Monday, June 3, 2013

Gilman's "Yellow Wallpaper" and Poe's "Berenice": Two American Fantastic Tales

Each week The Library of America will post to your email account a free “Story of the Week” from a volume in their large catalog.  You can sign up for this at

This week, they are featuring “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman from American Fantastic Tales, edited by Peter Straub.  If you like tales that make you think after you shudder, you might find American Fantastic Tales interesting.

I am providing a brief discussion of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as well as a discussion of another story in the book, Poe’s “Berenice,” which is not one of his most popular tales, but certainly one of his most curious.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-Paper”

            "The Yellow Wall-Paper" is a story originally published in the late nineteenth century (1892), but which has only relatively recently been anthologized and widely read because of its thematic relevance to the rise in academic feminism in U.S. universities.  The story can be seen as a criticism of the treatment of women in the nineteenth century, particularly the issue of madness as a way men controlled women or else as a way women escaped from, or rebelled against, men.  However, the story can also be read as an interesting use of the technique of first-person point of view and the relationship between writing and reality--especially the difference between traditional male and female texts. 

            The story makes use of a common convention of what has often been called women's fiction--gothic romance.  It opens with the typical hereditary estate, which the narrator is tempted to call a "haunted house," and then introduces the convention, best known in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre," of the mysterious mad woman in the upstairs room.  However, the primary convention the story uses is the traditional difference between how men and women supposedly approach reality.  The husband, who is a doctor or scientist, has no patience with faith, superstition, or anything that cannot be physically verified and converted to mathematical figures.  This contrasts with the wife's imaginative power and her "habit of story-making." 

            Serving as a background to this tension is the wallpaper itself, which gives the story its title--an image of domestic "woman's things," but which takes on significance because of the nature of the "patterns" that it embodies.  If students isolate all those references to the wallpaper in the story, they will see how the patterns begin to take on an ominous expression of reality.  The nature of the woman's "madness" is projective and thus identified with the nature of writing, for she creates meaningful patterns and then responds to the patterns as if the meaning existed in them instead of being projected on them.  Although this may be at least one definition of madness, it is also a definition of the artist, who creates meaning out of patterns that readers take to be real and significant.  The difference between madness and art, of course, is between allowing the projection to possess one only temporarily or being drawn into it obsessively without the desire or ability to escape. 

            What the narrator does is to transform a "pointless pattern" into a meaningful one by following it to its conclusion or end and thus determining its purpose.  The narrator says she knows little of the principal of design, but that she does know that there is no law or rule that governs the pattern of the wallpaper.  Of course, as the story proceeds and she perceives or projects a woman behind the pattern, the reader knows that inevitability the woman must be herself, for the conventional rule that applies here is that if one projects a pattern, the pattern then indeed reflects the self.  The story thus involves two basic notions of patterns that the reader may need to unravel--patterns created by society itself that entrap a woman and bind her and patterns the mind of the woman herself creates that follow only the law of her own psychic distress. 

            A 1982 film version of this story invents a number of elements to present the story as a male/female conflict in which the male is responsible for the madness of the female.  For example, there is the difference between what the wife writes--her impressions and personal thoughts in a small notebook she keeps hidden in her pocket--and what the husband writes--a schedule that controls her every move and an academic paper.  Thus, the story is about the woman's external life dominated by her husband's schedule and her inner life captured by her own notebook, which her husband wishes to deny her.  In one scene the husband explains that he wants things solid, wants to get at the "reality of things"; he says, for example, that once pollination was explained to him, the mystery of love vanished.         

               A number of other inventions, such as a mysterious young girl who occasionally rides through the landscape outside the house on a bicycle, suggest the possibilities of the wife when she was a young girl herself, possibilities that have been closed off by the patterns that control her.  Throughout the film, the dialogue emphasizes the husband's view that the wife thinks too much, that her imagination is her worst enemy. He argues that to be healthy she must be "calm and pink"; for him the essence of woman is body not mind; as a doctor friend of the husband says to her, "You must put on flesh."

            The woman realizes that she seems to be living in a world of her own, but that the more it becomes her own the less control she has over it.  Indeed, her inner world becomes externalized.  At the end of the film, the conflict between the man and woman is made most explicit by a montage of shots that cut back and forth between the man reading his paper at a professional meeting and the woman tearing off the paper from her walls.  What the woman wishes is to expose what lies behind the patterns, to destroy the patterns themselves, and to free the woman who is entrapped there.  The climactic scene occurs when a hand comes out of the wall and a mysterious woman in a yellow dress kisses her and the two become one. 

Edgar Allan Poe, “Berenice”

        What Poe wanted to evoke in the story “Berenice" (March 1835) was some physical manifestation of identity that was both expressive of the self and suggestive of permanence. And the one last remnant of expression that remains after death and decay of the body would be the teeth. Perhaps the strange and seemingly over generalized first paragraph of the story indicates Poe's realization that his metaphor did not work, for it seems a case of special pleading.  He focuses on the manifold misery and wretchedness of the earth that derives from the fact that beauty results from unloveliness, that evil results from good, and that joy is born out of sorrow. The narrator focuses on a chamber filled with books--"a palace of imagination...the wild dominions of monastic thought and erudition.”  Spending his childhood with books and in reverie results in what he calls an inversion in his thoughts: 

            The realities of the world affected me as visions, and as visions only, while the wild ideas of the land of dreams became, in turn,--not the material of my everyday existence--but in very deed that existence utterly and solely in itself.

This is the most resounding statement in Poe's fiction of the central thrust of his vision, for it reflects the basic romantic mode of presenting the everyday world as strange and unusual and the fantastic world of dream and imagination as the only reality.

            Moreover, this is Poe's most emphatic statement of his idea of the intensity of interest.  Although the disease that falls on Bernice is the disease of epilepsy, which Poe uses as a metaphor for death, the narrator's disease, what he calls a "monomania," consists of a "morbid irritability of those properties of the mind in metaphysical science termed the attentive" (II, 211).  He describes an "intensity of interest" for "even the most ordinary objects of the universe."  However, the objects with which he becomes absorbed are not objects as such, for he singles out such things as a frivolous device in the typography of a book, a shadow falling aslant a tapestry, the steady flame of a lamp, the perfume of a flower, and the monotonous repetition of some common word, "until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatever to the mind.”
            This condition, like the condition of the perverse, defies analysis or explanation.  Furthermore, he insists that his "undue, earnest, and morbid attention thus excited by objects in their own nature frivolous” is not to be confused with mere rumination.  It is not, he argues, even an exaggeration of such rumination, but something quite different.  Whereas the dreamer gradually loses sight of the object of his attention in deductions and suggestions deriving from it, in his own case, the primary object of his attention assumes an unreal importance and at the termination of the reverie, instead of disappearing, attains that "supernaturally exaggerated interest which was the prevailing feature of the disease.  In a word, the powers of mind more particularly exercised were with me, as I have said before, the attentive, and are, with the day-dreamer, the speculative.” 

            The narrator is fully aware of his obsession, for he notes that he never loved Berenice as a living and breathing individual, but as the embodiment of a dream:

            not as a being of the earth, earthly, but as the abstraction of such a being; not as a thing to admire, but to analyze--not as an object of love, but as the theme of the most abstruse although desultory speculation.

As Berenice becomes more and more emaciated, that is, as the body wastes away and the face becomes more skull-like, the teeth become more predominant.  Consequently, it is the teeth that become the center of his monomania; "they alone were present to the mental eye," for he transforms them into a metaphoric embodiment of pure "idea" and thus the ultimate metaphor of his desire.  The only twist in the story, a grotesque twist that contributes to its ghastly nature, is the fact that Berenice is not dead but only in an epileptic coma when the narrator pulls out her teeth as she lies in her tomb.

            Poe's obsession with the Ideal and his abhorrence of body is less likely to be a result of his own psychological anxieties and fears, as some readers have assumed, than an inevitable implication of his metaphysical and aesthetic theories that true reality was purely pattern rather than merely physical.


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