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CONRAD SHUMAKER Realism, Reform, and the Audience: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Unreadable Wallpaper The history of Charlotte Peikins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper " clearly illustrates problems of canon and audience in American literature. Published in 1892, the work was virtually ignored by readers, despite efforts by William Dean Howells, probably the most influential American critic of his time, to convince editots and audiences of its excellence. Though the stoty is now read as a brilliant and artistically innovative exploration of woman's tole, Gilman herself chose to defend it, not in terms of its "literaty" merit or feminist theme, but as an attempt to show S. Weit Mitchell the potential dangets of the "rest cure," his remedy for "nervous diseases." After publishing "The Yellow Wallpaper" she wrote no more fiction fot nearly twenty years, and then wrote stories for The Forerunner much more conventional in fotm (and less striking to a modem audience) than her first work. There is, of course, a seemingly logical and simple explanation for Gilman's reaction and for the difference between "The Yellow WaIlpaper " and the stoties that appeared latet. Gilman saw herself above all as a reformer dedicated to improving society by showing how the forced dependence of women threatened not only women themselves but society as a whole. "The Yellow Wallpaper" failed to reach an audience and, despite its tumored effect on Mitchell's tteatment of "nervous" women, did not really make a significant contribution to that effort. Indeed, the genetal neglect of the stoty has led recent commentators such as Annette Kolodny and Jean E. Kennard to suggest that the audiArizona Quarterly Volume 47 Number 1, Spring 1991 Copyright © 1991 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1 6 1 o 82Conrad Shumaker ence failed to read the work in tetms ofwoman's tole at all, since readers lacked a tradition of women's literature or a set of conventions which would enable them to recognize its feminist perspective. Gilman, who already had a New Engländern distrust of "art" (as opposed to "work"), turned to lecturing and to writing Women and Economics; when she returned to writing fiction, she wrote the kind ofpurposeful fiction that could not be misunderstood. She was to defend the eatliet stoty, denying the chatge that she had been trying to drive women crazy, and claimed that she simply meant to call attention to the problems posed by the "rest cure." "The Yellow Wallpaper," then, was useful, a tool of practical reform instead of a misundetstood literary artifact. But in a sense to explain things in this way is simply to testate the question in a different form. In Women and Economics Gilman argues long and persuasively that the characteristics women share with male human beings are far more numerous and important than the differences between the sexes. Therefore women should have all the economic and social freedom that belongs to them as human beings, most impottantly, the freedom to work. "The Yellow Wallpaper" seems to be the perfect fictional complement to this argument: to a modern audience , at least, the story presents a powerful and haunting picture of a woman robbed of her humanity (and het ability to wotk) and treated as just a woman. Besides offering a realistic depiction of mental breakdown , it gives us one of the most striking charactets in out literature. In the tetms that William Dean Howells used in his arguments for realism, the narrator is a charactet, not a type—that is, she is not a simple creature designed to illustrate an idea imposed on us by the authot but a complex being who reacts to her situation in believable and interesting ways. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, there is reasonably clear evidence that Howells himself recognized that the stoty challenged the conventional role of women, since he fitst wrote to Gilman to praise a poem that attacked women's tole quite directly.1 Why, then, was Gilman's audience—and pethaps even Gilman herself —apparently unwilling to acknowledge that "The Yellow Wallpaper " addressed the problem of women's lost humanity in marriage? This formulation of the question will take us eventually into the story itself, which anticipates the...


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