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American Literature 74.1 (2002) 89-110

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The Reading Habit and "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Barbara Hochman

During Charlotte Perkins Gilman's engagement to Walter Stetson, a friend offered her a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Gilman refused to accept the volume, saying that she would never read Whitman. Discussing this incident, Ann Lane attributes Gilman's refusal of the book to the influence of Stetson who apparently "accepted, at least for his fiancée, the conventional view of his day that defined Whitman's poetry as unseemly and unsavory." 1 Any anxiety Stetson may have had about the consequences of reading Leaves of Grass would have rested upon another perfectly "conventional view" of the day, the notion that one's reading could have an enduring impact on one's life, whether benign or pernicious.

Much has been written about Gilman's relation to the work of writing, but her relation to reading deserves more attention than it has received. At the end of the nineteenth century, many writers, reviewers, and educators were preoccupied by the pros and cons of what was widely referred to as the reading habit. I suggest that "The Yellow Wallpaper" reflects culturally typical anxieties about certain kinds of fiction reading, especially the practice of reading for escape, through projection and identification. Whether or not Gilman shared these anxieties—and I believe that she did—her most famous story provides an oblique but powerful image of a reader who is temporarily exhilarated but ultimately destroyed while absorbed in a mesmerizing text. The figure of the narrator-protagonist reflects Gilman's own intensely conflicted relation to reading, including her painful inability to read at all during the period of emotional upheaval on which the story is based. Attention to the narrative's self-reflexive concern with the dynamics [End Page 89] of reading elucidates not only Gilman's own reading practices but also her commitment to fiction "with a purpose," as she referred to "The Yellow Wallpaper" in an exchange with William Dean Howells. 2

Although Gilman's "purpose" in writing "The Yellow Wallpaper" was misunderstood by many of her contemporaries, the strong emotional impact of the story was never in doubt. When Horace Scudder rejected the story for the Atlantic, he wrote Gilman: "I could not forgive myself, if I made others as miserable as I have made myself" (L, 119). Less well-known than Scudder's famous response are the comments of a reader who sent a letter of "protest" to the Boston Transcript after "The Yellow Wallpaper" appeared in the New England Magazine. Charging that "such literature contains deadly peril," the letter devotes particular attention to the story's powerful grip upon its reader: "It is graphically told, in a somewhat sensational style, which makes it difficult to lay aside, after the first glance, til it is finished, holding the reader in morbid fascination to the end" (L, 120).

This description of reading "The Yellow Wallpaper" bears an uncanny resemblance to the way Gilman's story itself represents the narrator: "morbidly fascinated" by the wall-paper, increasingly preoccupied with it, and determined to follow its pattern to "some sort of conclusion." 3 In the course of the story, the narrator herself becomes a reader—an avid, indeed an obsessive, reader—of the paper on the walls that surround her. From a nineteenth-century point of view, the narrator becomes what Nancy Glazener has recently called an "addictive" reader: one who reads incessantly and who, while doing so, loses her last remaining hold on reality. 4

Gilman's nameless protagonist enters an action-filled world that she creates by inference from a printed design. As a result, her depression and despair are temporarily dispelled. Like a reader absorbed in an exciting tale, the narrator "follow[s] that pattern about by the hour." Soon she finds that "[l]ife [is] very much more exciting . . . than it used to be . . . I have something more to expect, to look forward to" ("YW," 19, 27). Like a reader who can't put a book down, she no longer sleeps much...