Copyright Dr. Beth Snyder-Rheingold, 1999

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper": A Poetics of the Inside

     Except to indicate John's physical absence from the house, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" occupies an otherwise internal narrative space that interrogates its very interiority. Think of Gilman's story as a house--structurally, it is nearly all interior, rarely departing from the scene of the bedroom but nevertheless emphasizing the interior/exterior dichotomy. Because this division gets reproduced in the organization of the bedroom, we would do well to consider how the bedroom in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is created as interior, and by this I mean that the bedroom is not a space innocuously located within the house's interior, but that the bedroom is internalized--that is to say--actively inner, not merely "inside" the home, but consciously constructed as interior and localized as the absolute antinomy of all that is external to it, which is everything. In "The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism," Beatriz Colomina asks, "[C]an there be a detective story of the interior itself, of the hidden mechanisms by which space is constructed as interior?" (74). If so, what of the hidden mechanisms? Would they resemble, in theory, the "faceless gaze" in Foucault's discussion of panopticism? (Discipline and Punish 214). John S. Bak succinctly argues that the room in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is not unlike a Panoptican; in keeping with Foucault, Bak explains that a power relation is established in the bedroom when "the subject [is made] visible and the observer's presence unverifiable" (41). The narrator is incarcerated within a bedroom that stares at her; she is surrounded by a hideous wallpaper that has a "recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down" (Gilman 16). Gilman's narrator writes, moreover, "This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!" and "[T]hose absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere" (Gilman 16). The room may indeed resemble a Panoptican, as Bak argues, and the very idea that the bedroom is a contrived viewing apparatus with "hidden mechanisms" indicates a gaze that covertly seizes the body at any one point in time.

     Here I depart from Bak and panopticism to propose that this gaze is instrumental in creating the bedroom as interior--peering inward and "interiorizing" the bedroom despite its already interior status. It is as if the space of the bedroom turns in on itself, folding in on the body as the walls take hold of it, epitomizing the narrator's growing intimacy with control.

     Because the narrator experiences the bedroom in terms of John's draconian organization, she relies on her prior experiences of home in an attempt to allay the alienation and isolation the bedroom creates. Recalling her childhood bedroom, she writes, "I remember what a kindly wink the knobs of our big, old bureau used to have, and there was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend . . . I could always hop into that chair and feel safe" (Gilman 17). Ironically, Gilman's narrator cannot retire to the otherwise "personal haven" of the bedroom because she is always already there, enclosed within the attic room of John's desires, bereft of her own voice and personal history. The narrator's imagination is altogether problematic for John, who would prohibit his wife from further fancifulness: "[John] says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try" (Gilman 15-16). For Gaston Bachelard, who devotes himself to a phenomenological exploration of the home in The Poetics of Space, "imaginative power" is the nucleus of the home, if not the home itself. Memories of prior dwellings are for Bachelard a fundamental aspect of creating new homes based on a continuity with the past and past spaces. "[B]y approaching the house images with care not to break up the solidarity of memory and imagination," writes Bachelard, "we may hope to make others feel all the psychological elasticity of an image that moves us at an unimaginable depth" (6). Bachelard's "elasticity" infers that spatial depth and expansion are contingent upon a psychological flexibility of imagination. Gilman's narrator is notably denied this elasticity when her physician/husband attempts to prevent her from writing. "I did write for a while in spite of them," the narrator explains, "but it does exhaust me a good deal--having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition" (Gilman 10). Bachelard maintains that it is through literature, "through poems, perhaps even more than through recollections" that we "touch the ultimate poetic depth of the space of the house" (6). By forbidding her to write ("[H]e hates to have me write a word," writes the narrator, before putting away her journal) John endeavors to deny the narrator her voice, as well as her psychological experience of physical space(Gilman 13).

     John's condemnation of both the narrator's imaginative vagaries and her writing impels his wife to write in secret and to seek a kind of obscurity in the bedroom, because no one must "find" her writing (Gilman 17). Writing, then, becomes its own means for establishing interiority. But because so much of the story relies on looking and being looked at, both obscurity and secrecy are problematized for Gilman's narrator. Hidden, she cannot hide, and is always illuminated for her spectator-husband "when the sun shoots in through the east window" or when "the moon shines in all night when there is a moon" (Gilman 25-26).

     The gaze does not effect subjectivity for the narrator alone, however, for both the narrator and John are produced by the look and the narrator's "looked-at-ness." Locked into position as spectacle, the narrator's consciousness is transformed with the knowledge that she is seen and that the seer knows her to be seen. Lacan writes,

I can feel myself under the gaze of someone whose eyes I do not even see, not even discern. All that is necessary is for something to signify to me that there may be others there. The window if it gets a bit dark and if I have reasons for thinking that there is someone behind it, is straightway a gaze. From the moment this gaze exists, I am already something other, in that I feel myself becoming an object for the gaze of others. But in this position, which is a reciprocal one, others also know that I am an object who knows himself to be seen (215).

The reciprocal nature of the controlling look seemingly maintains the narrator in her paralyzed state, even when John's wife turns to note her husband's presence and visage. Gilman's narrator discerns that "John is so queer now, that I don't want to irritate him" (Gilman 31). As she begins to consider changing her environment by peeling off the wallpaper, she comments that "John is beginning to notice. I don't like the look in his eyes" (Gilman 32). Looking from the seat of her captivity, the narrator observes her husband for any changes in his demeanor that would, presumably, indicate his awareness of her clandestine journal entries.

     Gilman's narrator is very much an active and often surreptitious looker, and there are moments in the journal when the narrator seems to successfully subvert the dominant gaze. The narrator catches sight of John's surrogate gaze, his sister Jennie. "There comes John's sister," writes the narrator, "Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me" (Gilman 17). The narrator describes John's sister as an "enthusiastic" housekeeper who attends to the narrator's activities and whereabouts--so much so that the narrator writes, "I must not let her find me writing" (Gilman 17). There are times, however, when the narrator disrupts her near-constant status as spectacle and evades Jennie. Looked at, she is also looker. Gilman's narrator watches Jennie from her window and writes, curiously, when Jennie is outside the house. "I can write when [Jennie] is out," she says, "and see her a long way off from these windows" (Gilman 17-18). When Jennie is in plain view, the narrator proceeds to write. It is as if writing allows the narrator to look. The narrator watches Jennie as she writes, and the narrator writes because she can see Jennie, the one who looks.

     The narrator is always looking from within the context of her husband's gaze, however, and her gaze is seldom a privileged look of power or control--too often her look is subject to interruption. When the narrator locates Jennie outside the house, for example, and then returns to her journal to ponder "a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front," she soon stops to exclaim, "There's sister on the stairs!" (Gilman 18). When the sister arrives, the narrator must discontinue her writing and avert her gaze from the paper, as if ceasing to write necessarily means ceasing to look. The narrator once again closes her journal and presumably joins the sister elsewhere.

     The narrator does transform what she refers to as "dead paper" into a powerful narrative that engages the symbolic significance of the wallpaper (Gilman 10). The wallpaper circles the bedroom with curves that "plunge off at outrageous angles" and "destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions," eventually shaking with the movements of a woman crawling behind it, "all the time trying to climb through" (Gilman 30). The woman behind the wallpaper becomes more prominent as the narrator continues to write, and John's wife eventually realizes that it is she who is captive and confined within the patterns of the paper. She declares that she too will "have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night" (Gilman 35). John and Jennie are "secretly affected" by the wallpaper and grow more concerned and suspicious, perhaps even threatened, by the (wall)paper--the narrator even catches Jennie "looking at the paper!" (Gilman 32, 27). The journal's power is intimately connected to the paper on the wall, and reveals the narrator's oppression and John's deceitfulness throughout the examination of the wallpaper. The journal's caveat is, moreover, written twice: the narrator's captivity and subsequent demise is inscribed in the journal and in the wallpaper (I am reminded of the phrase "read the writing on the wall").

     It is essential for the narrator to believe that she is writing on dead paper, but she writes for an audience regardless of the paper's "lifelessness," and brings another consciousness into the bedroom (the introduction of an audience would seem to defy the deadness of the paper). But even before Gilman's narrator introduces a real or imagined audience, John's presence and access to the bedroom is enough to complicate matters and force us to question whether the narrator is indeed writing in secret. What is it, then, to write in a privatized space that is subject to a constant watch? Let us also ask what John's presence represents, for I would argue that John's surveillance compromises the integrity of the journal as female writing. Can the journal, for example, exist outside of a phallocentric order of language? Is the journal a male text? If this is indeed the case, John is not only a reader of his own script, but very much its audience--present both in and directly outside of the bedroom.

     "The Yellow Wallpaper" is, in some ways, a male text punctuated with female silences, a powerful discourse that allows itself to be interrupted with margins, so that its dominance can be reaffirmed in a silencing of the other. The journal entries are divided so that each are set apart from one another,

"There comes John, and I must put this away, --he hates to have me write a word."

We have been here two weeks, and I haven't felt like writing before, since that first day. (Gilman 13)

Each time the narrator closes her journal (at times against her will), she marks the page with the absence that keeps her present in the bedroom, and a silence that is her utmost interior self. An example from the story will help me to illustrate my point. When the narrator confides in John that the house retains a certain "ghostliness," John blames a draft and shuts the window (Gilman 11). The quixotic suggestion that the house contains otherworldliness--other worlds or perhaps just 'others'--incites John to shut the window, thereby shutting the narrator within the strange history of the "hereditary estate" (Gilman 9). This idea of getting "shut inside" is repeated within the narrative's very structure. The simple act of closing the journal somehow indicates that the narrator gets shut within a legacy that is not her own. However outside the body of the text, the spaces that separate the narrative are never outside the body of the journal and the walls of the bedroom. The narrator's silence is her interiority, marked by the story's internal architecture.

     But the absence on the page and the narrator's silence are not synonymous, and although the narrator's margins seem to suggest, as Catherine Golden notes, her "fragmented sense of self," they are not entirely passive (193). If we accept "The Yellow Wallpaper" as a kind of conflict between John and the narrator, we can follow what is, in one sense, the record of an argument. John continually dismisses the narrator, saying, "[Y]ou really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know" (Gilman 23). John trivializes her and reduces the narrator to "his darling and his comfort" who must take care of herself "for [John's] sake" (Gilman 22-23). It would seem as if the narrator never answers John on her own terms. But there are those moments when the narrator answers John by not speaking at all, when, in the same way she chooses to write--"I don't know why I should write this. . . . But I must say what I feel and think in some way"--she chooses to close her journal and fall silent (Gilman 25). In doing so, she does not fall outside of John's language. But the narrator's blank spaces in-between journal entries are a presence that discompose what precedes and follows them. In a sense, the story is re-written with the silences that separate each entry. The empty spaces between entries are distinct pauses that, in their silence, call for a reconsideration of language, and while they do not defy John, they gesture towards him--at once implicating John in his failure to quit the operations of language, but also inviting him to join her in the margins of her text. We do not know what the narrator does when she is not writing, but the journal does not give way to a passive silence when the writer is engaged elsewhere. Rather, the journal's margins break up the continuity of the narrative.

     From this perspective, John's sense of coherence--his male experience of unity and security--is splintered when the linear discourse of the narrative is interrupted by an argument. In this way, John is open to a kind of ambivalence in which he exercises the power to define, but in a sense also enjoys the prospects of evading and disrupting this power if he allows for the occasion to experience himself as fragmented, feminine. But this is a mock deferment of power; if John experiences himself as something other--and he does at the story's conclusion, and faints because of what he sees, recognizes--it is because he exercises the power to do so, he chooses it, he asserts a control that permeates every act, every pleasure. In the "allowing," John is only ever referencing himself. There is no real transgression when and if permission is involved, for permission refers to a system of convention that never transcends its subordinate position to authority.

     If John is his wife's "readership," albeit an imposed one, then the narrator can in no real way write covertly. At the same time, it is because John defines his wife as someone to be hidden that Gilman's narrator can write as if she writes in secret, which ultimately invites an audience to create the journal as the secret that it would be. This in itself presents an ironic and important shift, for the journal must become available to a public greater than John's single audience in order for it and its author to exist as secrets.

     If we compare the composition of "The Yellow Wallpaper" to a document written by a male householder in his personal study, such as the memoir of the paterfamilias Mark Wigley discusses in "Untitled: The Housing of Gender," we will see how Gilman's narrator also reformulates herself because she writes from within the bedroom. The paterfamilias, who consolidates his control by producing the family documents in the private "study," locks them there:

Having given his wife apparent authority over the house on which his public authority depends, the paterfamilias consolidates his control by secreting the family documents . . . in a locked chest in his study. The whole economy of the household is literally written down at the hidden center of the space it organizes. The image of the house is hidden within it, just as the image of the public space is hidden within the house. The woman maintains a system without access to its secrets. (348)

Although it was the householder who traditionally wrote the memoir to preserve his family's history, Gilman's narrator deviates from this at one time predominantly male convention by re-presenting her family in her journal. Wigley is quick to point out that women were historically kept from their husband's private studies, far from the "hidden center" that Gilman's narrator ironically occupies (348). John's methodology in no way compares to the paterfamilias' fifteenth century spatial rationale in this respect, for John does not offer his wife even a semblance of household authority, not even so much as the care of her child. Instead of relegating his wife to housework, like the paterfamilias, John locks the narrator in a perverse permutation of the "study," where John's scientific practice is a close study of his wife. For centuries women have carried out the domestic duties that sustained their husbands' houses, and never gained access to the secrets their husbands kept. But because the narrator is her husband's secret, she can manipulate the image of the house and "house images" from the hidden center of the bedroom.

     John refuses narrator and narration with an architectural charade that would persist so that each room extends from and covers over its hidden interior. The house conceals the bedroom from the household, and the bedroom, in turn, veils John's associations with the feminine--artifice, instability, foolishness, excess, childishness--but inaugurates them as well. John's repression of language and, inevitably, sexuality, is reiterated in the organization of the bedroom. While there are bars on the windows, and "rings and things in the walls" for children, the narrator is in no way accommodated so that she may write comfortably--on a writing desk, for example, an otherwise common component of the nineteenth century bedroom (Gilman 12). Both language and the body become private, privatized, so that the narrator rarely (if ever) has a voice of her own.

     Perhaps because secrecy implies a preoccupation with sexuality, John relegates the narrator to the helplessness and apparent sexlessness of a child, exhausting her of any identity not associated with the bedroom and John's desire for complete mastery and possession of his wife. Secreted away and silenced, the narrator is situated in the juvenile state of the bedroom where John "takes away her ability to communicate" (Kasmer 6). Speaking only in systematic terms of place, Gilman's narrator writes: "It is a big, airy room, nearly the whole floor, with windows that look all ways," and, "It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children" (Gilman 12).

     Nowhere is John's regulation and culpability more explicit than in the passage describing the bedroom as a one time nursery and later a room in a boys' school. The disciplinarian walls of the bedroom are their own narrative that bespeak control and the elision of sexuality. In a discussion of eighteenth century boarding schools, Foucault interrogates the arrangement of boys' bedrooms as a mode of language not unlike the systemic spatial discourse in "The Yellow Wallpaper." Situated in wide open spaces that regulated personal privacy and sexuality, the bedrooms were a part of a "regime of discourses" in which silence was a major factor:

On the whole, one can have the impression that sex was hardly spoken of at all in these institutions. But one only has to glance over the architectural layout, the rules of discipline, and their whole internal organization: the question of sex was a constant preoccupation. (History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, 27-28)

John refers to the narrator as his "little girl" and repeatedly coos such phrases as "blessed little goose" or "bless her little heart" when speaking to her, as if these alleged terms of endearment could return his wife to a pre-Oedipal, perhaps even pre-linguistic stage of early childhood development (Gilman 23). Lisa Kasmer suggests that it is in this way that "[John] mimics the original insertion of the child into a system of language" (5). In Lacanian terms, this system of language determines meaning according to the law of the father, in which case meaning is articulated within a hierarchical system of difference and opposition. Here the experience of the feminine is excluded. Kasmer argues that, by placing his wife in the bedroom and reading stories to her before bed, John constructs a perverse re-enactment of the narrator's entry into the symbolic order, where the narrator's identity is (and will be) fragmented and limited by discourse. John's logocentrism is affirmed, moreover, when Gilman's narrator explains that "John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures" (Gilman 9). I would like to turn the tables, however, and suggest that, while John is symbolically returning the narrator to a pre-linguistic site, he does not necessarily do so in order to re-enact her initiation into the language of male privilege.

     Let us instead ask whether John's reification of his wife in the bedroom-nursery is his attempt in part to escape mastery and definition. No doubt these terms seem contradictory. But what if, by "fixing" the narrator in the bedroom and objectifying every aspect of her femininity and sexuality, John forms a relationship with his feminine self? This is not to say that John has achieved, or aspires to achieve, an experience of the female other as she herself experiences difference between masculine and feminine. What I am interested in is the possibility of John becoming his own other the moment his masculine experience of unity is disrupted, and whether John can accept that he, in some way, resembles the narrator. Theoretically, John could look to his wife and see that, apart from the difference that traditionally separates female from male, John is somehow like her.

     John would make himself available to this experience of self-difference by (re)producing a pre-linguistic existence in the bedroom where "the rules of men" cease to exist. He would create the occasion for husband and wife to share in a mutual pleasure that makes no reference to convention. The bedroom would be a place where John surrenders himself to the feminine, rather than imprisoning it there. Pleasure would transcend difference. A conversation could then ensue that seeks to evade a "master" dialogue and function within the private space of subtlety shared between husband and wife. But it is Gilman's narrator who "gloomily" asks John, "'And you won't go away?'" (Gilman 24). The ambiguity of the question (does she or does she not want him to go away?) is reserved for John; it is his task to search his wife for her meaning (a meaning that is perhaps not so conclusive).

     We know, however, that he does not. Consider again how John confines the narrator within the structure of which he has, in one way or another, conceived. John's mastery of architecture is a metaphor for the mastery of his wife--his meaning is reflected in the bedroom, the region of his power where the narrator resides. John, notably, takes every precaution to prevent himself from forming any relationship with the feminine that does not assert his dominance and authority.

     But this familiar position needs to be reconsidered--it is not enough to merely identify John as the source of the male gaze and the figure of male desire. Another look at "The Yellow Wallpaper," and we see that we need to re-evaluate John in conjunction with the bedroom. The space of the bedroom is never purely repressive, and we must therefore ask what gets produced by and within the confines of the attic walls.

     A review of the house itself suggests that an architectural hierarchy of privacy increases level by level. At first, the house seems to foster romantic sensibilities; intrigued by its architectural connotations, the narrator embarks upon its description immediately--it is the house that she wants to "talk about" (Gilman 11). Together with its landscape, the house is a "most beautiful place" that stands "quite alone . . . well back from the road, quite three miles from the village" (Gilman 11). The estate's grounds, moreover, consist of "hedges and walls and gates that lock" (Gilman 11). As such, the house and its grounds are markedly depicted as mechanisms of confinement--ancestral places situated within a legacy of control and supervision.

     These are the exterior apparatuses that create and enforce the bedroom as a monitoring device, structuring interior space by exceeding its very boundaries, expanding beyond the egresses of the household in an effort to maintain the interior/exterior polarity. The result is a privacy within the privacy of the home. The bedroom becomes the locus of what Wigley calls a "secret privacy;" it is its own interior wrought with overtones of mystery and intrigue (345).

     Because the bedroom in "The Yellow Wallpaper" veils both sexuality and the female body, and is involved in the production of secrets, the bedroom and the body are linked: both are secret, and both contain secrets. Associated with connotations of private, intimate, enclosed space, the bedroom ultimately suggests other such spaces. The bedroom becomes a metaphor for the female body and makes the body manageable, controllable. Writing about the body and secrecy, Ludmilla Jordanova notes:

Veiling implies secrecy. Women's bodies, and, by extension, female attributes, cannot be treated as fully public, something dangerous might happen, secrets be let out, if they were open to view. Yet in presenting something as inaccessible and dangerous, an invitation to know and to possess is extended. The secrecy associated with female bodies is sexual and linked to the multiple associations between women and privacy. (92)

The bedroom can be substituted for the female body, and thereby represents "the enigma and threat generated by the concept of female sexuality in patriarchal culture" ("Pandora" 63). Concealing sexuality but also reifying the female body as and in the forbidden space of the bedroom, John invokes spatial and bodily associations of enclosure and mystery.

While the bedroom is a hermetic enclosure that never invites the social element into it, it reserves a strange voyeuristic entrance for John by way of an erotic system of locks. Recall the barred windows in the bedroom and the gate at the head of the stairs. The narrator writes,

At first [John] meant to repaper the room, but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies.

He said that after the wall-paper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on. (Gilman 14, emphasis mine)

It is as if the bedroom is a bulwark that works to maintain the observer and the observed in their subsequent positions, upholding the hierarchy of the house. "The spatial structure of the house," writes Wigley, "is maintained by both the system of locks, bars, bolts, and shutters that seal the openings and a controlling eye" (338). Such a system of control anticipates a subject who necessitates surveillance, and while access is restricted except to the privileged--the one who possesses the key--this same administration of control maintains the structure of the house and the roles of those within it. And yet, although locks presuppose a danger or threat, and although they operate to fortify the house in order to prevent potential "leaks" or "openings," locks at one and the same time create openings even as they are meant to guard against them.

     A lock is ambivalent. It divides space by sealing it off, forming an inside and outside, creating what Bachelard calls a "dialectics of division" (211). But the lock also provides access in the sense that it is manipulated in part by its own composition--the keyhole, for example. Its opening, or aperture if you will, is the peephole, a contrived viewing device that allows the viewer a surreptitious look and consequently the power to produce the private subject as one who knows herself to be seen and recognized as hidden. As one of the smaller and more indiscernible gaps in the home, the peephole is limited to a small range of vision and, as a result, only allows for the viewer to experience the object fragmentarily. Only select parts of the body can be seen and optically possessed at a single time, heightening the eroticism of the look and diminishing the integrity of the body's entirety, for now parts of the body can be fetishized in their isolation.

     This "new" privacy formulated within the bedroom is the occasion for illicit sexualities and, importantly, their regulation. The bedroom is involved in a certain economy, for just as the house can domesticate and subdue the woman, the bedroom in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is instrumental in eliminating the "excess" associated with the feminine. Excess even within the bedroom is an impropriety. Sensual pleasure is consequently transferred to the intellectual pleasure of enforcing a regime of control over the body and the bedroom. By reducing the narrator to the object of a voyeuristic gaze, John removes himself from any immediate sexual pleasure that may be derived from within the near-anarchic space of the bedroom. This "loss" of sexual experience is recuperated as John demonstrates his authority, which not only distances him from pleasure, but separates him from his wife. "It is so hard to talk with John about my case," writes the narrator, "because he is so wise, and he loves me so" (Gilman 23).

     The motifs of space and secrecy in "The Yellow Wallpaper," in concert with the narrator's domestication and sequestration, repeatedly suggest that the narrator is a posed threat to her husband, a dangerous woman whose secrecy and caprice may tax the walls of the home. Because the house itself implies a hidden interior but also warns against it, it would seem that the narrator is this forbidden interior evoking both terror and mystery.

     The narrator's nervous condition and mental health serve as a constant reminder of the impulsive nature of women--an emblem of danger, but also one of intrigue. When the narrator indicates that she has improved not in mind but in body only, for example, John insists that she is well indeed, and then adds, "There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy" (Gilman 24). Such, then, is woman for John-- foolish, false, and deceptive--the alluring trick of femininity that necessitates walls and boundaries, gates and bars, and a controlling gaze.

     John's fascination with observing his wife can be attributed to a physician's distorted interest in the body. We can certainly speculate that, as physicians at the turn of the century were beginning to explore the female body assisted by "developments" in gynecology, John may have been equally interested in these new techniques of viewing the female body. More so than ever, the patient and her body became subject to the physician's privilege to intimately observe and diagnose her.

     Ostensibly, the narrator's illness is not physiological, but mental. John concludes that his wife is well except for a "temporary nervous depression--a slight hysterical tendency," a diagnosis that is confirmed by the narrator's own physician-brother (Gilman 10). John's profession, and moreover his diagnosis, is a license to closely observe, scrutinize, watch, gaze upon, seek out, and investigate his wife and her ailments, which consequently permits him to deploy seemingly inexhaustible (medical, scientific) means for (re)formulating and (re)presenting the hysteric female--not only for the purpose of giving her discursive representation, but in order to "de-mystify" her mystery and reassure himself that she is, finally, calculable, harmless, and non-threatening. To speak of John in psychoanalytic terms, his preoccupation with his wife, her body, and her confinement, reveals unspoken anxieties: the fear of castration and the "lack" the female body represents.

     There are, as Mulvey explains, two ways a man can potentially escape castration anxiety. One is a voyeuristic route in which the man is concerned with re-enacting the "original trauma." Here the man is concerned with ascertaining guilt and asserts his authority as the punisher or rescuer of the guilty female. The second route denies castration with the substitution of a fetish object so that, in Mulvey's words, it "becomes reassuring rather than dangerous" ("Visual Pleasure" 14). John's compensation for his fear of castration is best accounted for as this first voyeuristic tendency, but there is a complex conflation of both mechanisms.

     The bedroom is organized to allow for John's voyeurism and preoccupation with implicating the narrator in some transgression. "The Yellow Wallpaper" satisfies this somewhat sadistic desire for narrative--that is, the desire to witness some kind of transformation within the temporal framework of a story. Voyeurism, it seems, relies on the moment in which the subject is "caught" in the midst of some act. Caught--and I pun here intentionally--within her husband's diagnosis, the narrator must refrain from writing and remain within the bedroom, a prescription which is, ultimately, the cause of her decline. And this, apparently, is the "story" tailored to meet the expectations of the-one-who-looks, which is to say that "The Yellow Wallpaper" precedes itself. That is, the product of the gaze, "The Yellow Wallpaper" produces itself as that which the gaze demands. The story has already been written.

     Let us consider this further. Unable to escape John's codes of propriety, the narrator turns to her journal, which is perhaps a natural gesture--can we conceive of another alternative? "The Yellow Wallpaper" is, in this case, an imposed confession, and we therefore anticipate some discovery associated with guilt (in keeping with a voyeuristic sensibility, we prepare ourselves for the character who is unraveled or who unravels because of her guilt). We expect John to find his wife in the midst of writing and "punish" her, just as he threatens to punish her for not improving rapidly by sending her to Weir Mitchell; we imagine that John will realize that his wife deceives him when, for example, she lies awake at night instead of sleeping. "I don't sleep," she writes, ". . . . And that cultivates deceit, for I don't tell them I'm awake--O no!" (Gilman 26). In this way the narrator appears to constitute herself as a secret, with the bedroom as her mask. But it is John who forces the narrator to write covertly--without this secret, John would lack the necessary incitement to discourse. John therefore not only makes discovery eminent, but ensures what material will be penned into the journal by giving the narrator no alternative but to write, however secret her writing may (or may not) be.

     The conditions of the bedroom, in turn, depend upon being written, so that the very private act of writing inscribes privacy and guilt in the spatial structure of the bedroom. While it first appears that John intends to manage the threat of female sexuality by localizing it in a hermetic, quarantined space, his effort to elide sexuality is destined to fail by virtue of his excessive measures. John's extraordinary effort to refigure the bedroom as a private space suggests that he instead aspires to ensure that the "unspeakable" will flourish and persevere within a propagation of discourse, and that the guilty will be punished and/or saved in this process, satisfying his drive to implicate the narrator.

     In this way, supervision gets intricately connected to writing and the tedious process of keeping--and hiding--the journal. Because multiple, perhaps even perverse, sexualities can potentially form in the bedroom behind closed doors, privacy requires an even more private means of monitoring the activities that occur within its realm. Writing becomes a way of looking, a way of knowing, and a way of establishing guilt. If the journal depends upon its own discovery, then the narrator has conveniently documented her secret self for reasons far beyond the therapeutic act of writing. Even though writing is forbidden, and specifically because it is forbidden, the journal is a part of John's intent not to efface language and sexuality, but to produce a proliferation of both, culminating as John's erotic interest and causing a kind of imbrication of sexuality and power.

     The bedroom, in the midst of this equation, becomes the 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)

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 antinomy between inside and outside, interior and exterior. Throwing down the key to John is, afterall, 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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