Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman (a.k.a. Stetson)
(Above title links to story)
This is not really more than a short story but it's place on the 1001 Books allows me to award myself another book read and move towards a less ignominious failure in my attempt to read 100 books this year.
Short though it is The Yellow Wallpaper is remarkably rich in symbolism and almost feels like the birth pangs of a consciousness. The conjugal bed and the nursery are combined into a mixture between a prison cell and a psychiatric ward.
"It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls."
The titular wallpaper has a pattern that the narrator cannot make out, and the story is driven by repeated phrases and images.
The narrator is staying in this quiet country house as a 'cure', her husband and brother united in the belief that she is suffering from a 'temporary nervous disposition' although she believes 'that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.'  But excitement is not to be hers because 'He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.' 'He' is her husband, and jailer.

What is the wallpaper like? '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, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.'
The word that springs to my mind is miasma, can the word have ever  been more successfully described.
 'It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw--not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow thingsBut there is something else about that paper--the smell! I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad. Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here.'
The miasma does not really emanate from the wallpaper though, but from the sometimes well intentioned but disastrously poisonous view of 'the female'. Her weakness means that she is prescribed from work, from writing and thinking, as these things are harmful to the female brain. Not alone is she not allowed to work, she is isolated from her friends and often from her husband.
'John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious.
I am glad my case is not serious!
But these nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing.
John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no REASON to suffer, and that satisfies him.'
Her sister in law is at times her only companion but they are not the most compatible of companions. 'She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!'
But she is not alone. Just as the pattern seems formless but is repeated across each roll of wallpaper so are many lives repetitions of each other. she begins to see that she is not alone. 'But in the places where it isn't faded and where the sun is just so--I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.'

As is often still the case, one of the most distressing aspects of depression, or madness, or difference is having to manage other peoples expectations. And when they have the power to make decisions 'for' us this is worse.
'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.
I sometimes fancy that my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus--but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.
So I will let it alone and talk about the house.'
'I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time.
Of course I don't when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone.'
There is a gradually intensifying sense of horror in this story, masterfully controlled. It reminds me strongly of the situation of Emma Bovary in Flaubert's novel which I have just read and also of the description of Henry James' sister in Colm Toibin's The Master. Frustrated ambition, frustrated intelligence and having decisions taken for you. The only freedom possible can seem to be madness. 
The narrator, too, senses that she is not alone:
'The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.'
'I don't like to LOOK out of the windows even--there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast.'
'I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?'

It is arguable as to whether things are any better today, but at least we have a greater illusion of choice. The battle today has been moved more to the subconscious. The yellow wallpaper of today is advertising: fueling an orgy of consumption that is destructive and seems also to make us unhappy, as if all this destruction was just a waste of time? And it's not just goods that we want, but better versions of ourselves, sculpted by the surgeon and tattooed by our possessions. Should we feel that we fall short of all these models of looking and owning, the chemist will repair these unfortunate lapses in our perception. Reality isn't 'useful'.

'They sent me to 'rest'. The house was large, the ceilings seemed to recede from you when you looked at them. The height was incalculable. But it would have to be high to contain beneath it that horse. The rockers themselves seemed to be made from two old redwoods. The pressure required to bend them into such perfectly matched arcs - (portions of a circle that would surely rival the earth in its diameter) - was unimaginable to me.
The plush covering the legs was dense and matted. A sense that it had seen time before the earth itself existed seemed to emanate from it. 
Above that the legs blurred as they rose towards the ceiling, which must surely abut the stars themselves.
The walls around were covered with screens. They showed mouths full of laughing teeth and acres of luscious flesh. Clothes, drinks, holidays, lips, legs and mascara, cars and luxury houses spun around me, at times seeming to resolve into one larger image, a cigarette with smoke drifting up, ever up, or a hypodermic, brown golden liquid spurting from the point of it's needle like a nectar fountain.....
Gradually, over weeks, the screens changed and finally all showed was the horse, broken down into pieces: a flared wooden nostril, the tip of an ear, a tail large enough to act as a broom for the keeper of the universe.
All these glimpses pulled me like reversed gravity and grabbing tufts of the worn matted plush I started to climb. At times my limbs ached and my hands were so slick with my sweat that I was sure that I would fall to my death but I somehow kept on, not so much by force of my will as by the will of the horse that I was climbing. I could swear at times that I felt the faint tremor of a heartbeat.
Finally, after an incalculable time I reached the saddle, made of leather as soft as the clouds.
I lay down far above the careworn world on my HIGH HORSE."

You can read The Yellow Wallpaper  here.


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