“The Yellow Wallpaper”

Charlotte Perkins GilmanCharlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is preoccupied above all with the secret and mysterious life of things. It’s concerned with the human and the non-human, and the surprisingly porous line between them. The narrator takes for granted that things have what she terms “expression.” Her only surprise is that, in the circumstances in which she finds herself, they turn out to be more alive than ever: “I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have!” (3). Yet immediately after declaring that the liveliness of things is an open secret, that “we all know” that they have expression, she backtracks somewhat by suggesting that perhaps she is more attentive to their mysterious vitality than most: “I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store” (3). In part, then, the plot turns on this uncertainty: is the narrator a special case, abnormal, perhaps insane? Or is she simply telling us something we all know, to some extent or another: that things are more like us and we are more like things than we care to admit. Then there is a third possibility: that the “we” she invokes is general but not universal. It may be that there are some, particularly women, who can sympathize with things and know what it is to be treated as a thing. And that there are others, above all men, whose sense of subjectivity depends on marking (exaggerating?) their difference from things, and on asserting their superiority over the objects around them.

From the outset of the story, the narrator has a sense that things are not quite right. The house that she and her husband are to rent for the summer is, she intuits, perhaps “haunted”–though she doesn’t want to say this outright, for fear she may be accused of “romantic felicity” (1). Is this her (supposed) problem, that she is too much of a romantic, too easily affected by her surroundings? Still, she “proudly” insists, as though to defy any such insinuations, that there is “something queer” about the place. But by contrast, her husband John won’t admit to any such intimation: he is “practical in the extreme [. . .] and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (1). But is his problem perhaps that he in fact takes too little interest in what can be “felt and seen.” For we soon observe that the narrator focuses intently on the sensible, on her senses and sensation. For all her misgivings, she eagerly describes the house, for instance, and describes its garden as “delicious,” as though she could physically taste it. Her conviction that there is “something strange” is confirmed by her senses: “I can feel it.” Her husbands responds that what she “felt was a draught, and shut the window” (1). So begins the confinement.

Encouraged to rest, forbidden from working or writing, stuck in a room with barred windows at the top of the house, the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper that lines the limits of her seclusion. It provokes, from the start, intense feelings: “I never saw a worse paper in my life. [. . .] The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow” (2). But equally, from the start, it is described as though it had a strange (if self-destructive) will of its own: its “lame uncertain curves [. . .] suddenly commit suicide–plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (2). Over time, the narrator elaborates on the contradictions that she perceives in the paper, perceiving faintly “a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then” (3). Eventually, she comes to conclude that “it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about the pattern. I don’t like it a bit” (5). And ultimately, the tensions in her own situation, that of a frustrated woman writer, hemmed in at all sides by a husband who dismisses her sensations as hysteria, come to parallel and merge with the strains that she perceives in the patterns around her. She tears at the paper, grasping at the presence she perceives within it: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled” (8).

None of this is really about identification. The narrator has written herself into her surroundings, which in turn have opened up to her. It’s best to think of this as a production–better still, a co-production–of an expansive subjectivity immanent to the things of this world. Against the authoritative (and authoritarian) airs of her doctor husband, the narrator makes the whole world tremble and vibrate. And in the end, her particularity, her singularity, affects him, too, when he falls down in a faint upon entering the room that she has made her own by abolishing the distance between subject and object, human and inhuman. She has become part of it, and it finally becomes her.


Civilization and Its Discontents

Freud, Civilization and Its DiscontentsLike Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morals, Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents
is interested in the puzzling fact that ultimately we are our own worst enemies. However hostile life may be–and in Freud’s vision of things, life is pretty hostile; “one feels inclined to say,” he tells us, “that the intention that many should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation’” (43)–the sources of our unhappiness are as much internal as external. But the real puzzle for Freud is the fact that it seems to be precisely the efforts we make to protect ourselves from external suffering that cause us most inner torture. In Freud’s words, this is the “astonishing” contention that

what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery [. . .]. I call this contention astonishing because, in whatever way we may define the concept of civilization, it is a certain fact that all the things with which we seek to protect ourselves against the threats that emanate from the sources of suffering are part of that very civilization. (58)

But Freud wants to propose a similarly astonishing contention for individuals as well as for larger groups: our attempts to defend ourselves from pain rebound on us and cause us still more and still deeper unhappiness.

There are plenty of reasons, Freud suggests, why civilized man might be unhappy. Not least, for instance, is the fact that we are forced to restrain our libidinous desires, which are policed and restricted to socially-approved love-objects (a unique partner in a monogamous heterosexual relationship), sublimated into “higher” pursuits (art, education, politics), or simply repressed. Moreover, we are also forced to restrain our instinct for aggression, which likewise has to find approved outlets (expressed as hatred of the stranger, the scapegoat, or sublimated in the pursuit of war, sport, politics again) if it is not be stifled altogether. But Freud’s “economic” theory of the drives–derived, it has to be said, from a rather primitive, mercantilist version of Economics–states that instinctual energy never fully disappears. The repressed returns, and in its new incarnation is all the more threatening and destabilizing in that its original occasion is now long forgotten.

As with Nietzsche, moreover, for Freud the deepest unhappiness of civilized man revolves around his feeling of guilt: a guilt which is quite strictly undeserved because it is prompted by what may happen, rather than by what has. Indeed, Freud distinguishes between guilt and remorse, where remorse is regret for any actual injury that has been incurred by the other; guilt by contrast is anticipatory or speculative, in that it encompasses any injury that may be or may possibly have been incurred. Guilt is not so much a response to what happens out in the world than it is the consequence of our having internalized and turned against ourselves our own aggressive instincts. Guilt is prescribed us by our super-ego, an introjected combination of parental disapproval and repressed aggressiveness. And yet it is the super-ego that, in communities as much as in individuals, is given the task of keeping our desires in order, of ensuring coherence and cohesiveness. It is the super-ego, with its imposition of a pre-emptive sense of guilt, that keeps both civilization and individuals together, restraining the dissipative tendencies of our instinctual drives.

Nietzsche once wrote: “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Freud’s motto might almost be: “What makes me stronger, also kills me.” Or as he puts it, “What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defence against it can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself!” (146). And note that almost exactly the same could be said about libidinous desire, which is just as much a threat to civilization, but without which civilization would be unimaginable. Yet if Freud is never as hopeful as Nietzsche–who is always seeking to affirm the will and the affects, even ultimately the will found in the will to nothingness itself–nor is he ever quite as apocalyptic, despite the sombre tone added in the final line of the book’s revised version. “Who can foresee,” Freud here asks, whether Eros or Thanatos will finally win in their eternal struggle against each other, “and with what result?” (149). Earlier, by contrast, he had stressed that that the two drives, desire and aggression, almost always come together, “alloyed with each other in varying and very different proportions” with the result that they “become unrecognizable to our judgement” (106-7). In the end, for Freud the difference between love and aggression is undecidable; we simply have to live with both. Ambivalence is all.