By: Madeleine Adams
I welcome fall with a return to the well-known gothic-horror classic and a favourite of my mother: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Stetson. More generally though, a return to horror as a genre, and with it, a reflection on femininity’s place in it and how horror written by women can provide readers a glimpse into the world through a female lens.
For those who’ve not read The Yellow Wallpaper, I’ll provide a quick bit of context. The unnamed narrator is a woman likely suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety, and who’s been prescribed months of isolation and rest by her physician husband, John. She writes in secret about her mental state, her irritations with her husband, and her thoughts on the room’s seemingly arbitrarily-patterned yellow wallpaper. Her housekeeper’s name is Mary. As the story progresses, we see her attitudes toward the wallpaper turn from hatred to love as her mental health deteriorates, and as she is eventually left in a state of insanity.
On with the fun (or horrible) part! Artistic expression by women was, at the time of Perkins Stetson’s writing, assumed a negative trait that made women more susceptible to mental illness and ‘hysteria.’ This attitude is mirrored by characters John and Mary (who, although a woman, is comfortable being passive to the patriarchy) and is understood by the narrator who makes readers aware that she needs to hide her writing. This attitude is evidence of patriarchal efforts to shut down women’s methods of escape–the power of writing is known and feared by the patriarchal man who consequently misconstrues its influence as harmful and attempts to turn the power of female writing and expression into a dangerous weapon against women.
Our narrator is driven insane as she makes silent efforts to escape through writing. It is through this insanity or ‘female hysteria’ that she finds solace. The immediate authority over her disappears and she experiences momentary release; she is free from the patriarchal gaze as her husband passes out in response to her ‘escape’ and submission into insanity (and how refreshing it is to not be made the victim of a dramatic collapse in a story!).
Her ‘escape’ can simultaneously be read in two ways: as ending in freedom from the patriarchal confines that held her unwillingly in her room, or, and more terrifyingly, that true freedom is impossible–that the patriarchy will retain its grip on women; true freedom does not come in the form of insanity or in remaining in the room. Maybe she is, as Mary is, passive–her methods of escaping are not strong enough to overpower the patriarchy writ large; she remains physically in the room and as unserious and sick in the eyes of men. The true horror expressed in The Yellow Wallpaper does not concern a woman being driven to insanity in isolation, but rather, that women cannot ever really escape through the many barriers of the patriarchy. After all, the narrator only escapes the bars in the wallpaper she sees herself and other women trapped in, only to be met with a second layer of bars on the windows.
Our narrator is being taken care of by the ultimate authority and enemy of female freedom: the controlling husband, the disregarding doctor, the “practical in the extreme,” and the man as the embodiment of patriarchy. It is his failure to understand his wife and patient’s perspective that frustrates her the most. His inability to understand and listen contributes to her deteriorating mental health and a general feeling of hopelessness that is adopted by readers who examine the situation externally. Such a lack of understanding is far too relatable to all women (even more so by those a part of additional minority groups) and admittedly drives us all, to some degree, into a state of dreaded female hysteria–my boyfriend well able to speak to my own slight hysteric tendencies coming in the form of highly expressive irritations with his own blind spots.
But at least we have literature–specifically horror—as a means of understanding each other and which provides a sense of comfort that we’re not alone. Horror, as it has been used by Charlotte Perkins Stetson, can be utilised by other women to express fear, feelings of containment, and often, their hopelessness stemming from living in a patriarchal society. Through reading literature like The Yellow Wallpaper we get to see things through our own eyes and thus form a relationship and sense of understanding between women. Our perspectives and fears are mirrored, confirmed, validated.
And if this is an accepted method of expressing real issues women struggle with, it can perhaps heal by creating a listening community in which all genders can understand one another. Art could provide part of a solution by invoking changed societal attitudes. Writing, horror, and expressing humour in our struggles could provide us with a healing escape–this is definitely the case for our narrator. A focus on the ugly imperfections of the subway walls, the intricate sticky patterns of spilled coffee on the Starbucks floor protect us from the uncomfortable stares and smirks we get. And maybe it won’t actually do anything, but at least these distractions make us feel safer, less alone as we are reminded of our narrator who looked to the decaying yellow wallpaper of her bedroom to do the same.
So let’s embrace it as a means of empowerment! The gothic and horror genres allow women a space to own and to dominate. And for now, an escape into these genres might be the only way of keeping us all sane, especially while we painfully endure that guy in our tutorial dead set on explaining to us that very complex reading that we’ve probably misunderstood.