Jamie Lee Bullen, Blog:Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Literary History

gilman

In ‘Women and Literary History’, Dale Spender notes how generally speaking, Jane Austen is often believed to be the originator of ‘female literary traditions’. This, according to Spender, is a misconception. She states that women did in fact write prior to Jane Austen – in fact, the art of writing fiction was actually considered to be a practice dominated by women prior to the eighteenth century. However, these once acclaimed novelists were no longer held in high-esteem by the end of the eighteenth century because ‘literature became increasingly institutionalised’ and ‘the decision-making powers were concentrated in the hands of the men’.

Because much of the literature being published was written by male authors, literary representations of women were extremely bias. Women were depicted as either one of two things; Angel in the House or monster. According to Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in The Madwomen in the Attic, because women were ‘locked into male texts’, much of the writing produced by women writers in the nineteenth century is marked by ‘obsessive imagery of confinement that reveals the ways in which female artists feel trapped and sickened both by the suffocating alternative and by the culture that created them’.

Reflecting on the texts we’ve studied on this module, one text in particular stands out for its ‘obsessive imagery of confinement’; Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. In The Yellow Wallpaper the narrator is literally confined to a large garret room by her husband, who forbids her from writing. As if to comment on the dangers of restricting female creativity, Gilman’s narrator quickly descends into madness and becomes obsessed with the ‘repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow’ wallpaper that line the walls of her patriarchal prison. The narrator pleads with her husband to take down the wallpaper, or to at least allow her to leave the room, but he refuses her requests.

As her obsession with the wallpaper intensifies, the narrator identifies a ‘formless sort of figure that seems to sulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front pattern’. Like the narrator, the woman in the wallpaper is also trapped; she’s trapped behind the front pattern of the wallpaper that, by moonlight ‘becomes bars’. The narrator then has to physically tear of the wallpaper to free the women, she writes: ‘I pulled and I shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we has peeled of yards of that paper’.

The story ends with the narrator freeing the women in the wallpaper and identifying herself as that women. The reader learns this when the narrator writes: ‘I don’t dare 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?’ In re-reading Perkin’s short story in light of Gilbert and Gubar’s argument, it becomes apparent that like many women writers in the nineteenth century, Perkin’s too felt trapped. The imagery she uses speaks for itself in terms of way it depicts creative women in the nineteenth century; restricted and destined for “madness”.yellowwallpaper

 

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Phoebe on April 29, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    During the final moments of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, the unknown narrator tells her husband: ‘I’ve got out at last […] in spite of you and Jane’. Whilst ‘Jane’ is usually accepted as a misspelling of Jennie, her husband’s sister’s name, it may also be interpreted as the narrator herself. The narrator, driven into madness has actually defeated her husband, and abandoned the identity society created for her. Her madness provides her an escape from the pressures of social and values of a male dominated world and room to form an identity of her own.

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  2. Posted by Christie on May 7, 2016 at 9:38 pm

    I find Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ such an interesting text, particularly in that it is often described as a text which holds such a vast number of different interpretations. I think the flexibility of the text is one of the reasons that it remains such a prevalent text in literature and academic studies over a hundred years later. When I began writing my final essay for this module, I never would have imagined I’d end up interpreting the text as an attempt to appeal for a sex-neutral medical model in the treatment of nervous patients! But the variety of interpretations that the text offers really makes it a interesting text to work with.

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  3. Posted by Afshan Ahmad on October 6, 2016 at 1:02 pm

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  6. Posted by Lenni-Mai Levy on October 6, 2016 at 1:06 pm

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  7. Posted by Taylor Dunn on October 6, 2016 at 1:06 pm

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  8. Posted by Neeti Rao on October 6, 2016 at 1:09 pm

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  9. Posted by Shani Thompson on October 7, 2016 at 6:51 am

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  10. Posted by Sofie Korstadhagen on October 9, 2016 at 7:47 pm

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