Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper" is a feminist classic. Scott McLemee looks into the story behind the story.
Fiction writers were not yet using the term “stream of consciousness” when Charlotte Perkins Gilman published “The Yellow Wall-Paper” in 1892. The phrase itself first appeared in print that same year, when William James used it while preparing an abridged edition of his Principles of Psychology (1890), where he’d coined a similar expression, “stream of thought.” I do not know if Gilman ever studied James’s work. It’s clear from Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s Wild Unrest, published by Oxford University Press, that Gilman was as voracious and au courant a reader as any American thinker of her day. And she certainly took exception to the unflattering portrait of the suffragists drawn by the philosopher’s brother Henry in The Bostonians, which she read as it was being serialized in 1885. (By 1898, Gilman’s internationally famous book Women and Economics made her not just one of the most prominent adherents of that movement, but arguably its most tough-minded public intellectual.)
Either way, Gilman had her own reasons for wanting to convey the flow of awareness in a piece of fiction. Her narrator is a woman who, following childbirth, has been prescribed bed rest and virtual isolation by her husband, who is a physician. Her sister-in-law keeps an eye on the new baby, and she also seems charged with task of making sure the narrator stays in her room. Even jotting down a few lines in her diary feels like a violation of her husband’s commands. With nothing else to occupy her attention, the narrator stares at the ugly, crumbling wallpaper in her room. Her attention sinks into the pattern of swirls. She begins to notice the image of a woman who is trapped in the design, but who is somehow able to sneak out into the real world without others noticing. Boredom and depression give way to psychosis.
“Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it,” writes William James. “With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead.” The image Gilman’s narrator finds in the shabby yellow wallpaper is “steeped and dyed” in the well-meaning oppressiveness of her circumstances. Trapped in domesticity and then rendered completely passive, her stream of consciousness turns brackish. But it’s the social norms that are deranged, at least as much as her mind.
The value of Horowitz’s book -- subtitled “Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ ” -- is not that it reveals an autobiographical element in the story. The author herself made that clear in an essay from 1913. Gilman indicated that she had been subjected to a similar course of treatment following a period of postpartum depression. In 1887, a doctor gave her “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.” For a woman who had earned a modest living by painting and writing in her 20s, this must have felt like a kind of death sentence.
But Horowitz, a professor emerita of history at Smith College, has excavated parts of the record that go far beyond Gilman’s account of patriarchal malpractice. The doctor in question was one S. Weir Mitchell, then at the height of his fame; his reputation had been secured during the Civil War when he published a book on the neurological effect of gunshot wounds. He claimed great success in treating what were thought of then as female nervous conditions – though it’s not as if Mitchell made that sharp a distinction between mental health and mental illness with women. Horowitz quotes him commenting on “how near to disorder and how close to misfortune [a woman] is brought by the very peculiarities of her nature.”
So, yes, a sexist pig, pretty much. But Horowitz determines from the available evidence that the treatment Mitchell prescribed for his female patients wasn’t quite the nightmare of sensory deprivation portrayed in “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” While known for his “rest cure,” this didn't involve putting them under the command of their husbands. Indeed, he wanted his patients to recuperate away from their families, just to get them away from influences that might be wearing them down. Mitchell believed in the therapeutic effects of exercise, and he also encouraged women to open up to him about their unhappiness – a Yankee approximation of the “talking cure” later associated with Vienna.
The feeling of being trapped and helpless evoked by “The Yellow Wall-Paper” must be traced back to other sources, then. Horowitz suggests that the story embodies “its author’s experiences of love, ambition, and depression in her 20s.” They can be reconstructed from both Gilman’s own writings and the extensive diary kept by Charles Walter Stetson, her first husband. (They divorced in the 1890s.)
“In the late 19th century,” Horowitz writes, “a time when roughly 10 percent of American women did not marry, almost half of all women with a B.A. remained single.” While Gilman was largely self-educated, her situation was comparable. She took it as a given that having a career would mean forgoing wedlock. And vice versa, as far as Stetson was concerned. A painter of some promise if no great worldly success, he seems to have thought Charlotte ought to be content with serving as his own personal Pre-Raphaelite muse. Her desire to have any other career baffled him.
The possibility that these two people might make each other happy was not great. But that’s not to say that the husband, rather than the doctor, was the real villain. This isn’t a melodrama. Stetson wasn’t brutal or vicious, just obtuse. In Gilman's autobiography, notes Horowitz, she "lavished praise on her first husband," and seems to have directed any lingering rage at the figure of Dr. Mitchell.
Someone more imaginative and less conventional than Stetson might have made her a good spouse, though New England in the 1880s was not full of such men. Reading about their courtship is like watching a tragedy. You want to intervene and warn her, but it’s too late, of course. The feeling is especially painful as you watch Gilman persuade herself to ignore her own misgivings. The most extreme case comes when, after meeting Stetson and beginning to pitch woo with him, Gilman sat down to read Herbert Spencer’s opus The Data of Ethics. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and he remained an immensely influential thinker well into the early 20th century. (From my perspective, here in the 21st, this is quite an enigma, since Spencer's writings often seem like something Thomas Friedman might produce after being hit on the head and deciding that he was Hegel.)
“The instincts and sentiments which so overpoweringly prompt marriage,” wrote Spencer, “and those which find their gratification in the fostering of offspring, work out an immense surplus of benefit after deducting all evils.” Gilman took this to heart, and in an unpublished poem she vowed to follow the Spencerian injunction to marry and so become "a perfect woman / worth the gladness superhuman." It did not work out that way. She ended up like the narrator of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” -- a prisoner of social expectations that left no room for argument.
But Wild Unrest, by contrast, has a happy ending. Gilman managed to escape. She reinvented herself as a writer and speaker. And then, in 1900, she married a man (her cousin George Houghton Gilman) who, Horowitz says, “relished her professional attainments and growing reputation.” I’d like to think that she found in life what Spencer had advertised: “an immense surplus of benefit after deducting all evils.”
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