Marking her territory: feline behavior in "The Yellow Wall-Paper"

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Date: Fall 2007
From: American Literary Realism(Vol. 40, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of Illinois Press as Publisher on behalf of the University of New Mexico English Department
Document Type: Essay
Length: 7,466 words

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In the 1980s, critics aligned Charlotte Perkins Gilman's heroine of "The Yellow Wall-Paper" (1892) with Charlotte Bronte's wild-haired, brutish Bertha Mason, crawling on all fours in the locked attic of Thornfield Hall. Mary Jacobus argues, "The woman on all fours is like Bertha Mason, an embodiment of the animality of woman unredeemed by (masculine) reason.... [B]y the end she is all body, an incarnation not only of hysteria but of male fears about women." Perceiving the narrator as a four-legged beast, Jacobus goes on to posit that the "smooch" the narrator leaves while crawling along the wall of her nursery prison is a mark of repression imposed not only on female sexuality but on women's writing; the yellow smell signifies menstruation and female genitalia. (1) Akin to Jacobus, Judith Fetterley makes the same transatlantic connection between Gilman's narrator and Bronte's madwoman and highlights the animality of the "raging" narrator--"gouging the floor, ripping the paper, gnawing the bedstead," actions we more commonly use to describe wild animal behavior than human activity. (2)

Is Gilman's narrator becoming wild, mad, and bestial like Bertha Mason? Might the narrator more acutely be acting "like a mad cat"--the label Bronte's Bessie actually gives Jane Eyre as she flies into a passion, leading to her being locked in the "red-room" in Gateshead at the start of Jane Eyre (1847)? (3) From the perspective of animals, history, and nineteenth-century culture, Gilman's narrator is not regressing into a wild animal or even a generic embodiment of animality. The narrator is moving into the mindset of a domesticated feline, acting cat-like, not merely animal-like. She is marking her territory and scenting it, gaining dominance over patriarchy by taking control of her environment. Gilman's use of feline imagery to portray the narrator makes a valuable framework for understanding the feminist politics of her story. Re-reading "The Yellow Wall-Paper" in context of Gilman's ideas about the cat intensifies the narrator's rejection of John and patriarchy, even as she embraces the physical space of her confinement.

In Civilized Creatures: Urban Animals, Sentimental Culture, and American Literature, 1850-1900, Jennifer Mason argues that encounters with animals shaped American literature and culture in the second half of the nineteenth century, a period of marked industrialization and urbanization during which Gilman composed her landmark tale. (4) Mason advances: "between 1850 and 1900 the most powerful influence on Americans' understanding of their affinities with animals was not increasing separation from the pastoral and the wilderness, but rather the population's feelings about the ostensibly civilized animals present in the built environment." (5) Copious advice books, periodicals, and children's books advocated pet keeping and kindness to animals, leading to "an institutionalization of the practice in the late nineteenth century," according to Katherine C. Grier. (6) Moreover, "in nineteenth-century America, middle-class domesticity was linked both in theory and practice to the keeping of household pets," as Mason contends. (7)

Of interest is Gilman's choice to align the narrator with a cat, an animal revered by the Egyptians but not so...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A168055009