Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Kate Reviews: The Yellow Wallpaper

I've been a little absent from the internet lately because I'm reaching the final stretch of assignments for my MRes: I just have to write and deliver one 5,000 word research paper, do the whole critical reflection thing and then I'm free to sit down and work on the 17,000 word prose collection which will form my dissertation. The windowsill in my bedroom is piled up with books: memoirs (or memoirs dressed up as fiction), feminist theory, sociological theory and a lot of Sylvia Plath.

That said, keeping a regular blog is a really important part of my development as a writer because it forces me to write to schedule. But there really isn't room for me to think about anything I'm not getting university credit for. I walk around composing paragraphs about whether Holden Caulfield has Borderline Personality Disorder or not in my head, the way I used to sketch scenes from my novel or the beginings of poetry. I'm still enjoying it: I may not have much time to read for pleasure but I'm enjoying what I'm reading. So in an effort to get some of it out of my head and down on paper pixels I'm writing the first of a series of reviews of the books I'm studying for my course.

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper is one of those difficult book where you want to recommend it because it's a really genuinely good book that had a real impact on the world but at the same time it's so well written that it manages to convey every ounce of the horror of a sane person being confined and slowly going crazy from the sheer boredom. It's been compared in style to Poe but what makes it really horrific is that, unlike being cut in half with a pendulum, 'rest cures' were an accepted part of the author's reality. This is what makes The Yellow Wallpaper scarier to me than just about anything I've ever read.

The unnamed narrator is a perfectly sane, rational woman who has been prescribed a rest cure due to post natal depression. She feels down and cries fairly often and can't stand to see the baby but it's nothing that necessitates her being confined to bed and certainly nothing that means the intellectual strain of reading or writing will cause her complete mental collapse. The invariably male doctors who prescribed these rest cures seemed to think it was safer for women - sane or otherwise - to not write at all. That sounds like I'm exagerating but I promise you they actually went on record saying that women spent all their intellectual energy on childbirth (?!?!) and were pretty much unfit for anything else. It took me twenty two years and six months for a book to enrage me to the point where I hurled it into a wall but it was that passage there which finally broke me*.

A rest cure is essentially solitary confinement. It may seem over dramatic to talk about people being driven to insanity by their bedroom wallpaper but it is worth noting that this kind of isolation and confinement is something that today we only do to criminals. Deprived of any kind of mental stimulation the narrator begins to fixate on the pattern of the wallpaper in her sickroom, beginning to project her own mental state onto it.

The Yellow Wallpaper is brilliant if you understand it in relation to Jane Eyre or rather the first Mrs Rochester. The narrator's husband is not a bad guy. He genuinely cares about, even seems to love, his wife. He just doesn't respect her because back then husbands didn't respect their wives. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was prescribed a rest cure and it was only by finally defying her doctor's orders that she managed to avoid a total breakdown. Unfortunately her narrator, Bertha Rochester and countless real women did not possess this level of autonomy.

This is a really important book for me right now because it reminds me that no matter how draining, stressful or terrifying my degree might occasionally be I'm incredibly lucky to be born today when I am allowed to pursue higher education instead of being locked in a room and literally bored to insanity. There's a fashion at the moment for attacking feminism, or certain strands of feminism because all women do not have equal opportunities. For the record I think this is an important discussion which needs to happen but I also believe that it is important to acknowledge how much ground feminism has covered in the last few hundred years. While I think it's certainly not perfect, allow me to present the comparison between our reality and Charlotte Perkins Gilman as the result of the work of insirational women (including Perkins Gilman herself) as something that feminism got right.

 *It also helped explain why the copy I was using was so battered.


  1. This seems like a very interesting book.

    What you say about looking backwards to see how far is something I have taken to heart. It is simple to see how the world is at the moment but just setting my mind in 'past' mode is making me appreciate just what we have right now and how far we have come. To me this is more inspiring than any negative post highlighting problems but rather it is a "Look what we can accomplish" kind of thing.

    1. Thanks! It's an interesting book but the more I learn about the period the more difficult it is to read to the point I'd only recommend it to people who had an academic interest or were interested in gender relations, not as something to read. It's not that it's badly written, just super depressing.