The Narrator and the Female Voice
"Voice" is a rather vague term used in analyzing literature. It can mean the author's tone, a poem's speaker or the point of view from which a novel is told. When I think about voice in relation to "The Yellow Wallpaper," I think in terms of how a person communicates oneself – how the story is told – beyond the words the narrator provides. I imagine the idea of voice to encompass the narrator's language and actions as well as the author's motives for writing. In essence, I see the story itself as the author's voice as much as it is the narrator's voice too. We can take this idea one step further and say that the students' interpretations of the story represent their voices. Therefore, writing is synonymous with "voice".
The story is a first person narrative. Throughout reading, it is useful to list the impressions that the narrator leaves on the reader. She describes her first impressions of the house, of her husband's efforts and her reactions to the medical treatment. For example, on the first page of the story, the narrator says, "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."1 Here, the reader's first impression of the narrator is that she is both rather aware and perceptive. Her character is also revealed in her writing style. As the reader observes the narrator's mental breakdown, the sentences in the story become shorter and more disconnected.
As readers follow the narration of Gilman's story, much of what happens in the story seems distorted or unexplained. For example, the narrator has hardly begun her struggle with following the pattern of the wallpaper before she says, "There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will."2 It is obvious that isolation did not cure the narrator from her illness. In fact, it made her condition worse. It is also unclear, however, whether or not the narrator believed she was actually sick at all. In this sense, students might find the narration of the story unreliable. An example of her erratic narration is her first assessment of her husband's good intentions, which contrasts her later assessment of his cruelty for preventing her from writing. At the same time, one who is sick rarely understands what is happening oneself.
In order to understand the events, students must make inferences based on details that the narrator does provide. Encourage students to read with a critical eye. It is important for a reader to allow him/herself to perceive ideas in the story the same way the narrator does, whether it makes sense to the reader or not. Tell students to examine the narrator's perceptions and actions in order to critique her behavior and her retelling of the experience.
The Narrator and Female Voice: Charlotte Perkins Gilman Biography (1860 - 1935)
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Charlotte Anna Perkins was the daughter of Mary Fitch, a librarian, and Frederick Beecher Perkins, a magazine editor. She was the grand-niece of Catherine Beecher, an advocate of domestic feminism; Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom's Cabin; and Isabella Beecher Hooker, a suffragist. She was raised in a poverty stricken home with her mother after her parents' divorce.
In her autobiography, Gilman describes her mother's expressions of affection toward her daughter. In an effort to teach her children not to expect emotional support, she showed affection toward her daughter only when Charlotte was asleep. She describes her efforts to stay awake as a young child so she could experience her mother's caresses and whispers of love. As a young woman, she insisted on paying her mother for room and board. She dropped out of college and supported herself as a teacher and artist.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman grew up to suffer from depression, but she also spent the later part of her life lecturing, writing and teaching of the importance of economic independence for women. The example established by her great-aunts and her mother surely influenced Gilman's ideas. A self-educated intellectual, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was caught between marriage and work when her fiancé proposed. In 1884, Charlotte married Walker Stetson, an artist. She tried to submit to the traditional roles of a nineteenth century wife.
When her daughter was born a year later, Charlotte suffered from what we now call severe postpartum depression, which lasted almost four years. She was treated by a famous Philadelphia nerve specialist, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who prescribed a "rest cure" for Gilman's "nervous condition" that forced her into inactivity with no physical or mental stimulation until she recovered. She said of herself, "I went home and obeyed these directions for some three months and came so near the border of utter mental ruin that I could see over".3
To preserve what was left of her sanity, Charlotte eventually disregarded Dr. Mitchell's advice, left her husband and moved to Pasadena, California. A few years later, Walter married Charlotte's best friend and Katherine, Charlotte and Walter's daughter, was sent to live with them. Remarkably, the three remained friends. For the next five years, Gilman traveled and began to rethink attitudes and assumptions about women in society. She wrote her most famous work, Women and Economics, in 1898. She gave lectures about women's issues, started a magazine, The Forerunner, and began publishing poems and articles. "The Yellow Wallpaper," in its direct protest of doctors' "rest cures" for women sparked Dr. S. Weir Mitchell himself to change his treatment for similar cases.
In 1900, Charlotte married George Houghton Gilman and lived happily with him until his death in 1934. At the age of 72, Gilman was diagnosed with cancer. She continued writing for a few more years, finishing her autobiography. On August 17, 1935, when the pain of the disease began to prevent her from working, Gilman committed suicide. She left a farewell note for her family, " . . . it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one . . . I have preferred chloroform to cancer".4
The Narrator and Female Voice: Historical Context of "The Yellow Wallpaper"
"The Yellow Wallpaper" is probably Gilman's best known short story. The story clearly dramatizes Gilman's own struggle with depression, writing, and living in a male-dominated society.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman actually had difficulty publishing the story. Submitted first to William Dean Howells and later passed on to Horace Scudder, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, the story was rejected because of its melancholy nature. One point for student discussion might be whether Mr. Scudder would have also rejected one of Edgar Allan Poe's stories for the same reason. Gilman's story was finally published in 1892 in The New England Magazine.
During the nineteenth century in America, the nation was moving toward a more consumer-oriented society. With the Industrial Revolution and the end of the Civil War, society changed, and money became increasingly important. While what is known as the Gilded Age brought more women into the workforce, few women actually supported themselves. Young women who were working were often expected to turn their wages over to their parents, and wives were expected to turn wages over to their husbands. Women who were not in the workforce were burdened with domestic duties. Neither marriage nor work really loosened the boundaries placed on women; each situation simply offered a different set of rules.
Nineteenth century doctors accepted the idea that a woman's energy was centered around her reproductive organs. When a woman suffered a medical problem, doctors often diagnosed the problem as a problem with channeling energy. Since reproductivity was central to a nineteenth century wife's life, doctors often concluded that a "sick" woman was out of sync with her reproductive organs.
In addition, upper class women made ideal patients. Their husband's bank accounts " . . . seemed almost inexhaustible," and the patients were usually " . . . submissive and obedient to the doctor's orders."5 Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself was treated for a similar "nervous condition" as that of the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper." Her physician, Silas Weir Mitchell, was well known in the United States for his "rest cure," also called the "Weir Mitchell Treatment." Mitchell believed, as a rule, that no harm was done by rest. He often required patients to stay in bed for six to eight weeks. Most female patients were forbidden to sit up, sew, write, or read.6
It appears that no effort to probe the symptoms of mental illness was made. In the case of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and in the case of the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper," the rest cure failed. One analysis of such failure is that the rest cure simply locked Gilman, her narrator, and all "sick" women into a extremely submissive, helpless role. As a reader of "The Yellow Wallpaper" can conclude, the rest cure only ". . . deepened a person's psychic unrest".7
The Narrator and Female Voice: Realism – An analysis of "The Yellow Wallpaper"
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story is a realistic depiction of what happens to the mind when faced with forced inactivity. It is also a realistic representation of human beings' desire to overcome feelings of uselessness.
The story illustrates the need for a woman to be independent. The story examines one woman's descent into madness due to inactivity. In a much broader sense, however, the story also examines the struggles between marriage and career, social expectations and personal goals. In reading about Gilman's own life, the story also clearly reflects her own feelings of being trapped in a marriage. While the narrator has lost much of her independence and self-determination, the determination that does remain for her is in her desire to tear down the wallpaper and set the mysterious woman free. In her own life, Gilman similarly tried to free herself and other women. "Once she left her own husband, she became a woman of the world – a creator of her own ideas – an educator of other women".8 In a sense, the narrator of the story is also a creator of her own ideas. She creates her own reality in fact, perhaps as an effort to cope with her inactivity. At least obsessing about the wallpaper has given her something to occupy her mind. Without a doubt, the narrator is a character with real emotions and real mental deterioration.
It is important to remember, and to remind students, that the entire story is presented only through the narrator's perspective. At the same time, most of the background material provided is from Gilman's autobiography, and from her own perspective. While Gilman's story can be called realism, because of its connection to her own life, it is real only to Gilman, the author. Realism is defined as, " . . . not a direct or simple reproduction of reality but a system of conventions producing a lifelike illusion of some 'real' world outside the text, by processes of selection, exclusion, description, and manners of addressing the reader."9 Because Gilman was really free from hurting anyone in real life, she was able to imagine some of the story's details. Therefore, the story is part fact and fiction – requiring students to read from a sharp critical eye.
Gilman's narrator represents a battling woman. In the story, she is battling the wallpaper and its mystery; in its historical context, she is battling patriarchal social codes. For these reasons, the story carries with it a controversial edge. "Her gripping tale of a new mother's descent into madness brought to light the inequity between men and women within the family and the overwhelming nature of Victorian social norms for womanhood".10