A three hour intensive study of two great short stories: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Runaway by Alice Munro
‘The Yellow Wallpaper‘ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman often disappears into the category of a feminist work. This subversive first person narration gives a glimpse to the dangers of an artistic temperament smothered by care- loving, oppressive care. I will provide readers with notes on the world of late 19th century women, particularly in regards to medical care and psychiatric treatment. This is a haunting and riveting read.
I think it will be thought-provoking to bring our study of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper ’into a more contemporary moment through the rich work of Alice Munro. Although Munro appears to be exploring similar terrain–the outward manipulation of a vulnerable female protagonist– Munro’s gift is to resist any simplification of her characters or the subterranean forces they reveal. This short story will provide an interesting counter-point to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.
‘Runaway’ by Alice Munro can be found: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/08/11/030811fi_fiction?currentPage=all
In my research on TYW, I have found many writers summarizing the story as showing how the rest cure resulted in madness for the patient. This is positioned as an extension of the societal oppression of women at the time that Gilman exposes using her passionate narrator. But this is too simple – and disregards the intrigue and complexity of the mind that changes over the course of the story. Pay close attention to the images and patterns of narration: how does Gilman bring the reader into the world of the narrator? How is this world made plausible – up to and through the end? To position this work as a feminist writing can be useful but also runs the risk of reducing the peculiarities of the piece. We may discuss the rubric of feminist writings and how that can be useful to our understanding of the historical context of the story while we attend to the range of questions raised in the piece. What is madness, for example, and can we definitively describe the narrator as mad?
Some Notes on Charlotte Perkins Gilman (outlined from the Norton Anthology of American Literature)
1860-1935: CPG lived her life on the margins of a society whose economic assumptions about women she vigorously repudiated. Through her resistance to the ‘masculinist ideals’ of the time came the body of work, both fiction and non-fiction, that she produced to question and offer a new societal vision.
Raised by her mother alone in Rhode Island after her father abandoned her family, Charlotte describes her upbringing as painful and lonely. Her mother tried to prevent her children from dependency on broken relationships by withholding all expressions of physical love. Charlotte struggled to support herself as a governess and designer of greeting cards before she married, and quickly came to understand the lack of economic opportunities available to women. She became involved in the suffrage movement, writing in defense of prostitutes among other subjects. When she married, she struggled to continue her growing career as a writer and lecturer while taking on the mantle of wife and mother. Her growing despondency led to her treatment at the hands of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell and the use of his rest cure (please read the one page description cited below). Gilman chose to separate from her husband when she became convinced her marriage threatened her sanity; her private choices reflected her championing of non-traditional roles for women. Her writings included Women and Economics wherein she argues that women’s economic dependency on men stunts not only the growth of women but that of the whole human species. In Herland, Gilman imagines a feminist utopia populated only by women (reproduced by parthenogenesis) in a society that is collectively administrated and ecologically sound.
Read more about Dr. S Weir Mitchell’s *Rest Cure
*Google book introduction from Dr. S. Weir Mitchell: http://www.archive.org/stream/doctorandpatien00mitcgoog#page/n13/mode/1up
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