Friday, October 29, 2010

The Yellow Wallpaper

Rarely do I inflict my favorite stories and poems on my students. I was not a big fan of that when I was a student and I do my best to give them literature they are actually interested in or that are wonderful illustrations of themes, symbols etc.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is an exception. It is and remains my favorite short story of all time. I read it in one of my college English classes and was hooked. It's not the easiest story to read, I had to read it five times to understand what happened and a few more to really get what the author was talking about. Because it's a difficult story I only have my honors students read it and I offer extra credit to any regular student who reads it on their own.

At first my students thought is was 'retarded and lame' but after they got about a page in, they really began to enjoy it. Interestingly they have not freaked out about it like last year's class where kids were getting dizzy and ill from the descriptions.

Another interesting thing about this story are all the things people have decided that Gilman was talking about, social injustice, equal rights for women, that sort of thing. And while I believe that in her subconscious mind she may have been addressing those things in reality she had a different purpose in mind.

Here is why she wrote it in the first place.

Many and many a reader has asked me that. When the story first came out, in the New England Magazine about 1891, a Boston physician made protest in The Transcript. Such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.
Another physician, in Kansas I think, wrote to say that it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen, and -- begging my pardon -- had I been there?
Now the story of the story is this:
For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia -- and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest-cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to "live as domestic a life as far as possible," to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again" as long as I lived. This was in 1887.
I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.
Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and went to work again -- work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite -- ultimately recovering some measure of power.
Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper," with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.
The little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate -- so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.
But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading "The Yellow Wallpaper."
It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.
SOURCE: The Forerunner, October 1913.

My students will read this article once they are done with the story and answer a few questions about it. I always find it interesting how readers and viewers react to art weather it be literature, poetry, paintings or music. We tend to put into it our own life experiences and that is what makes it fun.