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(Solved) "Too Terribly Good to Be Printed": Charlotte Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" Author(s): Conrad Shumaker Source:...


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"Too Terribly Good to Be Printed": Charlotte Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"
Author(s): Conrad Shumaker
Source: American Literature, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Dec., 1985), pp. 588-599
Published by: Duke University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2926354
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Literature This content downloaded from 204.51.69.243 on Mon, 26 Sep 2016 16:30:50 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms "Too Terribly Good to Be Printed": Charlotte Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"
CONRAD SHUMAKER University of Central Arkansas I I890 William Dean Howells sent a copy of "The Yellow
Wallpaper" to Horace Scudder, editor of the Atlantic Monthly. Scudder gave his reason for not publishing the story in a short letter
to its author, Charlotte Perkins Stetson (later to become Charlotte
Perkins Gilman): "Dear Madam, Mr. Howells has handed me this
story. I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself!"' Gilman persevered, however, and eventually
the story, which depicts the mental collapse of a woman undergoing a "rest cure" at the hands of her physician husband, was printed in the New England Magazine and then later in Howells'
own collection, Great Modern American Stories, where he intro- duces it as "terrible and too wholly dire," and "too terribly good to
be printed."2 Despite (or perhaps because of) such praise, the story
was virtually ignored for over fifty years until Elaine Hedges called attention to its virtues, praising it as "a small literary masterpiece."3
Today the work is highly spoken of by those who have read it, but
it is not widely known and has been slow to appear in anthologies
of American literature. Some of the best criticism attempts to explain this neglect as a
case of misinterpretation by audiences used to "traditional" literature. Annette Kolodny, for example, points out that though
nineteenth-century readers had learned to "follow the fictive
processes of aberrant perception and mental breakdown" by
reading Poe's tales, they were not prepared to understand a tale of
' Quoted in Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An
Autobiography (I935; rpt. New York: Arno, 1972), p. 19.
2 The Great Modern American Stories: An Anthology (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920),
p. vii. 3Afterword, The Yellow Wallpaper (Old Westbury, N. Y.: Feminist Press, 1973) p. 37. American Literature, Volume 57, Number 4, December I985. Copyright C) I985 bv the
Duke University Press. CCC 0002-983 I/85/$I.50. This content downloaded from 204.51.69.243 on Mon, 26 Sep 2016 16:30:50 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" 589 mental degeneration in a middle-class mother and wife. It took
twentieth-century feminism to place the story in a "nondominant
or subcultural" tradition which those steeped in the dominant tradition could not understand.4 Jean F. Kennard suggests that the
recent appearance of feminist novels has changed literary conven- tions and led us to find in the story an exploration of women's role
instead of the tale of horror or depiction of mental breakdown its
original audience found.5 Both arguments are persuasive, and the
feminist readings of the story that accompany them are instructive.
With its images of barred windows and sinister bedsteads, creeping
women and domineering men, the story does indeed raise the issue
of sex roles in an effective way, and thus anticipates later feminist
literature. Ultimately, however, both approaches tend to make the story
seem more isolated from the concerns of the nineteenth-century
"dominant tradition" than it really is, and since they focus most of
our attention on the story's polemical aspect, they invite a further
exploration of Gilman's artistry-the way in which she molds her
reformer concerns into a strikingly effective work of literature. To be sure, the polemics are important. Gilman, an avowed feminist
and a relative of Harriet Beecher Stowe, told Howells that she
didn't consider the work to be "literature" at all, that everything
she wrote was for a purpose, in this case that of pointing out the dangers of a particular medical treatment. Unlike Gilman's other
purposeful fictions, however, "The Yellow Wallpaper" transcends
its author's immediate intent, and my experience teaching it
suggests that it favorably impresses both male and female students,
even before they learn of its feminist context or of the patriarchal biases of nineteenth-century medicine. I think the story has this
effect for two reasons. First, the question of women's role in the
nineteenth century is inextricably bound up with the more general
question of how one perceives the world. Woman is often seen as
representing an imaginative or "poetic" view of things that conflicts with (or sometimes complements) the American male's
4"A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts," New
Literary History, II (I980), 455-56. 5"Convention Coverage or How to Read Your Own Life," New Literary History, 13
(I98I), 73-74. This content downloaded from 204.51.69.243 on Mon, 26 Sep 2016 16:30:50 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms 590 American Literature "common sense" approach to reality. Through the characters of
the "rational" doctor and the "imaginative" wife, Gilman explores
a question that was-and in many ways still is-central both to
American literature and to the place of women in American culture:
What happens to the imagination when it's defined as feminine
(and thus weak) and has to face a society that values the useful and
the practical and rejects anything else as nonsense? Second, this
conflict and the related feminist message both arise naturally and
effectively out of the action of the story because of the author's
skillful handling of the narrative voice.
One of the most striking passages in Gilman's autobiography describes her development and abandonment of a dream world, a
fantasy land to which she could escape from the rather harsh
realities of her early life. When she was thirteen, a friend of her
mother warned that such escape could be dangerous, and Charlotte, a good New England girl who considered absolute obedience
a duty, "shut the door" on her "dear, bright, glittering dreams."6
The narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" has a similar problem:
from the beginning of the story she displays a vivid imagination. She wants to imagine that the house they have rented is haunted,
and as she looks at the wallpaper, she is reminded of her childhood
fancies about rooms, her ability to "get more entertainment and
terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy store."7 Her husband has to keep reminding her
that she "must not give way to fancy in the least" as she comments
on her new surroundings. Along with her vivid imagination she has
the mind and eye of an artist. She begins to study the wallpaper in
an attempt to make sense of its artistic design, and she objects to it
for aesthetic reasons: it is "one of those sprawling, flamboyant
patterns committing every artistic sin" (p. I 3). When her ability to
express her artistic impulses is limited by her husband's prescription of complete rest, her mind turns to the wallpaper, and she
begins to find in its tangled pattern the emotions and experiences
she is forbidden to record. By trying to ignore and repress her
imagination, in short, John eventually brings about the very
circumstance he wants to prevent.
6 Gilman, Living, p. 24.
7 The Yellow Wallpaper (Old Westbury, N. Y.: Feminist Press, I973), p. 17. Page
numbers in the text refer to this edition. This content downloaded from 204.51.69.243 on Mon, 26 Sep 2016 16:30:50 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" 59I
Though he is clearly a domineering husband who wants to have
absolute control over his wife, John also has other reasons for forbidding her to write or paint. As Gilman points out in her
autobiography, the "rest cure" was designed for "the business man
exhausted from too much work, and the society woman exhausted from too much play."8 The treatment is intended, in other words,
to deal with physical symptoms of overwork and fatigue, and so is
unsuited to the narrator's more complex case. But as a doctor and
an empiricist who "scoffs openly at things not to be felt and seen
and put down in figures," John wants to deal only with physical
causes and effects: if his wife's symptoms are nervousness and
weight loss, the treatment must be undisturbed tranquility and
good nutrition. The very idea that her "work" might be beneficial
to her disturbs him; indeed, he is both fearful and contemptuous of
her imaginative and artistic powers, largely because he fails to
understand them or the view of the world they lead her to. Two conversations in particular demonstrate his way of dealing
with her imagination and his fear of it. The first occurs when the
narrator asks him to change the wallpaper. He replies that to do so would be dangerous, for "nothing was worse for a nervous patient
than to give way to such fancies." At this point, her "fancy" is
simply an objection to the paper's ugliness, a point she makes clear
when she suggests that they move to the "pretty rooms" down- stairs. John replies by calling her a "little goose" and saying "he
would go down to the cellar if she wished and have it whitewashed into the bargain" (p. I 5). Besides showing his obviously patriarchal
stance, his reply is designed to make her aesthetic objections seem
nonsense by fastening on concrete details-color and elevation- and ignoring the real basis of her request. If she wants to go
downstairs away from yellow walls, he will take her to the cellar
and have it whitewashed. The effect is precisely what he intends: he makes her see her objection to the paper's ugliness as "just a
whim." The second conversation occurs after the narrator has begun to see a woman behind the surface pattern of the wallpaper.
When John catches her getting out of bed to examine the paper
more closely, she decides to ask him to take her away. He refuses, referring again to concrete details: "You are gaining flesh and color,
8 Gilman, Living, p. 95. This content downloaded from 204.51.69.243 on Mon, 26 Sep 2016 16:30:50 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms 592 American Literature your appetite is better, I feel really much better about you." When she implies that her physical condition isn't the real problem, he
cuts her off in midsentence: "I beg of you, for my sake and for our
child's sake, as well as 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" (p. 24). For John, mental illness is the inevitable
result of using one's imagination, the creation of an attractive
"fancy" which the mind then fails to distinguish from reality. He
fears that because of her imaginative "temperament" she will
create the fiction that she is mad and come to accept it despite the
evidence-color, weight, appetite-that she is well. Imagination
and art are subversive because they threaten to undermine his
materialistic universe.
Ironically, despite his abhorrence of faith and superstition, John
fails because of his own dogmatic faith in materialism and empiricism, a faith that will not allow him even to consider the possibility
that his wife's imagination could be a positive force. In a way John
is like Aylmer in Hawthorne's "The Birthmark": each man chooses
to interpret a characteristic of his wife as a defect because of his
own failure of imagination, and each attempts to "cure" her
through purely physical means, only to find he has destroyed her in
the process. He also resembles the implied villain in many of
Emerson's and Thoreau's lectures and essays, the man of convention who is so taken with "common sense" and traditional wisdom
that he is blind to truth. Indeed, the narrator's lament that she
might get well faster if John were not a doctor and her assertion that
he can't understand her "because he is so wise" remind one of
Thoreau's question in the first chapter of Walden: "How can he
remember his ignorance-which his growth requires-who has so
often to use his knowledge?" John's role as a doctor and an
American male requires that he use his "knowledge" continuously
and doggedly, and he would abhor the appearance of imagination
in his own mind even more vehemently than in his wife's. The relationship between them also offers an insight into how
and why this fear of the imagination has been institutionalized
through assigned gender roles. By defining his wife's artistic
impulse as a potentially dangerous part of her feminine "tempera- This content downloaded from 204.51.69.243 on Mon, 26 Sep 2016 16:30:50 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" 593 ment," John can control both his wife and a facet of human
experience which threatens his comfortably materialistic view of the world. Fear can masquerade as calm authority when the thing feared is embodied in the "weaker sex." Quite fittingly, the story
suggests that America is full of Johns: the narrator's brother is a
doctor, and S. Weir Mitchell-"like John and my brother only more so!"-looms on the horizon if she doesn't recover.
As her comments suggest, the narrator understands John's
problem yet is unable to call it his problem, and in many ways it is this combination of insight and naivete, of resistance and resignation, that makes her such a memorable character and gives such
power to her narrative. The story is in the form of a journal which
the writer knows no one will read-she says she would not criticize
John to "a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper"-yet at the
same time her occasional use of "you," her questions ("What is one
to do?" she asks three times in the first two pages), and her confidential tone all suggest that she is attempting to reach or
create the listener she cannot otherwise find. Her remarks reveal that her relationship with her husband is filled with deception on her part, not so much because she wants to hide things from him
but because it is impossible to tell him things he does not want to
acknowledge. She reveals to the "dead paper" that she must
pretend to sleep and have an appetite because that is what John
assumes will happen as a result of his treatment, and if she tells him that she isn't sleeping or eating he will simply contradict her. Thus the journal provides an opportunity not only to confess her deceit and explain its necessity but also to say the things she really
wants to say to John and would say if his insistence on "truthfulness," i.e., saying what he wants to hear, didn't prevent her. As both her greatest deception and her attempt to be honest, the
journal embodies in its very form the absurd contradictions inherent in her role as wife.
At the same time, however, she cannot quite stop deceiving
herself about her husband's treatment of her, and her descriptions create a powerful dramatic irony as the reader gradually puts
together details the meaning of which she doesn't quite under- stand. She says, for instance, that there is "something strange" about the house they have rented, but her description reveals bit This content downloaded from 204.51.69.243 on Mon, 26 Sep 2016 16:30:50 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms 594 American Literature by bit a room that has apparently been used to confine violent
mental cases, with bars on the windows, a gate at the top of the
stairs, steel rings on the walls, a nailed-down bedstead, and a floor that has been scratched and gouged. When she tries to explain her
feelings about the house to John early in the story, her report of the
conversation reveals her tendency to assume that he is always right
despite her own reservations:
... there is something strange about the house-I can feel it.
I even said so to John one moonlight evening, but he said what I felt
was a draught, and shut the window.
I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to
be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition. (p. i i) As usual, John refuses to consider anything but physical details, but the narrator's reaction is particularly revealing here. Her anger,
perfectly understandable to us, must be characterized, even privately,. as "unreasonable," a sign of her condition. Whatever doubts she may have about John's methods, he represents reason,
and it is her own sensitivity that must be at fault. Comments such as these reveal more powerfully than any direct statement could
the way she is trapped by the conception of herself which she has
accepted from John and the society whose values he represents. As
Paula A. Treichler has pointed out, John's diagnosis is a "sentence," a "set of linguistic signs whose representational claims are
authorized by society," and thus it can "control women's fate,
whether or not those claims are valid." The narrator can object to
the terms of the sentence, but she cannot question its authority,
even in her own private discourse.9 To a great extent, the narrator's view of her husband is colored
by the belief that he really does love her, a belief that provides
some of the most striking and complex ironies in the story. When
she says, "it is hard to talk to John about my case because he is so
wise, and because he loves me so," it is tempting to take the whole
sentence as an example of her naivete. Obviously he is not wise,
and his actions are not what we would call loving. Nevertheless, the sentence is in its way powerfully insightful. If John were not so
wise-so sure of his own empirical knowledge and his expertise as
9 "Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' " Tulsa
Studies in Women's Literature, 3 (I984), 74. This content downloaded from 204.51.69.243 on Mon, 26 Sep 2016 16:30:50 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" 595 a doctor-and so loving-so determined to make her better in the
only way he knows-then he might be able to set aside his fear of
her imagination and listen to her. The passage suggests strikingly the way both characters are doomed to act out their respective parts of loving husband and obedient wife right to the inevitably
disastrous end. Gilman's depiction of the narrator's decline into madness has
been praised for the accuracy with which it captures the symptoms
of mental breakdown and for its use of symbolism.10 What hasn't
been pointed out is the masterly use of associations, foreshadowing, and even humor. Once the narrator starts attempting to read the pattern of the wallpaper, the reader must become a kind of
psychological detective in order to follow and appreciate the
narrative. In a sense, he too is viewing a tangled pattern with a woman behind it, and he must learn to revise his interpretation of
the pattern as he goes along if he is to make sense of it. For one
thing, the narrator tells us from time to time about new details in
the room. She notices a "smooch" on the wall "low down, near the
mopboard," and later we learn that the bedstead is "fairly
gnawed." It is only afterwards that we find out that she is herself the source of these new marks as she bites the bedstead and crawls
around the room, shoulder to the wallpaper. If the reader has not
caught on already, these details show clearly that the narrator is not
always aware of her own actions or in control of her thoughts and so
is not always reliable in reporting them. They also foreshadow her final separation from her wifely self, her belief that she is the
woman who has escaped from behind the barred pattern of the
wallpaper. But the details also invite us to reread earlier passages, to see if
the voice which we have taken to be a fairly reliable though naive
reporter has not been giving us unsuspected hints of another reality all along. If we do backtrack we find foreshadowing everywhere,
not only in the way the narrator reads the pattern on the wall but in the pattern of her own narrative, the way in which one thought leads to another. One striking example occurs when she describes
10 See Beate Sch6pp-Schilling, " 'The Yellow Wallpaper': A Rediscovered 'Realistic'
Story," American Literary Realism, 8 (I975), 284-86; Loralee MacPike, "Environment as
Psychopathological Symbolism in 'The Yellow Wallpaper' " American Literary Realism, 8
(I97 5), 286-88. This content downloaded from 204.51.69.243 on Mon, 26 Sep 2016 16:30:50 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms 596 American Literature John's sister, Jennie, who is "a dear girl and so careful of me," and who therefore must not find out about the journal.
She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better
profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me
sick!
But I can write when she is out, and see her a long way off from these
windows.
There is one that commands the road, a lovely shaded winding road,
and one that just looks off over the country. A lovely country too, full of
great elms and velvet meadows.
This wallpaper has a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a
particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not
clearly then.
But in the places where it isn't faded and where the sun is just so-I can
see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about
behind that silly and conspicuous front design.
There's sister on the stairs! (pp. I7-I8) The "perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper" is, of course, the ideal
sister for John, whose view of the imagination she shares. Thoughts of Jennie lead to the narrator's assertion that she can "see her a long way off from these windows," foreshadowing later
passages in which the narrator will see a creeping woman, and then
eventually many creeping women from the same windows, and the
association suggests a connection between the "enthusiastic housekeeper" and those imaginary women. The thought of the windows
leads to a description of the open country and suggests the freedom
that the narrator lacks in her barred room. This, in turn, leads her back to the wallpaper, and now she mentions for the first time the
"sub-pattern," a pattern which will eventually become a woman
creeping behind bars, a projection of her feelings about herself as
she looks through the actual bars of the window. The train of
associations ends when John's sister returns, but this time she's just
"sister," as if now she's the narrator's sister as well, suggesting a
subconscious recognition that they both share the same role,
despite Jennie's apparent freedom and contentment. Taken in
context, this passage prepares us to see the connection between
the pattern of the wallpaper, the actual bars on the narrator's windows, and the "silly and conspicuous" surface pattern of the
wifely role behind which both women lurk. This content downloaded from 204.51.69.243 on Mon, 26 Sep 2016 16:30:50 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" 597
We can see just how Gilman develops the narrator's mental
collapse if we compare the passage quoted above to a later one in
which the narrator once again discusses the "sub-pattern," which by now has become a woman who manages to escape in the
daytime.
I think that woman gets out in the daytime! And I'll tell you why-privatelv-I've seen her!
I can see her out of every one of my windows! It is t...

 


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