Feminist Criticism, "The Yellow Wallpaper," and the Politics of Color in America
SUSAN S. LANSER
"The difference between mad people and sane people," Brave Orchid explained to the children, "is that sane people have variety when they talk-story. Mad people have only one story that they talk over and over."
-- Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts, p. 184
In 1973, a new publishing house with the brave name of The Feminist Press reprinted in a slim volume Charlotte Perkins Gilman "The Yellow Wallpaper", first published in 1892 and out of print for half a century. It is the story of an unnamed woman confined by her doctor-husband to an attic nursery with barred windows and a bolted-down bed. Forbidden to write, the narrator-protagonist becomes obsessed with the room's wallpaper, which she finds first repellent and then riveting; on its chaotic surface she eventually deciphers an imprisoned woman whom she attempts to liberate by peeling the paper off the wall. This brilliant tale of a white, middle-class wife driven mad by a patriarchy controlling her "for her own good" has become an American feminist classic; in 1987, the Feminist Press edition numbered among the ten best-selling works of fiction published by a university press. 1
The canonization of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is an obvious sign of the degree to which contemporary feminism has transformed the study of literature. But Gilman's story is not simply one to which feminists have "applied" ourselves; it is one of the texts through which white, American academic feminist criticism has constituted its terms. 2 My purpose here is to take stock of this criticism through the legacy of "The Yellow Wallpaper" in order to honor the work each has fostered and to call into question the status of Gilman's story -- and the story of academic feminist criticism -- as sacred texts. 3 In this process I am working from the inside, challenging my own reading of "The Yellow Wallpaper," which had deepened but not changed direction since 1973.
Susan Lanser, "Feminist Criticism: 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' and the Politics of Color America", Feminist Studies 15:3( 1989):414-41. Reprinted by permission.