Your Favorite Book Sucks: 'The Yellow Wallpaper'
'Your Favorite Book Sucks' is an ongoing column, written by different people, that takes a classic or popular book and argues why it isn't really all that great. Confrontational, to be sure, but it's all in good fun, so please play nice.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman would be 158 years old this July. Which got me thinking about her classic tale, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
If you were an English major in college, I’d wager you’ve read this story no less than three times.
Professor types love this thing. It’s feminist literature. It’s transgressive, but in a way that’s safe to discuss in classrooms. Hell, it even fits in with medical stuff. You can find a digitized copy of the story on the National Library of Medicine website.
I was an English major in college. I read this no less than three times. But I’m not so much a professor type, and if you ask me, this story sucks.
If You Have Horses, Please Hold Them A Moment
Bad books can have good effects. Something can be a bad read and still do something positive in the world outside the text. I recognize that "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a force for good in the world.
For comparison, let’s look at the humble banana. I don’t like bananas. They’re mushy, they’re chalky. I actually almost slipped on a banana peel once in real life, like I’d stepped into a game of Mario Kart. And the peel is a lie. It looks like this great case for bananas, but the slightest pressure opens that baby up in the bottom of your backpack and all of a sudden you’ve ruined your pricey German textbook, which you were really hoping to return and get SOME cash back for.
To be fair, bananas can do good things for a person. Potassium and whatnot. You might as well choke one down here and there. But that doesn’t mean I think bananas are “good,” and given the option, I’ll pick something else.
I recognize that bananas are a force for good inside my body. But they suck as eating experiences.
Likewise, I recognize that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a force for good in the world. But it sucks as a reading experience.
The Premise Is Better Than The Story
“The Yellow Wallpaper” has a solid premise. A woman is being treated by her husband/caretaker, an extension of the medical system and patriarchy of the time, and he doesn’t listen to her or understand her at all. Rather than being treated in some reasonable way for her undetermined affliction, she’s put on bed rest and forbidden from doing anything intellectually stimulating (or, as we call it today, the “Psych Is On Netflix?” Cure). She’s locked up in a room, and this speeds up her fairly short drive over the brink of sanity. She becomes fixated on this ugly-ass yellow wallpaper that adorns the room, and she starts seeing visions, including a woman or women creeping around in the wallpaper.
It’s a premise that combines a locked room mystery with a Hunter S. Thompson drug trip and maybe a little bit of The Ring. It sounds like a win.
But once you get the premise, there’s not a whole lot to sink your teeth into. Instead of moving in a direction, the story rotates around its own general idea over and over and leaves you feeling like, “Alright, we get it. Are you going to do something with this idea or are you just going to repeat it over and over again?”
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” is like an SNL sketch where the premise makes you chuckle, but the sketch itself is mostly repetition of that premise, and it goes on and on about 7,000 years too long.
Some of what sucks about this story is the people who love it.
Sorry! But it’s true.
The people who love this story love its ambiguity, love its voice, and love, love, love to sit around and interpret the thing.
Here’s a short poem by Billy Collins that sums up the situation nicely:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is not a story to enjoy. It’s a story built for classroom discussion. Waxing intellectual about symbols and snippets of dialogue that surely mean more than meets the eye.
It's all exhausting, but the really annoying part about all this discussion is that Gilman has explicitly said what the story is about. In fact, she wrote a short article with the title “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.”
If you mosey on over to the story’s Wikipedia page, there’s an interpretation section, and the first of three options is “Gilman’s Interpretation.” Her interpretation? How are we calling the author telling us exactly what’s going on an “interpretation”?
What’s frustrating about all the alternative interpretations and the highbrow time and energy put towards them is that their existence is almost antithetical to the story’s purpose. Namely, that Gilman wanted to be heard by her doctor, who tried to remove all the intellectual stimulation from her life.
She wrote the story, told us what it meant, told us how desperate she was to be heard, and we all pat her on the head and say, “That’s nice, dear. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if it meant this...”
The character is pretty static. To say she descends into madness is like saying I’ve descended into ugliness: It’s a pretty short and undramatic fall. Less a plummet off a cliff, more a casual stepping down off the curb.
I’m not necessarily a believer that every story, especially every short story, has to demonstrate big changes in character. But if the story is about a descent into madness, if we think of the movement of the character as being a descent down a spiral staircase, this story starts on the second-to-last step and leaves us in the dark as far as the rest of the staircase goes. The version of the character that's depicted at the beginning and the end of the story is very similar, and as a reader this means I don't see the dramatic, awful change that has resulted from being denied the intellectual stimulation she needs.
The Wallpaper Itself Is A Wasted Object
The narrator describes the wallpaper only in flowery, non-specific terms:
One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide - plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
I don’t know what that looks like. If I told a roomful of people to draw that, I’d have a roomful of different drawings.
Not to keep hammering on the static character, but had the wallpaper descriptions started concrete and gotten more strange and emotional, that would have been a great way for us to see the change in the character’s state. And it would have helped the reader “see” what the character saw.
The way the character views the paper, and the way that view changes, could have given us insight into the character. Instead, the character hates the paper from the beginning, and she obsesses on it for a large portion of the story. Though the obsession grows, the way the character feels about the paper never changes. The relationship the character has with the paper is ultimately flat.
The wallpaper could have served as such an interesting object. It's a wasted opportunity.
Too Much Life of the Mind
This story could use a heavy dose of on-the-body description. We’re spending most of our time in a locked room. Is it hot? Cold? What does it feel like? What do her fingers feel like as she’s attacking the yellow wallpaper? We get one quick shot of on-the-body sensation, and it’s when she bites a piece of wooden furniture and says her teeth hurt. It’s not super strong, but it’s like, FINALLY, finally you give me something that causes a visceral reaction.
Madness is a great opportunity to observe bodily sensations from a distant, unusual perspective, but it’s wasted here. And the lack of physical sensation leaves the story feeling anchorless.
Bed rest with no intellectual stimulation is a pretty stupid idea, I’ll admit, and there’s no part of me that thinks we’re talking about good medical care here.
But reading this in 2018, I think the story makes the whole thing seem more intentionally harmful and unusual than it would have been in the 1800’s. Let’s provide a little context regarding medical treatments of the time:
If you came down with syphilis in the 1800’s, chances are you'd be treated with mercury, which would save you from dying of syphilis only because the mercury would kill you quicker. If you had any number of medical complaints, chances are you’d end up hooked on laudanum, heroin, or morphine. If you went to a dentist, if you could even find one, you’d probably discover that his equipment consisted of pliers and two stout gentlemen to hold you down.
Robert Liston performed a surgery in the 1800’s with a 300% mortality rate. How’s that possible? He was performing an amputation, no anesthetic, of course, when he accidentally sliced through an assistant's fingers. And by "assistant" I mean "dude who was holding the other dude down while his leg got hacked off." The patient had an infection and died, the assistant who was cut contracted the same infection and died, and someone who’d been observing thought he’d been cut as well, collapsed, had a heart attack, and died. 1 patient, 3 corpses.
What I’m getting at here is that the “rest cure” is applied badly to Gilman and her avatar in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but when looked at in context of medical treatments of the time, I have to say that bed rest is boring and demeaning, but the body count is relatively low.
The Story Tells The Reader How To Feel
People feel mostly one way about this story: Readers are meant to be sympathetic towards the narrator and feel that the cure is worse than the affliction.
Something I enjoyed about Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other is that it tells me about a lot of different situations, it tells me how the characters feel when it needs to, and it sets the scene really well, but the book never tells me how to feel about anything. I loved that.
If things are described for me and then I’m told how to feel about those things, then what’s left for me to do as a reader?
A really good story gives me choice, leaves me some agency in deciding what the story means and how I might feel about it.
A sucky story doesn't leave me those options.
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