A Gilded Cage of Yellow

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“Lie down an hour after each meal,” a famous Philadelphia neurologist advised writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was suffering from marital malaise and a deep-seated desire not to clean the house. “Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.”

Unfortunately, that curious counsel was no anomaly in 1885; doctors routinely dispensed an admonition against activity to women afflicted with “nervous prostration,” a condition thought to stem from overstimulation of the fragile female nervous system. Rest and relaxation in the bosom of the family constituted the state-of-the-art cure. But Gilman, whose nerves were already “wilted,” and whose mind resembled a “piece of boiled spinach,” thought the physician’s suggestion sounded more like a recipe for month-old stew.

“Life is a a verb!” she would later write. “Life consists of action.”

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So leaving her spouse to cope with the dirty dishes, the scandalous Gilman fled to California and proceeded to pen her own alternative prescription for well-being. Flexing those forbidden mental muscles, she discovered the “joy and growth” that had eluded her as a pampered Victorian pet. Flouting the taboo against hard work, she reclaimed the “measure of power” denied to those who devoted their lives to passive pedestal adornment.

And in her internationally acclaimed Women and Economics, which traced a plethora of social ills to suffocating marriages, Gilman recommended a thoroughly rigorous route to recovery for ladies languishing in their gilded cages.

Nowhere, however, did the self-healed heroine so eloquently state her case against the stifling status quo as in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” her 1892 story of a conventional housewife’s descent into insanity.

 

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But like the male medic who misdiagnosed the writer’s malady, not every reader was capable of comprehending the nature of an unhappy woman’s private hell. Indeed, vivid descriptions of “strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus” provoked one American anthologizer to relegate the piece to the horror genre.

“Such a story,” asserted another disgusted student of literature, “ought not to be written. It was enough to drive someone mad to read it.”

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But Gilman knew better — and so, a century later, do contemporary readers who heed the caveat of that chilling tale. According to the daring wordsmith herself, the only story that could truly drive a woman insane was her own biography, written in the passive voice.

 

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Gilman in the October, 1913 issue of The Forerunner, a magazine she founded, offers a personal account on why she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

She assures readers she never suffered from hallucinations or objections to the decorative murals of the wallpaper.

She also admits to sending a copy of the story to the physician who so nearly drove her mad. Predictably, he never acknowledged having received it.

 

Excerpts: Wild Women: Crusaders, Curmudgeons and Completely Corsetless Ladies in the Otherwise Virtuous Victorian Era by Autumn Stevens. Conari Press, 1992.

Photo Credits preceding page: Designer: Erika Trotzig. Photographer: Yuval Hen.

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~ by eaesthete on 08/26/09.

9 Responses to “A Gilded Cage of Yellow”

  1. More than merely a narrative of female intellectual oppression or a critique of late 19th century social mores, “The Yellow Wallpaper” documents a practice that was common among the middle and upper class. Known as the “rest cure,” women who displayed signs of depression or anxiety were committed to lie in bed for weeks at a time, and allowed no more than twenty minutes of intellectual exertion a day. Believing that intellectual activity would overwhelm the fragile female mind, “rest cure” refers to the prevention of women from thinking, relying on the assumption that the natural state of the female mind was one of emptiness. Seeing as how the women were confined to empty rooms with no exercise or stimulation of any kind, the obvious consequence was that the women became still more anxious, which reinforced the convictions of the doctors and husbands that their wives needed further rest.

    Review
    The Yellow Wall-paper and Other Stories
    Oxford Classics
    Oxford University Press
    June, 2009

  2. What an interesting post about a truly remarkable woman! Charlotte Perkins Gilman certainly embodies the idea of the “errant aesthete”. What courage to go against the grain and expose the lunacy of a common practice. Would you mind if I created a link to this post on my blog? I’m new at this but am attempting to create a blog for the mom who want to enrich her life with art and literature while sharing experiences with her baby. Was thinking of doing an activity with one of Gilman’s poems, “A Conservative.” Thanks!

    http://www.sharpmama.wordpress.com

    • What a lovely thing to say. Thank you. And, yes, of course, feel free to link to this post.
      I’m not familiar with “A Conservative,” but Gilman was such a feminist before her time
      that I think she would be thrilled to discover how her legacy lives on.

      I’m now interested in reading her autobiography which details her rebellious rejection of traditional womanly ways.

      Much luck to you in your endeavor and thanks for stopping by.

  3. […] If Emily Dickinson silently asserted her voice through her poetry, this next poet did just the opposite. Charlotte Perkins Gilman used writing to loudly express her opinions about the culture of the day.  In her autobiographical short story, “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Gilman exposed the lunacy of a common practice of solotary confinement for women who were suffering from what we now understand  to be a form of depression. For more specific details about this very important work, take a peek at the following post at “The Errant Aesthete:”  http://theerrantaesthete.com/2009/08/26/a-gilded-cage-of-yellow/  […]

  4. Another inspiring post EA! You’re blog sends me off scuttling to find out more about all the interesting people and Artists you introduce me to. Think I’ll get myself a copy of that book. Women who break the mold are a passion of mine. Also love the images from Erica Trotzig .

  5. a beautiful and fascinating post about someone unfamiliar to me. I thank you.I must delve in. By the way -it caught my eye/ the painting on the book is JSS’s of Isabella Stewart Gardner, another fascinating woman. la

  6. Thank you for introducing me to the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a woman after my own heart!

    Your blog is sublime and totally fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing!

  7. Very interesting article,thanks for using the images.all the best
    Erika Trotzig

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