April 10, 2007

The Irony of Wallpaper- Feldstein Presentation

Meanwhile, Gilman’s editors have repeatedly altered the spelling of wall-paper, the overdetermined signifier that refers to both the title and the image of protean change featured in the story” (Feldstein 402)

Upon my many readings of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” I can’t say I ever noticed the inconsistency in the spelling in the wall covering. And to read that there is such controversy about it? Me, being me, initially categorized this as some far-fetched interpretation and figured Charlotte Perkins Gilman just didn’t know how to spell wallpaper correctly. So she hyphenated a little here, didn’t there- does it matter? The skeptic in me must admit that yes, actually it does.

As Feldstein points out in his article Reader, Text, and Ambiguous Referentiality in “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, the wallpaper is a character unto itself. While the story seems to create a protagonist in the woman, the wallpaper is equally a character as well. Think about- it “changes” and “moves” and is the central part that eventually drives the woman to her unusual deeds (I hesitate to say “insanity” here, as you will see in a minute). Therefore, just as the woman changes in the story, the wallpaper does as well, both literally and figuratively. Figuratively- it becomes the obsessed over and central object of this woman’s focus. Literally- in the spelling. Perhaps Perkins did know how to spell wallpaper after all.

Text as question formulates an inconclusiveness that attends enigma generated in part by the hyphen between wall and paper- a sign of difference and reminder of text as Other which we look for closure, a means of satisfying unsatisfiable desires” (Feldstein 407).

Two different spellings mean two different ways of viewing the wallpaper within the text. There is the real verses the imagined or the non-hyphened verses the hyphened spelling. The switch does more to illustrate the differences between what is the real wallpaper in the story and what is the imagined or exaggerated “character” for the woman.

Spelling aside, Feldstein argues for an ironic reading of “The Yellow Wall-Paper”. Irony…mmm…my favorite topic. And why shouldn’t read a text ironically? Not everything must be taken at face value- and this story is apparently one of them.

From John’s perspective, the narrator is a hapless romantic, a ‘little girl’, a ‘blessed little goose,’ in other words, a regressed creature” (Feldstein 404).

But what if we are reading the text all wrong? Instead of our regressed, hapless, insane narrator, she is actually a woman trying (with a vain attempt) to gain some freedom and recognition in her locked up world? Feldstein questions that she is less insane and more a woman trying to be strong within the confines set up by her husband.

Now Jay, stop rolling your eyes. I’m not going to get all feminist on you. Well, alright maybe I am, but I don’t mean it that way. Basically, Feldstein is making the case that “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is just more than it appears- and we thought we’d criticized this thing to death. But let’s focus less about (our favorite topic) of whether she killed herself or what a horrible husband she had and turn to the actual narrator and what she represents within the text. Sure, she appears rather insane throughout most of the piece, but is that actually the cause for her problems? Or is something more underneath? As Erin stated in her blog: “Feldstein at first seemed to be playing “good critic” by using historical and formalist methods, but then…zing-pow! He busted out the wallpaper as a sign of not only her madness but a more Freudian/mirror meaning. When we discuss this in class, it’s almost a sore subject because everyone gets such passionate opinions about what the ‘real meaning’ of the story is”. We’re so consumed with something we’ll never understand (the “real meaning” of any text) that we may be missing the (mmm) ironic interpretation.

Rather than being a helpless victim of insanity, the narrator is instead embracing it. She is not the “victim” of her illness and should not be viewed as such. “Mindful of John’s desire to misread her symptoms, the narrator chooses to act out, visualizing her experience, high-lighting the common predicament she shares with other women victimized by patriarchy. She thus stages herself in the field of representation” (Feldstein 405). There isn’t else the narrator can do but accept her illness and work with it to make a statement about the treatment of illnesses at the time. She is not this poor little fragile lamb who has succumbed to the insanity but a calculating and crafty woman who is more than is initially presented to the narrator.

Stated by Denamarie on her blog: “The narrator believes that her projections of the victims in a restrictive wallpaper might be similar to her and they share a common psychogenesis with her: they all want to come out”. And while I’m all sorts of impressed she used a word like “psychogenesis”, I also like how she found the relationship between our two main characters here- the wallpaper and the narrator. Instead of being the remnants of a woman’s life lost to insanity, they are the reminders that inside there is a woman who is trying to break out- break out of the bonds of her locked room, her locked life, her trouble with the husband, the social standards for mental illness and women at the time, and herself as well.

Stated another way, ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ is more writerly than a readerly text, which Gilman designed to challenge readers to produce, not to merely consume” (Feldstein 407). In other words- Gilman made it difficult to understand on purpose to highlight not only the unjust attitudes of the time, but that not everything is as it appears. Jay puts it nicely with “The ambiguity of the ending, and the role of John, and the rest of the story (sarcasm intended) is actually intended, and the only way we can have a shot of interpreting the literature is by looking for signifiers to help provide a couple of possible solutions for the reader”. And while I’m going to ignore the “sarcasm intended” part, he’s exactly right in that Gilman made her story ambiguous for a reason- not to confuse the reader, but to make us think.

Feldstein, ''Reader, Text, and Ambiguous Referentiality in 'The Yellow Wallpaper''' -- Jerz EL312 (Literary Criticism)

Posted by VanessaKolberg at April 10, 2007 7:45 PM | TrackBack

You state at the end of you blog about how the ambiguity of the character plays into the whole of the story. I have to say that in my research for my paper I'm discovering that this purposeful ambiguity is what actually leads the reader to believe that the narrator is unreliable. It almost forces the reader to work too hard to try and figure out what is going on and in that sense turns the reader off from the whole idea of discovering an ending. I mention in my blog about the assumptions that this ambiguity insights in readers and in critics like Feldstein. My question for you is are assumptions necessary? I know they make for good discussions, but we really don't know what happens afterwards and assuming things is just going to get someone in trouble.

Posted by: Tiffany at April 12, 2007 3:04 PM

I am not completely sold that she is an empowering character of strength, as much as she is a damaged individual suffering a house of imprisonment from her husband. As for the ambiguous ending, I would like to believe that the ending is ambiguous for a reason, leaving the reader with loose ends, just as Miko would have presented. I'm glad that you acknowledged the idea of keeping the reader thinking, although there are some confusing pieces. I am not rebutting myself, I just keeping options open, and I think that Gilman might have been happy with that approach. I think that you brought up many valid points, and although I did not like Feldstein's interpretation of The Yellow Wallpaper," I am looking forward to hearing this presentation.

Posted by: Jason Pugh at April 12, 2007 5:13 PM
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