Depression, insanity, they're not my favorite subjects.
So why did I buy this short story? Because the bookseller recommended it to me... and she did the right thing, this book is a masterpiece!
Charlotte Perkins Gilman explained this frightening short story in The Forerunner, newspaper which she created:
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” (1913)
“Many and many a reader has asked that. When the story first came out, in the New England Magazine about 1891, a Boston physician made protest in The Transcript. Such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.
Another physician, in Kansas I think, wrote to say that it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen, and – begging my pardon– had I been there?
Now the story of the story is this:
For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia–and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again” as long as I lived. This was in 1887.
I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.
Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again–work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite – ultimately recovering some measure of power.
Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.
The little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate–so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.
But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.
It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”
Source: The Forerunner (October, 1913)
The story, written in 1881, is the story of so many women who could not (still cannot, in so many countries around the world) express themselves.
The narrator speaks directly to us, during the three months she spends in a rented house, while their own house is under construction. She has a husband, apparently caring and gentle, a baby who is cared for by a nanny, a maid. The narrator admits that she only has to take care of herself, that's even what her husband asks her to do, except that...
Except that the narrator wants to write, wants to understand what she wants, who she is, she wants to do something, to work, to make something of her life, to give it meaning, and it gnaws at her.
Her husband sincerely believes that his wife is only a child, that the only thing that can do her good is to do nothing else but take naps, walk in the garden, eat well; what would do her no good would be to think to much and to write.
Confusedly, the narrator feels that this is the crux of the matter: that she wants to think, to think for herself, to find what is good for her. But she is surrounded by her husband and her brother, both doctors respected for their knowledge, her sister-in-law, who is satisfied with an idle life (indeed, a bird sings pleasantly, has a plumage that is pleasing to the eye but is in a cage!).
The author was born in 1860, attended school sporadically and in any case, what education was offered to girls at that time? None that would allow you to live off a decent job, not to mention a job that's eminently recognized.
The narrator tries to understand herself to get out of depression. But how can you make people around you hear that you think you can be something other than an infantilized minor, a beautiful decorative bird, when those around you have always believed that a woman is indeed a minor, a beautiful decorative bird? When you don't even have the necessary education that would have allowed you to analyze your situation and find the words to explain it, to take your life in hand through work, to find the incredible energy necessary for any person who would voluntarily put himself on the fringes of his family, of his society, to save himself, to exist?
The husband, who represents the men of his time, is not completely guilty. He has been taught that the wife has no life of her own: the wife is a wife devoted to her husband, a mother devoted to her children, a housekeeper caring for her house. For all this she is admired, the woman should be happy. But when she is not, the husband cannot understand it. That a wife wants independence offends the husband's image of himself and the society he has shaped.
Yes, it is very difficult to demand independence, to say NO to the role that society attributes to you, one of which is procreation. And the narrator has just given birth to a baby that she leaves in the care of the nanny. Who can help her in the depression that sometimes follows childbirth? Certainly not her doctor husband, who only knows how to treat physical ailments, and in any case, for him, non-physical ailments do not exist outside the disturbed mind of a hysterical woman.
“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 be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?
John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.
John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.
John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see, he does not believe I am sick!
And what can one do?
If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?
My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.
So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?
I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.
I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.
So I will let it alone…”
Depression, insanity, they're not my favorite subjects.
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