II. Fiction "With a Purpose"

Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, The Critics, and The Yellow Wallpaper: Fiction "With a Purpose" vs. Literary Interpretation of the Subtext--The Need to Know the Rest of the Story (by Jennifer Semple Siegel)

II. Fiction "With a Purpose"

Of all the works by Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper seems to stand alone as a work that was written with a specific purpose--perhaps a "mission"--in mind, for her other writings tend to have a dry, repetitive ideology with intellectual, sometimes "preachy," overtones. This seems especially true of Women and Economics (1898), a book that probably would have been just as effective as a short essay. Even some of Gilman's other fiction, such as Herland--first serialized in 1915 in Forerunner (Lane 4)--has a dogmatic quality and a style that comes off as somewhat humorous as Gilman attempts to narrate from a male point of view. As Elaine Hedges states, "Polemical intent often made her fiction dry and clumsily didactic" (38).

The Yellow Wallpaper, on the other hand, differs in that the narrator's emotions, right from the beginning, seem close to the surface and yet muted somehow by a sense that the narrator cannot or will not see her impending madness. Thus, even as the narrator talks about trivial matters in her first "journal" entry--ordinary descriptions of the summer house, family background, her prescriptions--the reader can feel immediately an undercurrent, that the narrator is not telling the reader what she is really feeling. For example, the narrator opens by saying the following:

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity--but that would be asking too much of fate!

Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.

Else, why should it let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?

John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage
(Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 9).

The careful reader will notice an economy in that opening that not only hints of the narrator's feelings but also conveys some very important information (aside from the obvious surface meaning):

(1) The narrator probably belongs to the middle class and is unaccustomed to living in "mansions."

(2) The house is old and in disrepair (which also foreshadows the "gothic" aspects of the story).

(3) The narrator has a vivid imagination and has high intellectual capacity, thus questioning anything that she views as "not quite right"--in this case, the house itself.

(4) There is some serious marital discord, and, although she shrugs it off, the narrator resents her husband for not taking her seriously.

So, then, what was Gilman's real purpose for writing The Yellow Wallpaper? In her autobiography, Gilman offers what seems to be a reasonable explanation:

The real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways. I sent him a copy as soon as it came out, but got no response. However, many years later, I met someone who knew close friends of Dr. Mitchell's who said he had told them that he had changed his treatment of nervous prostration since reading [the story]. If that is a fact, I have not lived in vain (121).

Certainly, Gilman's aversion toward Dr. Mitchell's "rest cure" shows up in The Yellow Wallpaper when she writes:

John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.

But I don't want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!

Gilman wrote those words from her own experience, for her early struggle with postpartum depression and unhappiness in her marriage with first husband Walter Stetson resulted in her traveling to Philadelphia in April 1887 for Dr. Mitchell's then-famous treatment for "nervous prostration" (Gilman, Living 95; Lane 120-121). In fact, a reader might surmise correctly that the "friend" to whom the protagonist was referring in the above passage was Gilman herself. In any case, this so-called nervous prostration was fairly new to the medical profession, and experts had some difficulty believing that the disease was anything more than plain laziness (Gilman, Living 90). Surely, many of Gilman's friends offered numerous suggestions, including the following by a close friend: "Force some happiness in your life. Take an agreeable book to bed with you, occupy your mind with pleasant things" (90).

In her autobiography, Gilman describes why she could not act upon the friend's advice:

She did not realize that I was unable to read, and that my mind was exclusively occupied by unpleasant things. This disorder involved a growing melancholia, and that, as those who have tasted it, consists of every painful mental sensation, shame, fear, remorse, a blind oppressive confusion, utter weakness, a steady brainache that fills the conscious mind with crowding images of distress (90).

Gilman goes on to say that she often "lay on [the] lounge and wept all day" (91). Thus, she understood that something was terribly wrong with her and that she needed to find a cure, something to get herself back into the world. And now, a well-respected nerve specialist of the time was willing to recognize, at least on some minute level, that this female ailment was a disease, albeit a most perplexing one (95).

Thus, when her mother's friend Mrs. Diman offered her $100 "to get away someplace," Gilman accepted and went to Philadelphia for Dr. Mitchell's "rest cure" (95). Even then, Gilman seemed to recognize that her lifestyle was contributing somewhat to her mental distress, for she says: "This [realization] was a worse horror than before, for now I saw the stark fact--that I was well while away and sick while at home--a heartening prospect!" (95).

Still, Gilman proceeded to Philadelphia. After examining his patient, Dr. Mitchell assured Gilman that she was not suffering from dementia--only hysteria, whereupon

I was put to bed and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed, and responded with the vigorous body of twenty-six. As far as he could see there was nothing the matter with me, so after a month of this agreeable treatment, he sent me home, with this prescription:

"Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time." (Be it remarked that if I did but dress the baby it left me shaking and crying--certainly far from a healthy companionship for her, to say nothing of the effect on me.) "Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours' intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live"

After months of following this regimen, Gilman sank even deeper into her depression, suffering extreme "mental torment," and behaving in odd ways:

I made a rag baby, hung it on a doorknob and played with it. I would crawl into remote closets and under beds--to hide from the grinding pressure of that profound distress....(96).

Later, in The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman would describe similar behavior as the protagonist begins to assume the identity of the woman who "creeps" behind the wallpaper, thus sinking deeper and deeper into madness:

It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep as I please!

I don't want to go outside. I won't, even if Jennie asks me to.

For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow.

But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way

Of course, in reality, Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman pulled herself out the abyss--the unnamed protagonist in the story does not--because as Gilman wrote in 1887 to Grace Channing, the close friend who later married Gilman's ex-husband Walter Stetson: "I decided to cast off Dr. Mitchell bodily, and do exactly as I pleased" (qtd. in Lane 123).

Thus, in a sense, Gilman's purpose in writing The Yellow Wallpaper seems to run much deeper than just sending a "message" to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell; perhaps she was exorcising from her psyche "Mitchell the demon" who forced a cure on her that could never reach the root of her problem: her unhappiness with her life in general. By exorcising the doctor and his male colleagues, Gilman may have also been sending a the same "message" to ordinary women--and men--of her generation.

In this particular piece, Gilman does not seem to be advocating equal rights for women, at least explicitly. Even though many modern critics view Gilman as a nineteenth-century feminist, Gilman herself was uncomfortable with that role. According to Ann J. Lane, Gilman considered herself a "masculinist," in that as a humanist she wished "to bring about a fair and just balance" (5). Still, Gilman was very clear on her beliefs that women were, by nature, more "nurturing" than men and, therefore, more competent in child care (Women and Economics 124-125). Lane emphasizes that

When Charlotte insisted that she was not a feminist she was not entirely wrong. As she said, she was a humanist; the world was masculinist and she wished to restore an equitable balance. She saw the submergence of women as a critical handicap retarding the best development of society, and it was in this context that she spoke of the social [emphasis mine] need to emancipate women (231-232).

Lane goes on to say that Gilman's main interest was to make society itself a better place by freeing women from their constricted "homemaker" role in the social order, which would, in turn, free men and children from their own narrow roles (232). In 1898, eight years after writing The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman proposed two major changes in the new society: that women become economically independent of their men and develop homemaking as a paid, professional activity, which both women and men could perform (Women and Economics). However, Gilman believed that child care was still primarily a feminine activity and that biology was the determining factor; in Women and Economics, Gilman writes,

The child must have the breast. The mother's breast must have the child. Therefore, between mother and child was born love, long before fatherhood was anything more than a momentary incident (125).

In addition, Gilman proposes the ideal social order when she examines the primitive female as mother in her natural state, before the primitive male realized that it was easier to enslave a female than to fight a competitor every time he wished to mate:

The mother ape, with her maternal function well fulfilled, flees leaping through the forest,--plucks her fruits and nuts, keeps up with the movement of the tribe, her young one on her back or held in one strong arm. But the mother woman, enslaved, could not do this (Women and Economics 60-61).

Thus, Gilman postulates that women are quite capable of becoming economically independent--thus, work outside the home--and still participate fully in the care of their children.

Consequently, "for Charlotte the emancipation of women was a step towards human emancipation, not an ultimate goal in itself" (232)--certainly not a means of denying of what she believed to be the natural order of things. Gilman herself echoes her ambivalence about feminism when she writes: "I worked for Equal Suffrage when opportunity offered, believing it to be reasonable and necessary, though by no means as important as some as its protagonists held" (Gilman, Living 186-187). Thus, feminist critics may be reading more into the text than was ever intended, perhaps basing their interpretations on her later ideological works than on this particular work and on modern attitudes.

So, then, what was Gilman's purpose? It would seem that she may have had a four-part agenda when she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper:

(1) Informing the medical profession, thus her aforementioned goal of sending a message to Dr. Mitchell with the very real hope that he would change his methods of treating "nervous prostration."

(2) Deriving personal therapeutic benefit, thus venting the anger and frustration she must have been feeling when she received little support and virtually no help when she was suffering from her postpartum depression.

(3) Publicizing the effects of mental distress, perhaps in an attempt to discover others who might have also suffered from the condition, that she was not struggling in a vacuum.

(4) Attempting to alleviate some guilt and ambivalence regarding her own motherhood role.

This last part may seem somewhat nebulous; however, when one compares Gilman's ideal role of motherhood with the real role she played in her own daughter's life, one finds obvious gaps and contradictions. For example, Gilman writes that while she loved children and intended to have "six children, three of each kind" (Living 154), she could not because of the "black helplessness into which [she] fell, with its deadness of heart" (154). Thus, she felt that bringing more children into the would be unfair to them and the daughter she already had. Gilman was probably wise: in 1894, she sent her daughter Katharine away to live with Walter and Grace Stetson, the child's father and stepmother (Lane 178). Paradoxically, Gilman wrote glowing accounts of Katharine's early childhood (Living 153-164), but in reality, she was uncomfortable with her child. For clues to Gilman's uneasiness, Ann Lane looks to the yellow wallpaper itself: after it assumes a foul odor, the wallpaper could represent the smell of a child's feces, thus symbolizing Gilman's own fear of babies (129). Also, as the protagonist sees "frightening images" in the wall, her fear becomes more apparent. Referring to the images described in the story, Lane offers the following insight about Gilman's fear of children:

The images are of a baby, the one she has and never sees, and the one she was, and she is frightened by them. It is her own baby and herself as a baby that terrify her, perhaps pregnancy as a threat to the life of the mother, perhaps the insatiable needs of children that devour their mothers and from which mothers must protect themselves by withdrawing from their children, Mary Fitch Perkins [Gilman's mother] from Charlotte, Charlotte Perkins Stetson from Katharine, the young woman in the story from her baby, both unnamed (130).

Thus, by writing The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman was able to fulfill many purposes: to send a message to Dr. Mitchell and the medical profession, to engage in a pre-Freudian form of free association, to reach others who might also be suffering from depression, and to work through her own ambivalence and guilt regarding her child and children in general. By using thinly- veiled fiction as her vehicle,

Charlotte permitted herself to touch emotions and dredge up deep-hidden fears in this semi-autobiographical, fictionalized story in ways she could not in her biography, in her letters, in her dairies, or in her time of treatment with Mitchell (Lane 128).

As a consequence of her writing from personal experience, Gilman was able to create a piece of fiction that was both deeply moving and fulfilling a purpose, a duality that does not seem to be present in her other works.

I. Introduction.....................III. Literary Interpretation of the Subtext

Originally published in The CEA Critic: An Official Journal of The College English Association, 59:3 (Spring/Summer 1997): 44-57.

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