I have fallen to puns – this is not a good sign. However, what was a good sign is that we all agreed that ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and the ‘The Great God Pan’ were excellent.
To start the discussion of ‘The Yellow Paper’, here are the comments from Elliott who chose the text for our group. He gives insight into the text:
“When asked to pick a Gothic short story, it’s usually not an easy thing to do, but bearing in mind I’d picked up Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories the weekend before, I wanted an excuse to read some of it. And, what a blessing it was, because it was (and I think the other members agree with me) fantastic.
Our conversation started by discussing when ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ was published (1892) and when she’d written it (1890)- and for you Wilde nerds (such as myself) you’ll know why this date is so significant. We then moved on to discussing the concept of the colour yellow and why it was so important to people (even across the Ocean) in the last C19th.
What we came up with was that this period was the transition from the traditional Victorian text to Modernists such as Joyce and Woolf, and that authors of this period were trying to do something different (excuse the cliche). This was a period when corruptness and disorder (homosexuality was ‘invented’ as a term in the late C19th and women were making movements in their causes- GASP!) was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. That is why the Gothic (or the other) was utilised to explore the very real issues and the danger of closing off the mind and how the unconscious would rule over if this was to happen.
The queer in me questioned whether the woman in the wallpaper was actually a manifestation of repressed homosexuality.
What I like about this text are the vast possibilities/theories that surround it, and how (as always) we are never provided with a psychoanalytic or supernatural explanation. One thing is clear, however, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ followed the formula of repressed/mad/homosexual woman in the attic that can be traced to the ‘first’ Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto.”
Here are a few more responses to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ that our group had.
- The woman in the wallpaper is: a ghost; a double of the narrator’s psyche; the remnants of previous occupants – we questioned if this room was ever a nursery and was instead a cell for convalescing women; the product of insanity; and, as pointed out by Elliott, that the woman was a projection of the narrator’s latent lesbian desire – at one point she wishes that her husband would not sleep with her so she could be alone with the woman, and their marriage is figured as sexless.
- Why was the wallpaper yellow? Can it draw connections with Wilde’s yellow book in The Picture of Dorian Gray or the trend for binding salacious reading material in yellow?
- In regards to the scratches on the wallpaper and the bedstead, and the ‘smooch’ around the room, as the mental state of the narrator disintegrates, it seemed that we couldn’t be sure she hadn’t made them herself. As she was in control of the narrative arc it wasn’t clear whether the time frame has been manipulated. In all her conversations with ‘outsiders’, ie, her husband and carer, there was an inherent irony that suggested they thought she was more ill than the narrator was informing the reader or the husband was telling the narrator.
The role of the husband as doctor meant that he become a symbol of patriarchal power multiplied. The narrator’s acquiescence to his will despite her misgivings speaks of a person cowed under tyrannical power structures. It was mentioned that there had long been the cult of the invalid – this occurs in The Accursed and also in The Secret Garden. In both cases neither ‘invalid’ is truly ill, instead they are encouraged to view themselves as ill and are treated as such because it appeases both the carers and the cared-for. The limitations in accessing power forced some women to manipulate what little power they had in a rather passive-aggressive form: a warped version of Munchausen’s disease. Women were associated with disorders of the mind because they were inherently more open to suggestion, and as is oft quoted the term ‘hysteria’ finds its root in the Greek term for womb. It was believed that the womb moved about the body causing all sorts of problems for the fragile form and psyche of women. In the opening pages, the narrator imagines the colonial mansion in which they find themselves as a haunted house but knows that such flights of fancy would be discouraged by her rational husband.* These few lines echo the struggle between early Gothic and the reason of Enlightenment. Gothic was gendered as a female form of expression and was accused of infecting the female mind. We are reminded of Mr Tilney’s comments to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey: “Dear Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?” The construction of the sentence suggests the passivity of the female form: ideas are admitted, or penetrate them with the obvious sexual connotations, but also there is a sense that the female in question actively encourages this. It is the psychological equivalent of the “You were asking for it” argument.
We also discussed the manner in which femaleness is pathologised – as though it is an aberration or disease in and of itself. Whilst we might dismiss these attitudes as products of an earlier period these ideas still inform our time. Shows of emotion are gendered as female and women are accused of being hysterical if they do not repress their feelings. Gilman beautifully conflates the restricting emotional health with controlling artistic expression. In both cases women are denied a voice with which to express themselves, especially if it is a voice which is at odds with a male-dominated society. This story is a shadow version of A Room of One’s Own: whilst the narrator has the room of her own it is a prison in which she must write in secret away from the eyes of her husband/ jailer.
The narrative structure also reflects struggles between ideas about male and female voices. At the beginning it is incredibly ordered and suggests that the narrator is attempting to construct a standard story with a beginning, middle and end. She is caught in a logocentric form of writing which dictates a sense of unity and order to stories. In the same way, she keeps trying to impose order on the patterns on the wallpaper and is frustrated when she can’t. As the story continues the sentence structure and the ‘meaning’ of the text becomes more confused and circular. Whilst this could simply be a way of representing the narrator’s mental health deteriorating it also points to the fact that formal, unified styles of writing cannot express everyone’s voice pointing the way to the advent of modernism. That there needs to be male and female writing styles may be perceived to be essentialist in its regard to gender, however, if the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ are untethered from the sexed body then they become descriptors coincidental to the formation of socialised gender norms. Works like ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ deconstruct the need for one dominant style that is used to voice the universal ‘mankind’.
The depth and breadth of these show the power of the 6000 words short story: it is incredibly complex and does not buckle under intense scrutiny rather it becomes richer and more engaging.
Catie’s choice was ‘The Great God Pan’ and she offered the group the following reviews of the text by those other authors of horror, H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King:
‘Of living creators of cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch, few if any can hope to equal the versatile Arthur Machen; author of some dozen tales long and short, in which the elements of hidden horror and brooding fright attain an almost incomparable substance and realistic acuteness.’
H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927)
‘The Great God Pan…is one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language. Mine isn’t anywhere near that good, but I loved the chance to put neurotic behavior—obsessive/compulsive disorder—together with the idea of a monster-filled macroverse’.
Self-Interview by Stephen King, September 4th, 2008.
‘The Great God Pan’ drew on from the pathologising of the female psyche to the objectification and disgust at the physicality of femininity. It opens with a scene of brain surgery on a ‘willing’ female victim: a young woman with no family, money, or power to protect her. She is entirely at mercy of the doctor who is operating on her and has taken her in as his assistant/ surrogate daughter/ lover. Once again the male doctor is a symbol of power and this reflects the power of ‘Science’ as synonymous, though often in conflict, with the power of ‘Religion’. Indeed the doctor here is as much like a priest or shaman as he is a doctor. Every person in the group had a visceral reaction to the moment in which the doctor kissed Mary his willing victim. The entire scene forced us to take a voyeuristic position. Like White Fell’s kisses in The Werewolf this kiss was a Kiss of Judas marking the victim for death.
The religious allegory was heavily played in this scene: the young woman was called Mary, she was shown to be virginal, and passively acquiescent towards her ‘father’s’ plans for her future. She is also mysteriously impregnated and gives birth to the evil Helen: thus darkness arises from the female body. The pregnancy and birth of Helen points the way to science-fiction in which the trope of the mysterious pregnancy recurs. It also suggests the abject quality of the female form as a place of disgust. The gift/ blessing/ glory of pregnancy is re-imagined with the foetus as parasite and the female body as incubator or host.
The character of Helen we looked at through the idea of the femme fatale and Lombroso’s ideas on nymphomania. Once again the female form was synonymous with disease and hyper-sexuality. The consequent death of her lovers also spoke of the fear that women were able to suck the life out of men with their sexual rapaciousness. This paved the way for the influx of vampiric women in late 19th century literature. Helen’s power is also related to the ‘unspeakable’, a recurring trope in the Gothic. She shows her victim’s something too terrible to speak of and which permanently ruins them. The story is littered with times when the reader is tantalised with the promise of finding out something terrible before we are left with mere hints. The unspeakable seems to relate to Helen’s sexual licentiousness and overblown fecundity, represented in the flowers around her house in London. Without being too blunt, it suggests that Helen’s sexual organ is so distressing and disgusting that it drives men mad. Helen represents something foreign, the ‘Other’, coming from the wilderness and into the city. She is born and raised in the countryside, spending much of her time in the forest where she inflicts her evil onto innocent children. She can be read as an allegory of regressive civilisation and how easily Britain can revert to savagery, or how easily the savage can penetrate Britain. When in London she invokes ideas about Urbanisation and London as the ‘City of Horrors’, a maze through which people become anonymous and slip through unknown
The earlier sections of the short story are tightly plotted and open like a series of Russian dolls, each layer providing another mystery. ‘The Great God Pan’ combines sci-fi, Gothic, horror, mystery with the echo of a detective story. By the end of the work though, the narrative breaks down showing the protagonist’s increasing distress as they realise the monstrosity of what they are dealing with and also as an effective way of continuing the idea of the unspeakable which forms the dark nucleus of this text. When Helen finally dies, she dissipates into a black mass becoming at once male and female and evoking a period pre-birth, and pre-time when these boundaries of sex did not exist. It also draws on Darwinian ideas regarding degeneration and the fear that evolution could be reversed. It is frightening because it shows that the boundaries of society and order are fragile and not permanent. Like all good Gothic stories, this text manages to combine both the sense of liberation at destroying this boundaries but also the intense horror at their potential destruction.
Both these texts play with ideas regarding power structures and their naturalisation. Reading them in conjunction was enlightening because, whilst they may seem to have little in common, they complement one another in their exploration of the female body and mind.
* In regards to the colonial mansion, unfortunately we didn’t even have time to touch on post-colonial readings of the text in regards to slavery. However, they haunt the text as much as feminist critiques.