The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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10-12 ‘He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.’ – John is established as an empiricist and atheist, rejecting religious belief, though not as stridently as he rejects paranormal experiences and anything irrational. All of this, no doubt, genuinely describes his mindset, but the phrase ‘intense horror of superstition’ sounds a little extreme, and the narrator’s reading of his character may be partly mistaken here. He projects to her an ‘intense horror’ of everything irrational as he fears that it is the root cause of her illness. He is doing all he can to suppress his wife’s imagination, because he sees it as the very source of her mental disorders – hence he laughs dismissively at any suggestion that the old house might be haunted. In a cultural sense, John stands with the philosophical nihilists and dialectical materialists whose empirical stand was historically a reaction to the Romantic movement.

13 ‘John is a physician’ – Not a ‘doctor’, a word which may, perhaps, have had more positive connotations for Gilman. The term ‘physician’ implies someone limited to the physical and is forever associated with the proverb given in the King James’ Bible as ‘Physician, heal thyself’ (Lk 4:23).

13 ‘PERHAPS’ – The capitalisation seems slightly infantile, and the word is repeated for emphasis. The implication is that the narrator has a child-like terror of contradicting her husband’s opinions.

14 ‘this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind’ – The therapeutic effects of autobiographical writing are well established. There is, however, a potential – and subtle – danger in the practice. As soon as a writer sets down the word ‘I’ and begins to describe or express him or herself, another, putative, ‘person’ is created. There are now two when before there was only one, and there will always be elements of self-deception, omission and sometimes downright untruth in such ‘autobiography’. The act of writing allows the narrator to organise and control her experiences, and achieve some sense of control over her life. There is a danger, however, that a created persona – the written ‘I’ – becomes strong enough to challenge the author as a ‘personality’ within the psyche – as though ‘dead paper’ has been fed so much of an author’s secret life that it becomes a living thing. The idea is particularly significant to this story, as the narrator’s fantasies feed the ‘yellow wallpaper’ – itself merely ‘dead paper’ – until another ‘woman’ is indeed ‘created’, trapped in its design.

16 ‘he does not believe I am sick!’ – Such diagnoses are some of the most difficult for patients to internalise. To tell a sufferer of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that his or her symptoms are ‘all in the mind’ can feel like a personal attack. Part of John’s diagnosis is his own wish to deny that there could be anything seriously wrong with his wife . He faints at the end of the story when he is finally faced with incontrovertible evidence of his wife’s insanity, suggesting, perhaps, that he has been marshalling all of his energies for months on end to exclude such a possibility from his mind.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman
the Unkindness of Ravens If you have found our critical notes helpful, why not try the first Tower Notes novel, a historical fantasy set in the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

Available HERE where you can read the opening chapters.

The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul