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Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and its contemporary criticism

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Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and its contemporary criticism

Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” in a time when it was customary to consider women as the weaker sex, and in need of constant care and protection. There has been an overwhelming amount of literary criticism throughout the following century, with the purpose of establishing Gilman’s message. Most critics seem to agree that it is a strongly feminist text, targeting the patriarchal society of the late 19th century. Elaine Hedges sums up the most common readings of “The Yellow Wallpaper” in her essay. She herself then argues that the text’s essentially feminist point is emphasized by the fact that the narrator is destroyed by society, where she can never get free. Initially, she debates between two possibilities of what happens to the narrator in the end: she is either liberated in her madness or is defeated by it. Then she proceeds to consider the implications of the wallpaper itself. According to critics referred to by Hedges, the entangled pattern of the wallpaper itself represents a crucial text and it has been argued that this text is not written by the narrator. Instead, it is the text of social conventions and rules presented to her by her husband, and through him by the male-dominated society, where she is not allowed to write her own story. This is one of the reasons why her text then becomes “hopelessly encrypted in fantasy” (Hedges 225). Other interpretations connect the color and smell of the wallpaper to the narrator’s “sexual self-disgust” (225), also linked to her recently giving birth. Furthermore, there are possible racial connotations, reflecting the obsession with the “massive immigration at the time from southern and eastern Europe and Asia” (227). Ultimately, Hedges argues, the narrator’s aim is to reclaim her own independence, taken away by her husband and society. There is no other way for her to achieve this, except through resistance to “both her husband’s and the housekeeper’s orders” (228). In doing finally as she pleases, she takes control of her own body, but goes mad and becomes more infantile and inferior than she was before. However, even though “we may have lost a feminine heroine, we have retained a feminist text” (Hedges 231), for precisely the narrator’s fall reinforces the picture of the treatment of women in the 19th century. The argument of Beverly Hume is a little more radical that that of Hedges. Hume proposes that the narrator in the story “fails to recognize the significance of the comically grotesque texture of her tale,” while she herself assumes the grotesque proportions of the paper. She becomes a grotesque figure, thus representing what “nineteenth-century American womanhood looks like” (Hume 477). The narrator’s husband John is also comical. Instead of bearing the authoritative role as a husband and physician, he eventually becomes “a caricature of both” (478). The narrator is increasingly irritated by him as she gradually gets more entangled in the pattern of the wallpaper, until finally she has to creep over him when he faints (like a woman) and lies in her way. In addition, the story has a bizarre gothic atmosphere from the beginning. The disturbing pattern, which she “initially rejects” (479) but eventually becomes part of, is the central piece. The narrator feels a “dark amusement” as she “confronts herself – a prisoner inside the yellow wallpaper,” who, “instead of being freed…is defeated, destroyed, and driven to madness” (480). In the end, the narrator becomes the grotesque she so desperately tries to understand and clarify – she is transformed into the woman in the wallpaper. In Hume’s interpretation, patriarchy itself is seen only as part of “the ‘interminable grotesque’ that permeates the narrative” and not as the central issue. The issue at stake is the situation of a married woman-intellectual in a home where her husband’s brutal rigidity toward her is “juxtaposed against his wife’s increasingly distorted relation to the hideous yellow wallpaper in her room” (482). In opposition to the preceding two critics, John Bak argues that the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is in fact liberated at the end of the story. According to him, the story is thus a feminist critique of men who are “essentially responsible for the narrator’s physical confinement and subsequent mental demise” (Bak 40). He bases his interpretation of the text around the comparison of the narrator’s confinement in her room to being in a ‘Panopticon’ – a concept previously patterned by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century and later discussed by Michel Foucault. The Panopticon is in essence a prison, where one is always aware of being constantly watched and this creates a deeply rooted paranoia. The narrator’s room indeed resembles a Panopticon; there are bars on the windows, rings in the walls to strap her down, the bed is nailed to the floor and ‘bulbous eyes’ are staring at her from the wallpaper. Bak’s idea is, by referring to the Panopticon, that the narrator’s confinement in her room and the rest cure she is subjected to do her more harm than good – just like the Panopticon would. She “passes through stages from concern to paranoia and, finally, to madness” (42). What ultimately drives her to madness is the sub-pattern she starts to discern and the woman she recognizes within. She identifies herself with this woman who she in turn sees walking about outside – free. This freedom is what the narrator desires most. When she destroys the wallpaper in her final fit of madness, she frees herself from the “Victorian mind-set her patriarchal society has instilled in her” (44). This way she becomes free internally; she does not have to think of herself in a way society and the males in it have imposed on her. Whether the narrator is liberated in the end or not is a debatable issue. Either way, her situation only reinforces what Gilman was trying to convey to her audience at the end of the 19th century. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a feminist writing of tremendous importance that has helped eliminate many gender-related misconceptions. Its implications are still relevant today, a hundred years after its publication.

Works Cited

Bak, John S. “Escaping the jaundiced eye: Foucauldian panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Studies in Short Fiction. 31.1 (1994): 39-46. 8 April 2004. .

Hedges, Elaine R. “’Out at Last’? ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ after Two Decades of Feminist Criticism.” Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ed. Joanne B. Karpinski. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992. 222-33.

Hume, Beverly A. “Gilman’s ‘Interminable Grotesque’: The Narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Studies in Short Fiction. 28.4 (1991): 477-84. 8 April 2004. .

Cited: Bak, John S. “Escaping the jaundiced eye: Foucauldian panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Studies in Short Fiction. 31.1 (1994): 39-46. 8 April 2004. . Hedges, Elaine R. “’Out at Last’? ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ after Two Decades of Feminist Criticism.” Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ed. Joanne B. Karpinski. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992. 222-33. Hume, Beverly A. “Gilman’s ‘Interminable Grotesque’: The Narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Studies in Short Fiction. 28.4 (1991): 477-84. 8 April 2004. .

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