Managing Madness in Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper"
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MANAGING MADNESS IN GILMAN'S "THE YELLOW WALL-PAPER" Beverly A. Hume Indiana University-Purdue University "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 the 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."1 Following this often-cited passage from "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wail-Paper," Charlotte Perkins Gilman states she did not intend to drive readers "crazy" with "The Yellow Wail-Paper," but only to expose a serious and extreme lapse in medical judgment, or wisdom, regarding the "treatment of neurasthenia" (WW, 332). Published five years after Gilman's recovery from the ill effects of S. Weir Mitchell's rest cure treatment, "The Yellow Wall-Paper" chronicles the life of a woman who does not recover from it, and this, in part, is why its feminist message has remained problematic for many critics. Gilman's autobiographical observations in "Why I Wrote The Yellow Wall-Paper" (and, later, in The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman ) about her recovery reveal that she did not regard such extreme lapses in medicaljudgment as insurmountable, but much of the criticism written about "The Yellow Wall-Paper" continues to treat this tale as the dark and complex record of a woman's (or woman writer's) oppression, victimization, collapse, and paradoxical "emancipation."2 This tale, as Gilman suggests , indicts those "wise men" who attempt to manage "mad" women medically. However, it also implicates her narrator in a pathological and twisted domestic tale of self-sabotage and self-hatred reminiscent of Poe' s nightmarish domesticity in one of his most well-known tales, "The Black Cat." Unlike Poe' s mad narrator, though, Gilman's narrator posits an indirect alternative to the psychologically discomfiting ambivalence she displays not only toward herselfbut others (including both her husband and her child) in the decaying domestic sphere of 4 Beverly A. Hume "The Yellow Wall-Paper." It is critical common knowledge that Gilman had not only read Poe by the time she wrote "The Yellow Wall-Paper," but even "made the analogy with Poe" in her autobiography.3 It is also common knowledge that she was impressed enough by Poe's authorial strategies both to comment on and imitate them in her Impress "Story Studies" two years after "The Yellow Wall-Paper" was published. Some critics, perhaps most notably Judith Fetterley and Annette Kolodny, have discussed Gilman's tale in comparative relation to Poe's, although primarily to illustrate their differences.4 After observing, for example, that "Poe's ancestral halls serve as image and symbol of the mind of his narrator" and "are haunted by the ghosts of women buried alive within them, hacked to death to produce their effect, killed by and in the service of the necessities of male art," Fetterley argues that one does not find this same violently disturbing quality in Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper ."5 However, Gilman's narrator displays a chilling potential for domestic violence that not only haunts this tale, but threatens to undermine Gilman's stated feminist goal to "reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways" (WW, 35 1). Gilman's essentialist tendencies regarding gender have beenjustifiably questioned by many critics in recent years. However, "The Yellow Wall-Paper" appears to be a text that simultaneously mirrors Gilman's ideological limitations as a feminist reformer and symbolically moves beyond those limitations.6 Gilman's narrator early suggests that her tale may be gothic, since its setting is in "a colonial mansion, a hereditary estate," but immediately dismisses this notion as one that...


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