Sunday 26 April 2015

The Yellow Wallpaper, The Lighthouse and all that (not an A to Z post)

Dewey's 24 hour Read-A-Thon was a low key affair with no Monkey for company but I did have a nice long evening of uninterrupted reading, which is quite a rare thing for me. I joined a read-along of Charlotte Perkins Gilman 'The Yellow Wallpaper' but could not find any discussion of the story on the host blogs. I was expecting it to be a novella, but it is quite a brief short story, and maybe all the more intense for it. Told first person it charts a young woman's descent from a "temporary nervous depression" into the depth of psychosis. It is the kind of tale that leaves you angry and frustrated, at the treatment and attitudes that women had to endure at that time (written well over 100 years ago), but also at their seeming inability to resist them. The word 'hysteria' is used to silence women, to explain their emotions and behaviour in terms of their femaleness, something that must be kept under control.
Early on she says, of her husband: "He is very careful and loving, hardly lets me stir without special direction. I have a schedule prescription for each hour of the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more."(p.5), and it just makes me fume; she is being patronisingly told to be a good girl and do as she is told, and she ends up feeling it is her fault that she does not want to abide by the prescribed 'treatment'. She spends so much time staring at the vile wallpaper she begins to see things in the pattern: "But in the places where it isn't faded and where the sun is just so - I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design." (p.10) The presence of this skulking figure begins to dominate here days: "Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through." (p.19) Until gradually, she herself becomes the trapped figure: "If only the top pattern could be gotten off from the under one! I mean to try it, little by little. I have found out another funny thing, but I shan't tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much. There are only two more days to get this paper off, and I believe John is beginning to notice. I don't like the look in his eyes." (p.20) It is very subtle and low key, a rising tension and suspicion of the people around her. A very disturbing and disconcerting tale. 
All the stories in the book are about women's experiences, how they manage life both with and without men. Many of them tell of women who must charm and win over reluctant husbands so that they can make something more of their lives. The next quote now comes from one entitled 'Turned' about a couple who take in a naive young woman as a servant. When the husband goes away on business the wife discovers that the girl is pregnant, and reacts angrily when she discovers the truth of the situation, but then on further intelligent reflection she makes a wonderfully argued case for the defence of the young girl who in this situation would be viewed by society as a fallen woman:
"Gerta might have done better in resisting the grocer's clerk; had, indeed, with Mrs Marroner's advice, resisted several. But where respect was due, how could she criticise? Where obedience was due, how could she refuse - with ignorance to hold her blinded - until too late?
As the older, wiser woman forced herself to understand and extenuate the girl's misdeed and foresee her ruined future, a new feeling rose in her heart, strong, clear, and overmastering; a sense of the measureless condemnation for the man who had done this thing. He knew. He understood. He could foresee and measure the consequences of his act. He appreciated to the full the innocence, the ignorance, the grateful affection, the habitual docility, of which he deliberately took advantage." (p.145-6)
I have not read all the stories yet but some very interesting insights into the early days of feminist thinking.

The other book I tackled yesterday was 'The Lighthouse' by Alison Moore, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012. (It won the McKittrick Prize, which was interestingly also won by 'Dirty Work' by Gabriel Weston, that I reviewed a few months ago.) Oh, I hated this book ... but in a good way. I hated some of the characters, which is a pretty strong reaction for me. And then I hated the fact that she left the reader in the lurch at the end, though in retrospect it was the right ending, because sometimes, like Carl, you just won't ever know what happened. 
Futh is very mundane kind of bloke, and you almost like him for it, but maybe pity is closer to what I came to feel. He is taking a walking tour in Germany, to escape the reality of separating from his wife. The sad story of his life unfolds gradually as he watch him stagger wearily through the countryside along the Rhine. He seems to inadvertently miss out on a lot of meals, this was what struck me most about the story. It seemed somehow symbolic. The parallel story of Esther, the owner of the first guesthouse he stays in, is an equally sad one; a woman trapped with a cruel man who's affection she still craves, but who has taken to tormenting him just to get his attention. And the fate of a tiny silver lighthouse hangs in the balance throughout the book. 
First is this quote, because it reminded me of something I wrote on another blog:

"The mooring ropes are dropped into the water and Futh, like a disconcerted train passenger unable to tell whether it is his or the neighbouring train which is pulling out of the station, sees the untethered land drawing away from him. The engine chugs and the water turns white between the dock and the outward bound ferry." (p.3)

In this second Esther is contemplating romantic memories of her courtship with Bernard. It is poignant, but I found her nostalgia cloying because of how hard, and how unrealistically, she clings to it:

"She still has these thing. She keeps them in the drawer of her bedside table and looks through them sometimes, putting the dry flower to her nose. She handles the envelope's contents reverently as if these were the memorabilia of a dead pop star rather than the man she married, the man she still lives with.
Bernard, she thinks, would not recall now which film they saw on their first date, might not even remember that they went to the cinema on that occasion." (p.113)

The story lingers repeatedly over the final days on Futh's childhood, before his mother leaves them. Each time little details are added to the telling. It works beautifully as a repeated memory, the way you mind will go over and over significant events, searching for meaning, wishing, if only, things could have happened differently. I think it was these scenes which sucked me in the most, the mundanity of the moment, that then in hindsight takes on this huge significance:

"Futh, deciding to take a walk, stood up and ambled away. He felt his mother watching him go, but when he glanced back she was not looking at him. He wandered further, until he could no longer hear the drone of his father's voice. He was holding the perfume case which he had taken out of his mother's handbag, the silver lighthouse which his granddad had given to his father. His mother called it 'Uncle Ernst's perfume' as if she were just keeping it safe for him, but she wore it a lot of the time. Futh took the glass vial out of its case. He wanted to smell his mother's scent but he did not remove the stopper."(p.145)

And later that evening:

"That night, back in his own bed, Futh heard his mother in the shower. When she came to his room, standing by his pillow in her dressing gown, her face hanging over him like the moon in the night sky, she no longer smelled of violets or sun cream, or the oranges they had eaten on the way home. She smelled of the cigarettes she liked to smoke when she finished something." (p.148)

Smells feature significantly throughout the telling, good smells and bad ones, smells that turn bitter with the passing of time. Both the characters are yearning, Futh for his lost childhood, Esther for her lost marriage, and the crossing of their paths has fateful consequences. What an unexpectedly excellent book (not that I had low expectations, just that the story description is not very promising), easily short enough to read in one sitting, and well worth seeking out. 

1 comment:

  1. I wrote about The Yellow Wallpaper for my A-Z challenge this year. It was written as a bit of an autobiographical piece of fiction. Gilman herself suffered from postpartum depression, among other things. I really liked this story, both times I read it.


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