Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Yellow Wallpaper and Selected Writings - Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Passing by a stack of books in a local store, a particular paperback caught my eye. It was a collection entitled The Yellow Wallpaper and Selected Writings. You may remember The Yellow Wallpaper from school or college. It has stuck in my mind for years and, upon seeing it as part of a collected edition, I immediately set upon buying it (not only for my own curiosity, but also in the hope of spreading the horror to another – my boyfriend).

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author, wrote one of the most unsettling stories it has ever been my pleasure to read. For those of you who have never heard of the short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, it is in the format of a woman’s diary as she details her recovery from a “nervous” ailment. This is following the birth of her child, safely ensconced away by her sister-in-law and husband. However, her well-meaning husband has rented a home for her recovery and said husband consigns her, for her own good, to the airy (if depressing) ex-nursery of the home, partly still covered in peeling, discoloured, unsightly wallpaper. What begins as a diary of slight discontent descends into a much darker place as the unnamed woman in question starts to see things, perhaps even people, moving in the wallpaper’s ugly pattern.

It says something to the effectiveness of Gilman’s writing that even describing the plot makes my skin prickle with tension. The story quietly unfolds and builds to a terrifying conclusion whilst never being graphic or gory. It reminds me, in several ways, of the slow build of such horrific films as The Ring (the Japanese version, not the bombastically awful, shock-a-minute American version). It is also the uncertainty that jars; is the female protagonist losing her mind, or is there truly something dark stirring and rattling beneath the yellow wallpaper? The narration style leaves you only one, potentially unreliable, point of view: hers. With this, Gilman isolates the reader from reassurances as much as the main character is, shut away from outside comforts and peace of mind.

Gilman is not a recent writer. Born in 1860, Gilmore was prolific and, as I learned from the enlightening autobiography extracts within the collection, had good reason to write authentically about the madness that engulfs the female protagonist of The Yellow Wallpaper – she suffered it herself. Having had a baby, Gilman suffered from similar “nervous exhaustion”, which sounds a lot like what we now call post-natal depression. You can only imagine her frustration when told by doctors and friends, essentially, to “will” herself better.

As I read the introduction to this book, a book I had been pulled to by comfortably disturbing memories, I realised one of the most vivid and affecting stories I had ever read had, unbeknownst to me, been a piece of Feminist literature. Before anyone reading this starts rolling their eyes at a book detailing how we view women in society, at the idea of female empowerment stories being needed in our enlightened times, recent evidence shows we are still far from perfect. Examples range from the outrageous recent behaviour of two now ex-Sky Sports commentators to the seemingly innocuous gender bias of the film industry encasing all “chick flicks” in pink DVD boxes in order to appeal to us women.

As The Yellow Wallpaper was the main draw of the book for me, I was unsure what the rest of her writing would be like. Sure enough, there were touches of Gothic horror in stories such as The Great Wistaria and The Rocking Chair. However, the rest of the collection, in fact, all of the stories, has a strong Feminist theme running throughout.

I am only now starting to understand Feminism and see it as engendering a very visible battle against sexual and domestic violence, against glass ceilings and unequal opportunities. Feminism waged war regarding the right to vote and work, to have equality, a war that Feminists largely won. Therefore, it is hard for me to imagine a world where this is not the case. Thanks to Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper and selected writings, I  received a thorough education in it.

The women in Gilman’s stories are all trapped in some way, seeking a way out. Initially, I found the neatness of the first few stories (Deserted among them), where women learn to be more independent and men learn to deal with it, a little grating in their simplicity. “Woman = better than idiot, brutish man” is the moral of actually one of two stories.

This black and white interpretation, based upon the first few stories, made me wary. Yet, Gilman wrote these stories centuries ago, so I decided to read the autobiography extracts also collected in this book; I hoped this would give me some context. If my history degree taught me nothing else (and I doubt I learned much else), you can only judge a document’s content when you put it back into the time it came from.

The extracts were, frankly, revelatory. Her stories make a lot more sense when you realise the majority are as autobiographical as The Yellow Wallpaper. An Unnatural Mother, for example, contains a tale of gossipy town women decrying a woman’s motherly techniques (or lack of), which mirrors Gilman’s own experience where, much to hers friends’ consternation, she disciplined her child using explanation rather than violence or threats.

Gilman’s writing goes a long way to painting a clear vision of the period she describes. The more I read, the more obsessed I became with a world where women had no control of their own lives thanks to “duty”, no money to call their own unless their husband or father bequeathed it, no business to run lest it be something surrounding domesticity, such as taking on “boarders”. Even though I knew of it, it still surprised me to read about female characters expected to give up their profession as soon as they were married.

What Gilman was trying to achieve in her writing, I believe, was not just to point out the problems; she was also trying to show the way, to inspire women to take back control. Yet, she ensures that she stays just the right side of the line without dipping into evangelical, preaching territory. Gilman does this by avoiding easy answers – for example, her tales extol marriage as being beneficial and wonderful to man and woman, but only when both are equal partners.

Gilman also uses dry and sharp humour to lighten the mood, as well as portraying sympathetic if flawed characters to avoid stereotyping. It is important to note than even the villainous characters are realistic; they are actual people, rather than caricatures. It is easy to hate them, but Gilman accomplishes the feat of humanising the “bad guys” by allowing us a glimpse at a small frailty or mentioning past examples of tenderness and strength: weak characters were not always weak; heartless men or women once gently kissed away a loved one’s fears.

The most interesting thing about Gilman’s writing is that she never lays the blame solely at the feet of men. True, there are tales where the men are patronising, unreliable or impregnating the help. However, Gilman also points the finger squarely at the women of her time for not choosing to be something more if they want to be. She achieves this in her numerous descriptions of old-fashioned women adhering to the repressive duties of the past and judging harshly those who do not; the wives obsessed with motherhood as the only contribution they should make to the world; the ladies who adorn themselves with such idiotic outfits and frivolous hats.

The funniest thing of all, or possibly the most depressing, is how relevant it all remains. I’m not referring just to the fucktastrope that was the Sky Sports scandal or my annoyance at colour-coded, segregationist rom-com DVD policies. There are continuously clashes of opinion over whether new mothers should be working or not and how this affects a child’s upbringing; the anxiety of empty-nest syndrome is still prevalent nowadays; women, even now, wear constrictive, painful and fucking ridiculous things in the interest of appearing beautiful.

We’ve come a long way. Witness, for example, the great numbers of Egyptian and Tunisian women who are not silent in the protests – they are bloody angry, educated and articulate spokespersons for a nation’s discontent and are changing some Western perceptions about Arab women. However, I somewhat fear that if Gilman were able to read Twilight, and witness Bella’s simpering limpet impression, that pride would soon be quelled. Gilman might be incensed by Bella’s sublimation by Edward; these ideas are completely at odds with the empowering messages from The Yellow Wallpaper and Selected Writings. Oh but dude, it’s ok, Gilman’s a chick – she’ll love that romantic crap.

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