Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Gilman's Arabesque Wallpaper

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Gilman's Arabesque Wallpaper

Article excerpt

As Oscar Wilde lay dying in 1900, he commented: "My wallpaper is killing me. [...] One or the other of us will have to go."

Lady Gregory, Memoirs

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one of the few American women writers of the late nineteenth century to be included in discussions of cultural imperialism--because of her white supremacist attitudes at home and her utopian fiction set abroad. Her most notable fiction is Herland, which describes a lost colony of white women discovered in the secret heart of South America. By contrast, studies of the culture of American empire tend to observe male priority in obedience to a doctrine of separate spheres. As Amy Kaplan observes, the "binary opposition of the foreign and the domestic is itself imbued with the rhetoric of gender hierarchies that implicitly elevate the international to a male, public realm, and relegate the national to a female, private sphere" (Kaplan and Pease 16).

In a recent volume, Utopia and Cosmopolis: Globalization in the Era of American Literary Realism, Thomas Peyser discusses how Gilman's utopian novels and essays "fit the emerging discourse of globalization" (74). I want to extend this application to include Gilman's literary masterpiece, "The Yellow Wallpaper." This is not to imply that mine is the only reading of the tale along socio-political lines. There is an excellent article by Susan Lanser, written in 1989 and entitled "Feminist Criticism, 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' and the Politics of Color in America," that very successfully explores the situation of Asian-American and other racial minorities in fin-de-siecle America and relates this to the universalizing white reading that Gilman's tale has received at the hands of her feminist critics. In a sense, Lanser's article reads "Yellow"; mine reads "Wallpaper."

As an immediate earnest of imperialist anxiety, the tale is haunted by an "Oriental" fantasy (i.e., the yellow wallpaper), and this functions as an environment or surround for the dominant American subjectivity represented by the narrator of the tale. There is no question about the Oriental identity of the art: Gilman calls it "florid arabesque," and since she trained briefly at the Rhode Island School of Design, she would have known what the term implied. Domestic ornament in the nineteenth century contained sign systems that articulated a complex of attitudes about the imaginary East.

This essay, then, is devoted to the uncovering and recovery of contexts that are held in place by a central allusion to arabesque. Oriental art was aesthetically repulsive to some because it was indeterminate and saturated by a drug culture presumed to be rampant in the East. The most immediate context, however, is the work of Edgar Allan Poe and an Anglo-American tradition of haunted house fiction that provide the imperialist implications of Gilman's tale with a lineage.

Gilman's tale is dominated by the wallpaper in her narrator's bedroom which, this middle-class wife and mother insists, is aesthetically disgusting: "repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow. [...] I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin" (13); "by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind. [...] The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing. You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream" (25). The tale intones a litany of repulsive words and phrases for this design item: "bloated," "waddling," "fungus," "lolls," "bulbous," "wallowing": shapeless and floppy words (16,20). The wallpaper is not simply shapeless, however, but potentially terr ifying: "the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror" (25). …

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