The Bedroom in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Bedroom in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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The Yellow Wallpaper:  The Bedroom


 The bedroom is an overvalued fetish object that nevertheless threatens to reveal what it covers over. John's time is spent formulating the bedroom in a way that conceals his associations of anxiety and desire with the female body, but also re-introduces them. The bedroom's exterior, its surface, and its outer system of locks, mask a hidden interior that presumably contains a mystery--and a dangerous one. The bedroom in "The Yellow Wallpaper" generates this tension between the desire to know and the fear of knowing: on one hand, the enigma of the bedroom invites curiosity and beckons us towards discovery; on the other hand, its over- determined organization is seated within a firm resolution to build up the bedroom, so that what it hides remains unrealized. Mulvey writes, "Out of this series of turning away, of covering over, not the eyes but understanding, of looking fixidly at any object that holds the gaze, female sexuality is bound to remain a mystery" ("Pandora" 70).

     This mystery-bound-to-remain-a-mystery is exposed when the (voyeuristic) subject and the (fetishistic) object exchange places. At the story's close, the narrator is determined to "astonish" John. "I don't want to go out," she writes, "and I don't want to have anybody come in, till John comes. I want to astonish him" (Gilman 34). John comes home to find that she has "locked the door and thrown the key down into the front path" (Gilman 34).

'John dear!' said I in the gentlest voice, 'the key is down by the front steps, under a plantain leaf!'

That silenced him for a few moments.

Then he said--very quietly indeed, 'Open the door, my darling!'

'I can't,' said I. 'The key is down by the front door under a plantain leaf!'

And then I said it again, several times, very gently and slowly, and said it so often that he had to go and see, and he got it of course, and came in. He stopped short by the door.

'What's the matter?' he cried. 'For God's sake, what are you doing!'

I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder.

'I've got out at last,' said I, 'in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!'

Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time! (Gilman 36)

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What, finally, is the narrator's transgression, but madness? Instead of discovering his wife secretly writing, as we might have imagined, John finds the narrator in a mad state, reduplicating herself ad infinitum in the yellow papered walls, and "out at last," despite him. It is as if the narrator alters her position as object of the voyeuristic gaze and emerges as her own confinement. She is the physical manifestation of her imprisonment-- she has become the bedroom's effect. Creeping about stealthily, the narrator acts out her very interiority. She reveals, in turn, "all" that the bedroom hides, parading the bedroom's architectural charade as she circles its perimeter. Her insanity makes her a spectacle, but John is unable to see, unable to understand, and cannot, finally, accept the threat of exposure.

     John's disavowal is marked by his silence. When the narrator explains to John that the key is outside the house, it is enough to "silence" him. Here the story takes on a new dimension. The narrator invites John inside, but in a manner that seeks to efface the antimony between inside and outside, interior and exterior. Throwing down the key to John is, after all, an intrusive gesture. If John were to accept this invitation, he would come into the bedroom differently; he would enter from an outside that has evidence of the narrator's presence there. He would enter into a labor of polyvalent meanings that never get resolved. Instead, meaning is somehow delayed in this moment when no one speaks. The narrator pauses, and allows the bewildered John time to respond. It is, perhaps, a moment of mutual understanding: it will take the collective effort of both husband and wife to establish a narrative between them that does not defer to a patriarchal mastery of language. "The Yellow Wallpaper" is to remain the testimony of a monologic "exchange" in which neither husband nor wife are able to understand one another. Both fail to recognize the intentions and meanings of the other because they speak from within the same prescribed limitations, and because denial, finally, incarnates desire.

     John does enter the bedroom, but is unable to abandon the conventions that separate him from his wife. He finds in the attic a woman who has slipped from his certain reality and refigured herself somewhere between the real and the not real, between place and placelessness, where space is so elastic that John cannot comprehend it. The bedroom becomes, ironically, a space too intimate for John, for the reason that there is nothing--and nowhere--to hide.

Works Cited

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Bak, John S. "Escaping the Jaundiced Eye: Foucauldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper.'" Studies in Short Fiction. 31, (1994): 39-46.

Colomina, Beatriz. "The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism." Sexuality and Space. Ed. Beatriz Colomina. Princeton: Princeton Papers on Architecture, 1992. 73-128.

Cromley, Elizabeth. "A History of American Beds and Bedrooms." Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture. 4 (1992): 170-178.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.

------. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. New York: Feminist Press, 1973.

------. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1935.

Golden, Catherine, ed. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on "The Yellow Wallpaper." New York: Feminist Press, 1992.

------. "The Writing of 'The Yellow Wallpaper': A Double Palimpsest." Studies in American Fiction. 17 (1989): 193-201.

Haney-Peritz, Janice. "Monumental Feminism and Literature's Ancestral House: Another Look at 'The Yellow Wallpaper'" Women's Studies. 12 (1986): 113-128.

Kasmer, Lisa. "Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper': A Symptomatic Reading." Literature and Psychology. 36, (1990): 1-15.

Jordanova, Ludmilla. Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the 18th and 20th Centuries. London: Harrester Wheatsheaf, 1989.

Mulvey, Laura. "Pandora: Topographies of the Mask and Curiosity." Sexuality and Space. Ed. Beatriz Colomina. Princeton: Princeton Papers on Architecture, 1992. 53-71.

------. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen. 16 (1975): 6-18.

Wigley, Mark. "Untitled: The Housing of Pleasure." Sexuality and Space. Ed. Beatriz Colomina. Princeton Papers on Architecture, 1992. 327-389.

 
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