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Apr/May 2012 Reviews & Interviews

Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper"

Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper"
Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz.
Oxford University Press. 2010. 210 pp.
ISBN 0199739806.

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! In the annals of feminist literature Charlotte Perkins Gilman is an icon which is a good and bad thing. It marginalizes her to a certain degree, in that careless way that some potential readers will dismiss her as if feminism is a negative rather than positive thing. It also likely loses her some male readers who would certainly be just as transformed by reading "The Yellow Wall-Paper" as women can be, especially if they have ever been in a position of powerlessness. Gilman was, more than anything, a truly original American author and her fearless desire for independence is the stuff of novels. She should be famous—she should be taught in every high school literature class—and she is certainly worthy of the type of academic study she receives in Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper" by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz.

Wild Unrest draws heavily on Gilman's journals and letters and the diaries kept by her first husband, William Stetson. Horowitz also delves into the published works of psychiatrist S. Weir Mitchell, the man who authored the popular "rest cure" that was designed to treat women of "hysteria" which is part and parcel of what Gilman's most famous short story is all about. Horowitz firmly resists the urge to place her own conclusions above the evidence and rather than pursuing her own personal expectations relies upon the ample record she has collected to tell Gilman's story. This sets up a narrative where the reader learns of her subjects repeated intention for personal improvement (one 1884 entry in her journal reads "Begin a course of diet, by means of which, and other changes I trust to regain my old force and vigor") as she faced depression and disappointment. Horowitz shows how "The Yellow Wall-Paper" and Gilman's many other works were most certainly born from years of struggle and part and parcel of a complex, alternately fulfilling and troubled life.

In many ways Wild Unrest is about all women who came of age in the late nineteenth century. Gilman longed to find satisfaction with a spouse through a conventional marriage of the day but found herself time and again disturbed and distraught by the reality of that life. She met with friends, subscribed to publications with discussions of equality and constantly sought answers to her endless questions. Sex was also a big part of what she read as her search for answers to a "woman's place" led her to consider the nature of physical relations that were not commonly discussed especially in her home. Horowitz provides ample proof that Gilman was physically attracted to her husband and indeed loved him but Walter Stetson wanted a traditional marriage and faced with losing him—and losing the promise of "happily ever after" she acquiesced to his proposal. They were married, they had a daughter, and then Charlotte fell completely apart. From Walter's journal, we learn a doctor friend explained the near invalid status of his wife was apparently due to feelings that "her whole usefulness and real life was crushed out by her marriage and the care of the baby". "Moral measures" were prescribed and while Dr. Knight sought gentle discussion, Walter feared that his wife's misery was due to her female reproductive system, a "uterine irritation". If only Charlotte could be cured of being a biological woman, then she would become a normal happy woman.

Wow.

Page by page, Horowitz follows Charlotte's condition, Walter's worries and the little family's attempt to attain the ideal of normalcy. She excerpts the author's work to show her burgeoning interest in what it meant to be a woman and how that definition was in a state of radical change. For a very long time Gilman clearly wanted to be what was expected of her even though fulfillment of that expectation very nearly drove her mad.

In 1887 Gilman finally entered Dr. Mitchell's care for the famous "rest cure" and spent a month far from home doing as little as possible as Mitchell prescribed. She could not write home as even that was too taxing. Rooted in her difficulties balancing the ideal of wife and motherhood with her own independent vision, the breakdown that precipitated Mitchell's care brought her to the most momentous period of her life. "The Yellow Wall-Paper" comes from Gilman's experiences in this period and yet as Horowitz shows, the record of her stay under Mitchell's care is extraordinarily thin. What is known is that she went to him likely in desperation and left initially feeling renewed and hopeful and with his support was determined to gain a level of physical fitness to best accommodate her womanly duties. Charlotte wrote years later however that Mitchell sent her home with instructions to rest, lead as untaxing a life as possible and "never touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as you live." Horowitz wonders if that was true or merely a recollection years later and long after "The Yellow Wall-Paper" had forever linked doctor and patient. Regardless of what was honest memory and "under a veil of distortion", Charlotte did not recover completely and by the summer after the cure she fell into a downward spiral that spelled the end of her marriage and the gentle beginning of a new life.

After taking readers through so many details of Charlotte's personal life, Horowitz devotes an entire chapter to the writing of "The Yellow Wall-Paper". With a divorce actively in process and Charlotte and her daughter living with the family of a dear friend, (who would later marry Walter presenting a situation where all involved managed to still act admirably for the sake of the child), the short story was clearly born from Charlotte's frustrations. She eventually found happiness with a man who embraced her nontraditional views and enjoyed a long and fruitful career as a public intellectual. But as anyone who has read "The Yellow Wall-Paper" knows, this particular short story is nothing short of brilliant and manages to tell in the starkest and simplest of terms how devastating societal ideals can be. Horowitz has done a truly admirable job of moving beyond the expectations of Charlotte's feminist iconhood and exploring who she really was, from the words of those who knew her best at her moments of greatest pain, her husband and herself. It's an elegant job of understated biography and goes a long way toward making a great American someone anyone, but especially women, can understand and embrace. Bravo.

 

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