick Gilman pulls with her Poe-esque narrator and her descent into (the socially-conditioned) madness (of her time). (Here's a mind-twister: did I go to grad school because I loved parentheses or did grad school make me love parentheses?) Gilman also does the time worn trick of having the narrator protest too much: "I asked her in a quiet, a very quiet voice, with the most restrained manner possible" could very well be the truth; or it could be her disconnect from society.

There's really so much going on in this story; I'm not sure I would call it subtle, but I do think it's rich.

(Bonus: despite the obvious (and semi-biographical) reading that this story has to do with children and post-partum depression, H. P. Lovecraft argues that it's about a woman going mad in a room where a madwoman once lived (and possibly still haunts). Of course, for Lovecraft, we probably want to avoid anything that has to do with sex.)

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