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  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper - critical review: the importance & complications of language

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper', published in 1892, comments on the problem of language as a human construct. Treichler's view in 'escaping the sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse' confronts this centrality of discourse to the short story. However, her idea that the wallpaper itself is a representation of female discourse can be disputed, as it is more convincing to present the wallpaper as a comment on the importance of the function of art: to open the imagination, recognise patriarchy and form a new discourse with that. This idea of the novel representing an escape from patriarchal discourse being due to the wallpaper confronts the importance of art in stimulating the imagination, as the narrator becomes increasingly active in engaging with the pattern, and with that escaping patriarchal discourse. This can be seen from her transformation of language form beginning to end. With this idea, the title is fitting, since for the reader, the short story is their 'yellow wallpaper', and Gilman urges us to react to this story, cause it to infiltrate our imagination and along with the narrator, escape masculine discourse and create a feminine one.

The primary compliance to patriarchy is conveyed through conformity to the male discourse. The powerlessness the narrator feels against her husband, a physician and symbol of patriarchy, is conveyed through the rhetorical question 'what is one to do?', displaying a lack of availability of language that can counter what Treichler defines as 'the law of the father which is prescribed by patriarchy'. The narrator conforms to the banning, or unavailability of, genuine individual thought and speech, as John's orders that 'the very worst thing' she can do 'is to think about her condition' is achieved when she claims 'So I will let it alone and talk about the house.' Gilman's own experience of this, being prescribed the 'rest cure' by S. Weir Mithchell (someone mentioned in the story): to 'live as domestic as life as far as possible', is conformed to by the narrator, just as Gilman conformed to it at the beginning of her treatment. The description of the house as 'delicious' has a domestic connotation and therefore displays this subjugation to the patriarchal ideal of language. Her description of the garden 'large and shady [..] lined with long grave-covered arbors' represents an ideal of the female writing, and with that therefore, conforming to patriarchal discourse. This adherence to patriarchal language, which in turn forms the female identity, is further conveyed as she states "I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition". The adjectives 'unreasonably' 'sensitive' and the noun 'nervous condition' is linear to the patriarchal created definition of the hysterical women: 'the madwoman in the attic', depicted in earlier novels such as Jane Eyre: unreasonable, sensitive and nervous. It not only presents internal misogyny but full conformity to male discourse definitions and language that the patriarchal world has created. With this, her real emotions and language are further prevented as John 'hates' her to 'write and word' and 'would not hear of' her speech. Therefore, at the beginning of the short story the narrative is artificial: as although it is from her perspective, the patriarchal world and its formation of the structures of language control it.

This conformity to the patriarchal expectation and language declines with her engagement with the wallpaper. P.A Treichler sees the wallpaper as a representative of female discourse, but arguably it is instead a symbol of art which can engage the imagination, causing an engagement of female discourse. The disordered nature of the wallpaper is seen by the description of the colour, described as 'repellent [..] a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight [..] dull yet lurid orange in some places.' The verb 'smouldering' and adjectives 'strangely' and 'lurid' represents this shift from the definitive and rational makeup of the patriarchal society that the narrator is trapped in. Furthermore, the "unclean yellow [..] faded [..] dull yet lurid orange" creates a mixed image as the paradox of "dull" and "lurid" creates a tone of confusion. What is arguably more interesting, however, is the contrast this immediate description of the wallpaper supplies to the earlier description of the garden. The words "smouldering" "strangely" and "lurid" juxtaposes to the earlier adjective of "delicious" describing the garden, creating a description with more depth and confusion, arguably representing the importance of art (represented by the wallpaper) at engaging her imagination and taking her outside the language of patriarchal discourse ("Delicious"). Furthermore, the use of the simile "there is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes" represents a stimulating in imagination as these descriptions are increasingly incoherent compared to the earlier more factual description of the garden as 'full of box-bordered paths.' The description of the wallpaper "I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I have ever heard of" references this break away from the familiar and engaging the unknowable. This is shown as she describes the pattern later in the story: "florid arabesque, reminding one of fungus. If you can imagine a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions - why, that is something like that." Although this could be argued to be a symbol of her increasing madness, it simultaneously represents a further break away from the conventional. The description "interminable string of toadstools" is challenging to 'imagine', which echoes the wallpaper's effect on the narrator: causing her to challenge her imaginings out of patriarchal discourse. Her conclusion that 'Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be' conveys that Gilman was rebutting the idea of the 'rest cure', as the wallpaper opens up her imagination, leading her to absurd descriptions and imaginations, and her claim that she is 'so much better!' 'because of the wallpaper' may refer to a wider societal effect of using art to break the boundaries of conventionality.

However, the issues created from using art to break the boundaries of patriarchal discourse are confronted. If language is created by humans, and mainly the prominent structure of society: formed by patriarchy, then how is one to create new structures if there is no language other than that moulded by patriarchy? This is seen through the narrator's increasing silence, displayed from her statements 'I never mention [the wallpaper] to them anymore', 'it is so hard to talk with John about my case', 'I could not say another word', the wallpaper 'keeps me quiet by the hour' and 'I have found another funny thing, but I shan't tell it this time!'. Although the narrator claims that much of this silence is because she is 'wise' as she realises that 'John will laugh', it also represents the struggle of breaking out of patriarchal language, since there is no language but that. Her increasing engagement with the wallpaper, representative of art, which engages her imagination, simultaneously leads her to realise her entrapment: shown through the discovery of the women trapped behind the pattern. The narrator's description of the women who seems to 'shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out', with the pattern later becoming 'bars' is representative of the narrator realising the difficulty of creating a new discourse since women are trapped behind art that is written through a patriarchal language and lens. Therefore, the wallpaper stimulates the narrator's imagination but also causes her to realise her entrapment against the patriarchal society who have moulded language. In this way, her action that she 'peeled off all the wallpaper', and declarative that 'I've got out at last [..] and I've pulled off most of the paper' is a representative of creating a 'blank slate'. The parallel phrases 'I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled' acknowledges that the narrator, the women in the wallpaper and also Gilman (through being the author) all end up having the same intention: to 'peel off', expose and recreate these structures. As Karen Ford acknowledges, "tearing down the paper [..] is a retreat from discourse precisely because language is male-controlled." It is an attempt to take away the firm structures, in the same way as the short story itself is.

Therefore, the wallpaper's effect is two-fold. In the first instance, it is representative of a piece of art, that breaks the narrator from her world of patriarchy. It causes her to realise the truth of John, shown from the shift of description of him from 'loving and kind' to 'pretended to be very loving and kind'. However, the more distant she makes herself from patriarchy, as she increasingly engages with the wallpaper and her imagination, her eyes are simultaneously opened to the trappings of patriarchy shown through her recognition of the women trapped being bars of the first pattern: indicative of the problem of language and art as a whole. It confronts a problem of the long term change that will need to take place, since if language is 'male-controlled', then there is no other language to use for female discourse. However, as modern readers will recognise, engaging in art and imagination, as the narrator does with the wallpaper, will make women realise this, which in turn will allow a gradual shift of those who control the language as women become more influential in society and change its structure. Even though the narrator is still physically trapped at the end of the story, as her husband as only 'fainted', the authority gained conveyed through the verb phrase 'creeps over him' is not temporary, but instead representative of a first 'creep' towards women gaining power in society and re-forming language. In this way, the short story is the reader's 'yellow wallpaper': a cry for readers to engage with it, and therefore see outside of the entrapment of patriarchy, engage the imagination and form a new structure of language.

Articles I read after reading:

Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, vol. 3, no. 1/2, 1984, pp. 61–77. JSTOR, Accessed 12 Dec. 2020.

Ford, Karen. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Women's Discourse.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, vol. 4, no. 2, 1985, pp. 309–314. JSTOR, Accessed 12 Dec. 2020.


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