Crazed Nature: Ecology in THE YELLOW WALL-PAPER
Heidi Scott. The Explicator. Washington:Spring 2009. Vol. 67, Iss. 3, p. 198-203 (6 pp.)
| Abstract (Summary)
First the narrator sees only curves in the pattern, but then she finds they "commit suicide" by their motion, and soon she fills the curves with human features-"two bulbous eyes" (6) that have a "vicious influence" (7). [...] far she is resisting her surroundings, pitting herself against its energies and apart from the system of the room. Full Text (2182 words)
Copyright Heldref Publications Spring 2009
dark ecology, ecocriticism, ecofeminism, evolutionary psychology, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
In her 1916 essay "The 'Nervous Breakdown' of Women," Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses an ecological conceit to explain how the modern working classes of her age are stressed by their "acromegalous" (i.e., fearfully large and disproportionate) urban surroundings. The nature of our jobs, she argues, should carry a sense of purpose so that we feel our work is "necessary and right." But moral, decent labor is not the complete recipe for a psychologically sound modern person: Even if the physico-psychic balance is perfect, there remains another necessity for peace of mind; that is the adjustment between the individual and the environment. The result of such perfect adjustment is shown in any animal species, and to a less degree in human beings of certain classes living under fixed conditions for many generations, such as an agricultural peasantry in China, or any long-descended hereditary aristocracy. The contented aristocrat, though quite at peace within himself, if suddenly transferred to a new economic environment, however healthy, would show nerve strain in the effort at adjustment. (69) Though Gilman cites the "economic" environmental catastrophe of a favored individual losing fortune, the more interesting basis for her idea lies in evolutionary ecology: the "perfect adjustment" that is "shown in any animal species" and that helps animals maintain their niches in biotic communities. All species survive by adapting to a particular, and unique, life strategy. The living conditions forced on humans of the twentieth century are alien to our evolutionary history and strain our nervous systems, which, Gilman writes, are long adapted to "comparative silence" and "sunlight and fresh wind on every side" (69). The revolutionary work of nineteenth-century life scientists was to outline, debate, and formalize the aesthetics of evolution, which accepts the exquisite adaptations of creatures to their natural conditions as a starting point. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace put forth the principle of natural selection as a mechanism of evolutionary change (i.e., that the fittest animals are those who survive the selection pressures of competition within and among species and leave viable offspring). But earlier natural philosophers like Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had anticipated the science we now call evolutionary ecology by theorizing that physiology evolves according to function within particular environments, and that most biological organisms are adapted to a specific ecosystem. (Under this theory, for example, the giraffe has a long neck because its food hangs high off the ground.) This ecological perspective enables a fresh look at Gilman's most famous short story, "The Yellow Wall-Paper," a tale truly infatuated with the adjustment between an individual and her physical surroundings. The story rewards many readings, especially into the clumsy prescriptions of early psychiatric treatment, the medicalization of female bodies, the many-layered nature of consciousness and self-identity, and the prose methods of psychological realism. Critics have discussed Gilman's development of the ecological utopia in her novel Herland,1 but this story, with its omnipresent, fungal, smeary yellow world that...
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