III. Literary Interpretation of the Subtext (1890-1989)

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)

III. Literary Interpretation of the Subtext (1890-1989)

Even before The Yellow Wallpaper was published, the story sparked controversy throughout literary circles; when William Dean Howells submitted the story to Atlantic Monthly editor H.E. Scudder, the latter rejected it and included the following message:

Mr. Howells handed me this story.

I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself!
(Gilman, Living 119).

Conrad Shumaker explains that the nineteenth-century editor, critic, and reader did not have the cultural background required in order to accept, even as a horror story, the premise of a middle-class wife and mother slipping into insanity, even though the concept of madness was not exactly revolutionary in fiction, i.e., Poe (589). Thus, Mr. Scudder's reaction is not at all surprising.

When The Yellow Wallpaper was finally published in The New England Magazine in May 1891, public reaction was strong; in many ways, Gilman had succeeded too well in conveying the horror of her mental distress. For example, in a letter to the editor published in the Boston Transcript, "M.D." says about the story: "It certainly seems open to serious question if such literature should be permitted in print" (Gilman, Living 120). M.D. goes on to say that such literature containing "deadly peril" could possibly negatively affect those whose "lives have become a struggle against an [sic] heredity of mental derangement in a negative manner" (120). Apparently, many of Gilman's contemporaries echoed M.D.'s sentiments, feeling, perhaps, that deranged people--especially deranged women--ought to stay in their place.

Not all reaction was negative, however, although praise seemed to be limited to the work's medical accuracy. In an unpublished letter to Gilman, Dr. Brummel Jones writes

I am overwhelmed with the delicacy of your touch and the correctness of your portrayal. From a doctor's standpoint, and I am a doctor, you have made a success. So far as I know, and I am fairly well up in literature, there has been no detailed account of incipient insanity (qtd. in Gilman, Living 120).

Obviously, Jones was reading the story on a superficial level, thus fulfilling Gilman's first (and primary) purpose of informing the medical profession. And until 1973, readers tended to view The Yellow Wallpaper primarily "as a Poe-esque tale of chilling horror--and as a story of mental aberration" (Hedges 39).

In the "Afterword" of the Feminist Press revival of The Yellow Wallpaper, Elaine Hedges offers the first feminist interpretation of this work; she postulates that the piece is basically a feminist document, "dealing with sexual politics at a time when few writers felt free to do so, at least candidly" (39). What makes Hedges' interpretation so rich and so plausible is her insistence that a reader should not separate author from story (41-42), and to that end outlines a brief biographical sketch.

Vivian Gornick offers a unique interpretation; in reviewing Anna, a "dairy" written by David Reed, an English writer whose wife had fought depression for years and then finally succumbed to her illness by killing herself, the reviewer uses The Yellow Wallpaper as comparison--except that in Anna, the narrator is the husband, the one who "suffers" from guilt. After Anna kills herself, David reads her papers and discovers that, unknowingly, he had been smothering his wife in ways that John smothers Gilman's character. Gornick says,

"Perhaps" is the operative word here; the word that is at the heart of the matter; the word that makes David Reed the husband in "The Yellow Wallpaper." [David says in his diary:] "Perhaps [Anna] did hate being married...Perhaps she did feel caged..." (280).

Gornick seems to imply that had Gilman's protagonist killed herself, John might have experienced David's epiphany, and then felt some of the same agony and guilt that David feels when he realizes that, in large part, he is responsible for his wife's suicide. Although Gornick's theory is an interesting one, it is mainly speculation, for, from a textual standpoint, the reader does not get an adequate view of John's feelings. We get only a glimmer of what might be going through his head, and the viewpoint is still the protagonist's:

"Better in body perhaps--" I began, and stopped short, for he sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word.

"My darling," said he, "I beg of you, for my sake and for our child's sake, as well for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?"
(Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, 24).

Thus, an attempt to figure what John is thinking and feeling might be an interesting experiment--albeit unprovable. Hence, perhaps critics should focus on Gilman's autobiography, notes, biographies, and text for their interpretations.

Jean E. Kennard makes a good argument for interpreting the text based on a broadened definition of "convention," thus challenging some of the old traditional definitions of the term. For example, Northrop Frye defines a "literary convention" as "the contract agreed on by the reader before he can start reading" (qtd. in Kennard 69). Jonathan Culler refines that definition to include "a set of expectations--of significance, of metaphorical coherence, of thematic unity--which we impose on the text" (qtd. in Kennard 70). Not satisfied, Kennard expands on these definitions by suggesting that, perhaps, the concept of changing conventions could involve nonliterary as well as literary influences (71). Thus, readers might interpret a text based upon their culture, customs, and life experiences, as well as upon literary conventions learned at the academic level. Kennard points out that when Elaine Hedges interpreted The Yellow Wallpaper in 1973 as a feminist piece, her views became widely accepted in the revised canon of American literature because we were "looking at a series of conventions available to readers of the 1970s which were not available to those in 1892" (74).

Kennard goes on to say that even Gilman herself as author may not have intended the work as a feminist piece, but rather, a work that depicts the narrator's slide into insanity. Thus, when Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper in 1890, it was unlikely that readers would read anything more into the story than that of the horror of a young married woman suffering from postpartum depression. Consequently, the 1892 reader would not view the story as depicting the plight of the repressed female, whereas the 1973 reader might agree with feminist critics that the narrator's madness is "a higher form of sanity" and that Gilman shows in vivid detail a "woman's quest for her own identity" (76).

Kennard suggests that there is no "final" interpretation to any literary work, that changing conventions will always color the way in which we view a piece. However, she does caution that individual critics do not usually mold a text to whatever he or she wants it to be, for "we always surrender some part of the individual freedom we do have in order to seek affirmation for our reading from our interpretive community" (86). But if we are to accept the notion of changing conventions determining interpretation of literary works, then "surrendering some part of individual freedom" seems somewhat contradictory, for if people like Elaine Hedges, Kate Millett, or even Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself had not challenged existing conventions by introducing new ways of thinking, perhaps we would have never been exposed to the feminist interpretation of literary works--and men might still be whisking depressed women off to the country for their "rest cures." Thus, offering new insights on older texts--perhaps risking censure by the academic community--can be a rich and rewarding experience for both critic and reader. However, at what point do "changing conventions" become so far removed from what the author intended that the resulting interpretation comes across as implausible? This question continues to fascinate and challenge me, for when I begin to think that I have a sense of where that line occurs, someone like Jean Kennard comes along and forces me to rethink my position.

Conrad Shumaker expands on Kennard's concept of changing conventions to offer an interpretation that includes the idea of the female personality ("imaginative and poetic") vs. the male personality ("rational" and commonsensical), citing Gilman's use of narrative, symbolism, and details (589-590). Also, Shumaker interprets Gilman's "written with a purpose" statement as transcending her sending a message to the medical community, that readers do have to look past the obvious and examine the feminist aspects of the work. He also suggests that the piece has relevance in the modern college classroom, for students of both sexes seem favorably impressed by the story "even before they learn of its feminist context or of the patriarchal biases of nineteenth-century medicine" (589). In addition, Shumaker offers an interesting slant on the nineteenth view of The Yellow Wallpaper--that, contrary to twentieth-century belief, he believes that William Dean Howells and other critics understood only too well of the deeper implications of the piece, that it was more than a bone-chilling horror story. As a result,

Perhaps the story was unpopular because it was, at least on some level, understood all too clearly, because it struck too deeply and effectively at traditional ways of seeing the world and woman's place in it. That, in any case, seems to be precisely what Howells implies in his comment that it is "too terribly good to be printed" (598).

Finally, Shumaker challenges Gilman's statement that The Yellow Wallpaper is not literature, for he asserts that she was "denying that she was a mere imaginative artist," an occupation that was viewed as a feminine activity--and, therefore, as inferior (599). Shumaker may very well be correct--the psychological characteristics of denial are not too difficult to figure out--however, proving such an assertion would be difficult, if not impossible.

Of my sampling of critics, Susan S. Lanser offers what might be most radical departure from Gilman's purpose--and, in my opinion, the least plausible. In her study, Lanser reviews the literature regarding feminist interpretation of The Yellow Wallpaper, citing criticism from six sources (from 1973 to 1986) as her sample: Elaine Hedges, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Annette Kolodny, Jean Kennard, Paula Treichler, and Judith Fetterley. Lanser made an interesting observation about these authors: that their views all seem to reflect a white, middle class feminine perspective and that, perhaps, another interpretation might be helpful. Lanser does not suggest that these interpretations are wrong or outdated but simply that the feminist critics

Seem to have noticed that virtually all feminist discourse on "The Yellow Wallpaper" has come from white academics and that it has failed to question the story's status as a universal woman's text. A feminist criticism willing to deconstruct its own practices would reexamine our exclusive reading of the [work], rethink the implications of its canonization, and acknowledge both the text's position in ideology and our own. That a hard look at feminism's "Yellow Wallpaper" is now possible is already evident by the publication in 1986 of separate essays by Janice Haney-Peritz and Mary Jacobus which use psychoanalytic theory to expose the limits of both the narrator's and feminist criticism's interpretive acts (423-424).

Furthermore, Lanser goes on to say that at this point, a critic might risk "overreading" the work in order to accomplish a more diverse interpretation, which, I believe she does when she interprets the yellow wallpaper as symbolizing Gilman's own racist tendencies, specifically anti-Asian sentiment. Certainly, Gilman was a racist (common for those times), only associating with other white, middle class women (Lane 255-256). However, I still have some difficulty in accepting the yellow wallpaper as suggesting a racist theme. What other color could have Gilman used? Faded pink? Blue? Green? Probably not. Quite simply, yellow was the logical color of the wallpaper, perhaps a yellow that had once been ivory, off-white or even white. Yellow as a color suggests many unpleasant images: urine, old musty clothes, old newspapers and books. However, even though I have some reservations about Lanser's specific interpretation of Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, I admire her courage for taking the risk and presenting her views in a feminist publication.

Most of the literary interpretations presented here seem plausible enough and do not detract from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's original intent. Certainly, "M.D.'s" and Jones' contemporary viewpoints are consistent with the times, and the views of Hedges, Kennard, and Shumaker only enhance the themes intended by the author. However, in my opinion, the interpretations of Gornick and Lanser seem to be reaching for themes that simply do not exist in the text and could not really be drawn from Gilman's journals, letters, autobiography, and biographies. Lanser's analysis seems most problematical in that this critic is calling for a universal interpretation, one that would include women of all ethnic and socio-economic groups. I simply do not believe that this is possible, for Gilman wrote from her own experience, and that experience was that of a white, middle class woman who, in general, did not associate with women outside that group. As a point of comparison, readers would find it difficult to accept the premise that Alice Walker's The Color Purple could be viewed as "a universal woman's text." Such an outcry of protest would be heard from just about every ethnic and socio-economic group, for Walker's work is a result of one Black woman's experience, and to view it any other way would insult the integrity of the text. Therefore, Lanser's cry for further deconstruction of the text would be a call that might well go unheeded.


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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