Reading "The Yellow Wallpaper" as post-traumatic writing/"The Yellow Wallpaper" adh oykunun travma-sonrasi anlati olarak okunmasi.
In this sense, "trauma is not a past experience" (Ramadanovic 87). It survives in the subconscious mind, interrupting the psychic mechanism of the victim, and continuously repeating itself under different masks. The traumatized victim does not simply keep remembering the traumatizing event; rather she or he reexperiences it again and again. Ramadanovic exemplifies this difference by citing Freud's distinction between remembering and repeating a past event. He writes:
[I]n Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud draws a distinction, between on the one hand, remembering, which he considers to be a kind of creation of a version of an event--"remembering [erinnern] it as something belonging to the past"--and on the other hand, repeating--"to repeat [wiederholen] the repressed material as a contemporary experience," that is, as an abreaction ranging from hallucinations, to nightmares, to more subtle forms of acting out [...]. (106)
The victim refuses to remember the traumatic event in the subconscious, so she or he acts it out, and the event recurs in different forms in the present.
To heal from the trauma, one should create a symbolic form--mostly narrative--to be able to work through it. In novels, poems, memoirs, and short stories many trauma victims have narrated their experiences and reexperiences in order to work through the paralyzing effects of trauma. The aim of this paper is to comment on one of these trauma narratives, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper". In Gilman's story, we witness a young, middle-class woman's experiences in a "haunted house" as she describes it. The story was considered to be a good example of grotesque Gothic fiction when it was first published in 1892. Yet it would be a merciless oversimplification to reduce the story merely to a good example of grotesque Gothic fiction. "The Yellow Wall-Paper" is a multilayered and richly meaningful story that narrates a traumatized middle-class woman's acting out the symptoms of trauma caused by the social imposition of reductive models of femininity on her. Her traumatizing experiences as a woman repeat themselves in the form of the hallucination of a woman enslaved in the yellow wall-paper of the room she is closed in. Even though we are not told about a specific event that has traumatized the young woman, it is apparent that even her everyday experiences with her husband or within the established set of social norms are traumatizing enough. At this point, it is necessary to clarify the phrase "the established set of social norms" before continuing to discuss the story.
It can be deduced from the works of many specialists of nineteenth century culture, literature, or history that nineteenth century middle-class women--especially the ones who were married and had children--were isolated, lonely, and consequently depressed. They were imprisoned in the model of "perfect womanhood" which reduced them to split identities and thereby robbed them of essential human qualities and depersonalized them. A perfect woman carried out "vital" tasks in the family, the first of which was bearing children. Yet, the ideal woman had no place in the social realm; she was educated to be submissive and to carry out her maternal roles. As Shoshana Felman puts it in her essay entitled "Women and Madness: the Critical Phallacy", "[f]rom her initial family upbringing throughout her subsequent development, the social role assigned to the woman is that of serving an image, authoritative and central, of man: a woman is first and foremost a daughter/ a mother/ a wife" (emphasis original) (118). Being a mother and a wife was as inevitable for a woman as being a daughter. Being an unmarried woman was no different from being a heretic: "[t]he unmarried woman was an important source of humour in music halls and in operettas", as Martha Vicinus asserts in the introduction of her compilation of essays on the socio-cultural situation of Victorian women entitled Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age (xii).
Such a model of femininity and such definitions of the nature of women were supported primarily by religious institutions and science. Religious institutions defined women as incapable of achieving spiritual development unless they were guided by a morally superior man, while science supported this definition by asserting that women were intellectually weak because of their smaller brains. Hence, women were locked out of any kind of intellectual activity. Paralyzed by the reduced identities that were imposed on them, they could never be active participants in the social realm, let alone develop a unified self. As Phyllis Chesler points in Women and Madness, under these circumstances, "[i]t is clear that for a woman to be healthy she must 'adjust' to and accept the behavioural norms for her sex even though these kinds of behaviour are generally regarded as less socially desirable [...] The ethic of mental health [was] masculine in [European] culture" (68-9). Madness was considered to be the result of women's weak nature. However, in Shoshana Felman's words, "'mental illness' is a request for help, a manifestation both of cultural impotence and of political castration" (emphasis original) (118). Women who could not adjust to the devalued female role, or who refused to submit to the female stereotype, were doomed to act out the unprivileged status deemed "madness". Considering such women as "mad" degraded women and reduced them to a less-than-human position, and thus it concealed the female grief behind the reexperiences caused by trauma, turning women into beast like creatures. In other words, such treatment was evidence of the systematic ignorance of patriarchy in the face of crucial facts.
Indeed, the suggested cure for the so-called weakness of women in the nineteenth century was even "worse than disease" as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar indicate in The Madwoman in the Attic (89). One of the most famous doctors of the age was Sir Weir Mitchell, who also took care of Gilman for a time and who is mentioned in "The Yellow Wall-Paper": "John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall. But I don't want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!" (171).
Just like the narrator's husband, John, who is portrayed as a physician of high standing in the story, Weir Mitchell suggested his patients' isolation from the rest of their family, bed rest, overfeeding, and massage, all of which are "scientific" ways of transforming women into impotent infants. He writes in Fat and Blood, Wear and Tear, and Doctor and Patient: "Most of these patients suffer from use of the eyes, and this makes it needful to prohibit reading and writing, and to have all correspondence carried on through the nurse. But many neurasthenic people also suffer from being read to, or in other words, from any prolonged effort at attention" (107). Apparently the violence towards women--physical or psychological--had a repetitious nature. It repeated itself throughout their lives, even in the process of "treatment". The traumatic event and its symptoms repeated themselves simultaneously. Thus women's lives were continuously interrupted by acts of literal or figurative violence that turned them into traumatized victims.
Some psychiatrists, however--especially male--may oppose the idea that women's common or daily experiences can cause trauma, because for an event to be traumatic, it should be uncommon and "outside the range of human experience"; and as women continuously experience such oppression, assault, and abuse, the reasoning goes, it cannot be called trauma. The event experienced by Laura S. Brown that is quoted below will make my point clearer:
I remember the words of a defence attorney cross-examining me in a case where I was the therapist of a young woman whose stepfather had sexually abused her for many years. My patient was suing her stepfather for damages, hoping in this way to have the funds to continue in therapy long enough to feel healed. This woman's trauma had been repetitive, continuous over a long period of time, as is true for many incest survivors. This was a woman suffering, in my opinion, from PTSD. She had all the symptoms; certainly incest was traumatic. But the attorney disagreed with me. How, asked this attorney, who represented the perpetrator, could my patient possibly have PTSD? After all, wasn't incest relatively common? I had myself testified only minutes earlier that as many as a third of all girls are sexually abused prior to the age of sixteen. Incest wasn't unusual, wasn't "outside the range of human experience." How could it be called a trauma? (100-101)
This incident shows that even scientific descriptions of trauma are not gender-neutral. Moreover, "[t]o deny that [...] women's experiences of trauma are in fact traumatic [...] sends a message that oppression, be it based on gender, class, race, or other variables, is to be tolerated" (Brown 105). Such an approach normalizes the traumatic experiences of women caused by oppression.
As Gilman also implies in her story, science misreads women. However, lately, feminist psychiatrists have challenged this situation. Diana Russell, for instance, has developed the concept of 'secret trauma'. She says that "[f]or girls and women, most traumas do occur in secret. They happen [...] behind the closed doors of marital relationships where men beat and sometimes rape their wives and lovers" (emphasis original) (in Brown 101). Nevertheless, the women never reveal it. Still, the commonality of women's being subjected to violating treatment--both physically and psychologically--does not make their experiences less violent or 'inside the range of human experience'. The commonality of their experiences does not make those experiences less violent than the ones suffered by the Jews in Nazi Germany. In fact, there is not much difference. In Kali Tal's words, "[a]ll [...] women are threatened with violence, regardless of their race or class, just as all Jews were in danger in Nazi Germany" (20).
Caruth claims that there should be a "deathlike break" to call an incident traumatic, and a woman's life is already a succession of deathlike breaks for she is robbed of a self and restricted in the predetermined borders of the female model, a robbery that is also a kind of murder--a spiritual one, the murder of the self (87). Turning women into selfless beings, unable to behave on behalf of themselves, is a matter of life and death, a kind of killing. So, it would not be wrong to say that the narrator in Gilman's story suffers from trauma, and it is a secret trauma. As I have noted above, in the story, the narrator does not mention any specific past event that might have caused a trauma. Yet, her conditions of living are traumatic enough and she has all the symptoms of trauma. Her husband's oppressive and controlling treatment is a hint of what she might have experienced. Everything that requires intellectual activity is forbidden to her, including reading and writing, consequently, she was not even allowed to work through her traumatic experience by narrativising it.
The story begins on an old colonial estate which is rented by a couple, the narrator and her husband. At the very beginning of the story, it is revealed that the narrator suffers from some psychic problems. Her first impression of this colonial estate is that it is "a haunted house" (The Yellow Wallpaper 166). She says it "would be asking too much of fate" to wish to "reach the height of romantic felicity" in such a haunted house (166). The narrator's husband, "John, is a physician, and perhaps--(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind--) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster" (emphasis original) (166). As a physician "of high standing" he misreads and mistreats his wife (166). The narrator knows that there is something wrong with her, but her husband does not even believe she is sick. She says: "John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him" (emphasis original) (169). He "assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression--a slight tendency--what is one to do?" (166) Everybody around the narrator believes her husband, as might be expected, "[s]o [she] take[s] phosphates and phosphates--whichever is it, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and [is] absolutely forbidden to 'work' until [she is] well again" (166). Ironically, her well-being depends on her being able to work and, thus, work through trauma. However, though she does not agree with them on being forbidden to work, she has to obey the instructions given to her. Wryly, it is said that "[her husband] is very careful and loving, and hardly lets [her] stir without special direction" (167). In fact, she is living like a slave, robbed of her identity and self-esteem, which proves that a woman's experiences can be as traumatizing as those of a slave.
Describing herself as "ghostly", the narrator implies that she is constrained and haunted by her depersonalizing past and present experiences (167). As Ramadanovic puts the matter in one of the sections of his book in which he covers Toni Morrison's masterpiece Beloved: "[t]he lack of a self is ghostly, because it is a self without ibseity, an I without a reflection, which is, we might add, a characteristic of both a slave and a ghost" (130). In this case, it is also a characteristic of a middle-class woman. The narrator is not even allowed to determine what is good and what is bad for her. She says: "[p]ersonally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good" (166). Nevertheless, she cannot get out of the pattern drawn for her. The description of the house in which they live also contributes to the symbolism of enslavement. When the narrator mentions to her husband the strangeness she feels about the house, he says "what [she] felt was a draught" (167). There must be a reason why Gilman prefers to write "draught" in italics. "Draught" here may be ambiguous, for it means both the flow and/or the circulation of air, in the sense that John uses it, and the act of pulling loads--which symbolizes that the narrator is traumatized under the heavy burden of the oppression of male-oriented society. The house is completely isolated, just like the narrator: "[t]here are hedges and walls and Gates that lock" (167). In this sense, the house serves as a representation of the narrator who is also surrounded by walls and hedges that do not let her out.
The narrator is not even allowed to choose the room she will stay in, let alone have a room of her own. She wants to stay in the "one downstairs that opened on the piazza and had all roses all over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings! but John would not hear of it" (167). Therefore, the room that is chosen for her becomes a place of imprisonment rather than a space of intimacy, a space of her own. The windows of the room which "are barred for little children" emphasize her being demoted to the level of a child (168). She is so oppressed by rules and instructions that she does not even want her husband to take care of her anymore. She points out: "John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious. I am glad my case is not serious!" (168). In this instance, the means of the so-called protection turn out to be the tools of imprisonment, and ironically it is implied throughout the story that the woman in the story must be protected from her protector.
Unable to understand that writing would be a cure for her, John "hates to have [his wife] write a word" (168). In order to release herself from the grip of imprisoning domestic space, the narrator tries to work through the trauma in liberating textual space. She knows that "John would think it absurd", but she believes that she "must say what [she] feel[s] and think[s] in some way--it is such a relief" (173). Nonetheless, she does not even have this chance to release herself from the grip of the traumatic experiences that haunt her. Her husband always "mildly" exhorts her to control herself, "so [she] take[s] pains to control [her]self" (167). She disclosed that "[h]e says ... that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency" (170); ergo, she is not allowed to work through the trauma in other, perhaps more creative ways. She is forbidden to write "a little [which] would relieve the press of ideas and rest [her]" (170). Consequently, her feelings are completely numbed, which is typical of a traumatized victim. She reveals: "I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time" (172) however, her husband goes on misunderstanding her feelings and thoughts, calling them "silly fancies" (173).
The most apparent sign of the narrator's traumatic symptoms is the illusory woman she sees in the wall-paper. She observes that "[b]ehind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer everyday. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern" (174). The woman creeping behind the pattern is the embodiment of the narrator, who is enslaved in that beautiful house, behind the iron bars and in the invisible but omnipresent cage of social rules and roles. Like the narrator, "[t]he faint figure behind seem[s] to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out" (174). She wants to put an end to this torturous captivity:
There is one marked peculiarity about this paper, a thing nobody seems to notice but myself, and that is that it changes as the light changes. When the sun shoots in through the east window--I always watch for that first long straight ray--it changes so quickly that I never can quite believe it. That is why I watch it always. By moonlight--the moon shines in all night when there is a moon--I wouldn't know it was the same paper. At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern, I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be. (176)
The woman in the wall-paper is quiet by daylight but she reappears at night. "By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still" (176). Just like the woman in the wall-paper, the narrator keeps quiet and the reason is that she is "a little afraid of John" (176). Yet, in fact, she is afraid of being disbelieved, which is typical of a traumatized subject. As he does not believe her, she deceives him. In this sense, the woman in the wall-paper is a reflection of the narrator and a repetition of her traumatic, isolating, and stifling experiences and the colour yellow is the key to the narrator's acting out of her trauma. She recalls her past and present experiences through the colour yellow. As she herself discloses "[i]t is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw--not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things" (177).
Moreover, Gilman also implies that it is not only the narrator of the story who is haunted by traumatic experiences. The narrator in the story, in this sense, is the embodiment of all women that have similar traumatic experiences. She reveals that "[s]ometimes I think there are great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over" (178). Through the end of the story the narrator realizes that "there are so many of those creeping women ... [and] I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did" (181). It is obvious that Gilman not only refers to the traumatic experiences of a specific woman, but also of all the other women who go through similar experiences and who are also surrounded by glass walls and hedges of the same kind. This may be the reason why the narrator's name is not mentioned throughout the story. She can be any woman. She does not have a name because she is the embodiment of all women regardless of age, race, or social class. At last, she tears most of the paper off the wall and in a sense frees herself, saying: "I've got out at last, ... in spite of you and Jane! And I've pulled off the most of the paper, so you can't put me back!" (182).
To conclude, Gilman's story reveals how women are traumatized by their experiences as a socially disadvantaged group. This story not only tells the story of a particular character who is subjected to traumatizing treatment, but also reveals the common traumatic experiences of all women, including Gilman herself. She thus presents the general by means of the particular. As Kali Tal puts it, "[l]iterature of trauma is written from the need to tell and retell the story of the traumatic experience, to make it 'real' both to the victim and to the community. Such writing [also] serves both as validation and cathartic vehicle for the traumatized author" (21). Dominick LaCapra exemplifies it with Virginia Woolf's writing in Writing History, Writing Trauma, writing "[t]ake Virginia Woolf, for example. There's a sense in which Virginia Woolf's writing--perhaps more in terms of personal crisis, but then also something broader felt as a cultural crisis, her own abuse as a child and her sensitivity to the problematic nature of existence in post-World War I Europe--are also posttraumatic writings" (2001, 180). What LaCapra points out about Virginia Woolf can also be said for Gilman. If the traumatizing experiences we witness in the story stand for the common experiences of all women, then it would not be an oversimplification to say that they are also Gilman's experiences, and that both the narrator and Gilman try to work through their traumatic experiences by narrativizing them.
Brown, Laura S. "Not Outside the Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma". Trauma: Exploration in Memory. ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1995. 100-112
Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1996.
Chesler, Phyllis. Women and Madness. New York: Avon Books, 1973.
Felman, Shoshana. "Women and Madness: the Critical Phallacy". The Feminist Reader. eds. Catherine Belsey, Jane Moore. London: Macmillan, 1997. 117-132
Gilbert, Sandra, Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven: Yale U P, 1979.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "The Yellow Wall-Paper". Herland, The Yellow WallPaper, and Selected Writings. ed. Denise D. Knight. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. 166-182
LaCapra, Dominick. History and Memory After Auschwitz. New York: Cornell U P, 1989.
LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 2001.
Leys, Ruth. Trauma: A Genealogy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000.
Mitchell, S. Weir. "from Fat and Blood, Wear and Tear, and Doctor and Patient". "The Yellow Wallpaper" Charlotte Perkins Gilman. eds. Thomas L. Erskine and Connie L. Richards. New Jersey: Rutgers U P, 1993. 105-114
Ramadanovic, Petar. Forgetting Futures: On Memory, Trauma, and Identity. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001.
Tal, Kali. Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1996.
Vicinus, Martha. "The Perfect Victorian Lady". Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age. ed. Martha Vicinus. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1973. vii-xv.
(1) The image is taken from www.heenan.net/woodman/
(2) The image is taken from www.heenan.net/woodman/
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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