A few items stuck out as I prepared to teach Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” this semester. The first aspect of the short story that caught my attention was the multiple uses of specific words or forms of specific words: creep (20), sun (8), crawl (4), and skulk (1). Each of these words, except for sun, has a connotation of hiding or concealment. In fact, there are even synonyms such as “sly” within the narrative. Along with these words, paper appears 44 times, both in reference to the wallpaper and also in reference to the narrator’s writing. While the repetition of these words is important in the story, it is not what I want to focus on for this post. Today, I want to examine one of the last lines in the story where the narrator says, “I’ve got out at last. . . in spite of you and Jane!”
Who is Jane? Is this the narrator herself? Is it John’s sister Jennie? Is it the unnamed baby? The answer is not clear. It could be the narrator because at the end of the story she starts to herself outside of herself. It could be a typo or another name for Jennie. It could be the unnamed baby. I am really not sure; however, if we conclude that Jane refers to the baby, how does that affect our reading of Gilman’s story? Thinking about the story in relation to postpartum depression, the narrator’s reference to Jane working against her makes sense. Yet, I also feel there is something more here.
As I read the story this time, I couldn’t help but think about the Cult of True Womanhood and the idea of Republican Motherhood. While I think the story pushes back against the Cult of True Womanhood, the story appears to critique the idea of Republican Motherhood even more. Republican Motherhood arose around the American Revolution as the idea that women would inculcate their children, especially their male children, with the Republican ideals that would make them upright citizens of the Republic. While the mother would impart her knowledge to the children, she still maintained a position within the domestic sphere and did not have legal rights to affect any political change within the society. Even though Gilman’s story appears at the latter half of the nineteenth century, I see it, in part, confronting this idea.
From the outset of the story, we get the idea that this is a narrative that will, in a way, address historical issues and ideas that have made their way across time to the late 1800s. The “ancestral halls” that the narrator and John rent for the summer are a “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate” that the narrator says is “haunted” and “queer.” With this framing, we have a link, albeit it a opaque one, with the past that directly connects what will occur to the narrator with something that has previously occurred, perhaps even within the same house and room.
Upon moving in, the narrator and John take “the nursery at the top of the house” for their room. Looking around the nursery, the narrator ponders what purposes the room, after being a nursery, served. She writes, “It was a nursery first and then a playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children and there are rings and things in the walls.” The narrator continues by moving past the playroom stage of the room to the possibility that it served as a school at one point: “The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it.” This progression moves the room from a baby to an adolescent because it progresses from a nursery to a school. As well, it traces a male, not a female, progression due to the fact that the narrator imagines a “boys’ school” occupying the room.
This movement from infant to young boy is important because it points to the boy’s education in preparation of becoming a citizen and active participant in the Republic. Compounded with this is the fact that the room, where the progression occurs, serves as a prison for the narrator, keeping her in the same space where the boy grows up. The walls have bars over them and there are rings, supposedly from the playroom, in the wall that could serve as restraining devices. Along with these aspects, we also learn that the bed will not move. The narrator writes, “I lie here on this great immovable bed–it is nailed down, I believe.”
The room, appears, to have housed other women or patients before the narrator’s arrival. She notices the “ravages” of the room and spots where it appears someone has tried to tear the wall-paper off of the wall. There are scratches and gouges on the floor as if someone has tried to claw their way out of the room as well. As well, the “bedstead is fairly gnawed.” All of this, along with the narrator’s perceptions that there are multiple women within the wallpaper, hints that others have been confined within the room, thus an historical link to the past and the idea of Republican Motherhood.
We must, I argue, look at Gilman’s “The Housewife” in conjunction with “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” In the poem, the narrator details her daily life as a housewife and all of the “duties” she must do to maintain the household. The language and imagery in the poem mirrors that of the story. The first line, “Here is the House to hold me — cradle of all the race;” sets up that the house constrains the narrator even though the narrator births children and the race. The idea of constraint appears throughout the poem. In the second stanza, the narrator states she is “Bound with the bands of Duty, riveted tight.” Here, “bound” and “riveted” keep the narrator in place, not allowing her any movement outside of the domestic sphere. She cooks, cleans, and completes the household duties, never being allowed to try a trade of her own.
The poem concludes with two lines that drive home the narrator’s confinement within the domestic sphere and the narrator’s role as a producer and educator of national citizens.
And I the Mother of Nations! — Blind their struggle and vain! —I cover the earth with my children — each with a housewife’s brain.
Birthing the nations, each child leaves with “a housewife’s brain.” The information that the narrator has access too, and thus the information that the narrator transmits to the child, does not necessarily prepare the child to become a citizen of the body politic. This is sort of what occurs in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as well with the act of writing. I am not totally sure what to make of this right now, but it is something to consider.
Returning to the question I posed at the beginning, can Jane be the narrator’s daughter? If Jane is the narrator’s daughter, what does that do to this reading of the story? Can Jane be seen as a continued link to the past and this idea of Republican Motherhood and the domestic sphere? I’m not sure. If Jane is the daughter, wouldn’t a more powerful point be a reference to the narrator somehow saving Jane? I think so.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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