"Reading About Reading: 'The Yellow Wallpaper' ", by Judith Fetterly
"The Yellow Wallpaper," New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993: 181-189

Reviewed by Robin Freed

Following on the heels of the feminist criticism that surrounded "The Yellow Wallpaper" during the mid-1970s through the 1980s, Judith Fetterley presents a critique of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story that centers around the way in which women struggle with their own textuality in a male dominated discourse. Fetterley interprets "The Yellow Wallpaper" as being a text that admonishes the male literary establishment and urges the preservation of female writing. By reading men's texts, Fetterley argues, "women are forced to become characters in those texts. And since the stories men tell assert as fact what women know to be fiction, not only do women lose the power that comes from authoring...they are forced to deny their own reality" (183). Fetterley contends that the text of "The Yellow Wallpaper" leaves the narrator with two options. The narrator can "accept her husband's definition of reality...she can agree to become a character in his text" (183), which is insanity to the narrator. Alternatively, the narrator can "refuse to read his [John's] text, refuse to become a character in it, and insist on writing her own, behavior for which John will define and treat her as mad" (183). Fetterley goes so far as to juxtapose Gilman with the narrator by stating that "Gilman herself was able to choose a third alternative, that of writing 'The Yellow Wallpaper'" (183). Since the narrator loses her subjectivity by becoming a character in John's discourse, she turns to the wallpaper in order to "write" herself back into a subjective status. Although Fetterley concedes that the narrator briefly succeeds in "writing" her own text by converting the wallpaper into her text, John's narrative ultimately triumphs. After John emerges from his faint, "[he] will tell his story, and there will be no alternate text to expose him" (188). Based on Fetterley's argument, we see that the narrator becomes trapped in a patriarchal text; her descent into madness incorporates her into John's text.
Fetterley's article is an insightful commentary on "The Yellow Wallpaper." Her analysis of the way in which John inhibits the narrator's capability to write which in turn causes the narrator to develop her own subjectivity in madness is an important feminist take on the relationship between writing and self. Yet, when Fetterley writes, "In struggling to organize the [wall]paper into a coherent text, the narrator establishes her artistic self and maintains her link with subjectivity and sanity" (187) I find that her argument begins to weaken because she ignores the fact that the line between reality and imagination becomes blurred in the life of the narrator. Perhaps when the narrator initially decides to locate her subjectivity in the wallpaper she claims a hold on her self, but as the story progresses she loses her grasp on reality. Ultimately she loses hold of her real subjective self, which becomes lost to the fiction of the wallpaper itself. If the development of a female subjectivity and textuality is so important to Fetterley, how can we hold up the narrator as a cultural heroine when her subjectivity is enveloped by madness, which in turn "writes" her into the narrative John had already prescribed to her?
Furthermore, for Fetterley to make sweeping statements like "Gilman argues that male control of textuality constitutes one of the primary causes of women's madness in a patriarchal culture" is to overlook the historical context of Gilman's text. Like the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" Gilman suffered from bouts of depression, but she also did not entirely see the plight of women as being suffered at the hands of men. In her essay "The "Nervous Breakdown" of Women" Gilman concedes that "The greatest general cause of nerve strain to-day with the more "civilized" peoples is this: We have reached, through our social progress, a stage of human development which is adapted to a far higher, smoother, more beautiful standard of living; while at the same time we are withheld by the slow movement, the reactionary attitude of our minds, from attaining that standard" (70). As a result "all this strain of rapidly improving life against slowly improving conditions, wears heavily upon the nerve force of the race" (70). While Fetterley's feminist analysis of "The Yellow Wallpaper" makes an important assertion about the importance of women's writing, her critique falls victim to assuming a contemporary interpretation that robs the text of its proper historical significance.