Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman -- A Book Review in Which I Clearly Fail as a Feminist

Book Description: "Narrated in the first person, the story is a collection of journal entries written by a woman whose physician husband has rented an old mansion for the summer. As a form of treatment, the unnamed woman is forbidden from working or writing, and is encouraged to eat well and get plenty of air, so she can recuperate from what he calls a "temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency", a diagnosis common to women during that period. The narrator devotes many journal entries to describing the wallpaper in the room  and how the longer one stays in the bedroom, the more the wallpaper appears to mutate, especially in the moonlight. With no stimulus other than the wallpaper, the pattern and designs become increasingly intriguing to the narrator. She soon begins to see a figure in the design and eventually comes to believe that a woman is creeping on all fours behind the pattern. Believing she must free the woman in the wallpaper, the woman begins to strip the remaining paper off the wall. When her husband arrives home, the narrator refuses to unlock her door. When he returns with the key, he finds her creeping around the room, rubbing against the wallpaper, and exclaiming "I've got out at last... in spite of you." He faints, but she continues to circle the room, creeping over his inert body each time she passes it, believing herself to have become the woman trapped behind the yellow wallpaper."

This story is nothing but a ridiculous piece of inflated propaganda. The author admits it's much more extreme than her own experience with a "nervous condition"---exaggerated to make her argument against the popular rest cures of the day. Her claims that the story caused her former doctor to repent are unsubstantiated and even argued as false by another researcher. The idea that a week or two without stimulation would put her into that kind of psychosis either proves she really did need help or it's as stupid as her husband fainting at the sight of her. Pure Victorian melodrama at it's best...

 I don't think we need to immediately jump to the conclusion that the male doctors of the 19th century were purposefully trying to oppress women. They were obviously ignorant of the differences in the ways most women respond to life's challenges compared to how most men do, but that's probably been the case since the beginning of time! And, they weren't far off with their "rest cure" ideas. What do we hear nowadays about many of our ailments being caused or at least exacerbated by stress? It's a thing. We need rest and regular breaks from overstimulation. Could it be that innocent and true compassion motivated these male doctors? Heaven forbid! That would annihilate our Feminist arguments! Many men lost their wives early in those days---maybe some of them tried crazy treatments purely from fear and compassion. 

From page 19: "And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head. He said I was his darling and his comfort and all he had, and that I must take care of myself for his sake, and keep well. He says no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me." Now I might just be an uneducated barefoot and perpetually pregnant housewife, but doesn't it sound like he is 1---encouraging her to access her own strength of character, 2---providing her with stimulation by reading to her, 3---speaking with love and kindness, even to the point of showing his emotional vulnerability? Oh you poor, oppressed, dominated woman! Try stepping out across town to a slum where a real abused woman lives battered and used by a drunken, lazy loser excuse for a husband. Please.

I have times when my husband is insistent about something out of concern for me and I know it's not necessary---so I tell him so and do my own thing. He rolls his eyes and does his own thing. In the mass majority of cases, this is likely what went on behind closed doors. People of those days aren't that different from people of these days---regardless of "society's" expectations. Women of those days should have been more angry at the other women around them for helping to perpetuate such a stupid code of conduct as women were encouraged to display. Very few men are or ever have been overbearing beasts to their women. It's in their God-given nature to protect and, in that same vein, it's the God-given nature to submit and be a helpmeet that these women are really fighting against. The women (like this character, like the author) who freely submitted to treatments that their own common sense told them were ridiculous are the ones to blame for not standing up for themselves lest they be labeled impolite by society.

Here's a challenge: go find something that's NOT obvious Feminist propaganda literature and really pay attention to the male characters. The 19th and early 20th centuries' obsession with male dominance and womanly simpering was just as much a fault of the women of society dictating what was "proper" for other women as anything else.  Take Pride and Prejudice for example. Look at the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Mr. Bennet has to put up with a ranting, complaining, opinionated wife and his only responses are sly sarcasm and quiet time alone in his library. Mr. Bingley is nothing but kind and mild mannered toward every woman in the story. Mr. Darcy is supposed to be arrogant but he still is every bit a gentleman and we later find his behavior is merely a mask for his own insecurities. The only male character in the story that has the slightest bit of derogatory attitudes toward women is Mr. Collins and he is known for being a pig---by both women AND men. Who rules the roost in P&P? Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine, all the Bennet girls. Which woman is looked down on? Charlotte---the one who sells out out of desperation to have what society tells her will make her a real woman. Everybody knows Jane Austen wrote about the society around her. Old news propaganda aside, anyone who is well read in literature of the last 300 years can see that in the VAST majority of cases, western civilization has been equally dominated by both male and female. It is in surviving literature, written without an agenda, that we can truly see how society functions.

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