Thursday, November 01, 2007

Caught creeping by daylight

A preface: I've eaten nothing but leftover Halloween candy all day.

Moving on: Last night I read Charlotte Perkins Gillman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" on the recommendation of a work-mate who noticed my penchant for literary creepiness. The final image of it stayed with her, she said. It was a perfect one-gulp read (I think I'm getting addicted to short stories) with marvelous momentum and a neat characterization of a woman driven to madness by confinement and lassitude and wretched decor. And, yes, the final image is creepy.

In the story, a woman is confined to her room following post-partum depression (aka nervous hysteria) by her well-meaning physician husband. She's got strict instructions to rest at all costs and above all avoid work of any kind, especially writing. Inevitably, she is driven mad with boredom, and begins to obsess unhealthily over the oppressively yellow, hideously patterned wallpaper in her room. She soon becomes convinced she seems something, someone, hidden in that wallpaper, waiting to get out.

Written in the 1890s, it's a clear comment on the current treatment of women, medical and otherwise, that advocated confining the delicate dears to their rooms (with invariably disastrous results; see Dracula). In 1913, Gilman wrote this about her motivation for writing the story:

"For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia--and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with 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. This was in 1887.

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over."

It's a great story, with a paranoid, Gaslight feel to it (" The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John. He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look...") and I thoroughly its wonderful atmosphere of maddening confinement. Its imagery recalled the Harry Burdick Mysteries I was enthralled with as a child ....

.... and its medical patriarchy/establishment themes fit right in with my love of such books as "For Her Own Good," and my love of Victorian quack medicine, and the idea of "hysteria" in general. Which may possibly also be brought on by excessive candy consumption ...

No comments: