Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hysterical Women

Have you read The Yellow Wallpaper? By Charlotte Perkins Gilman? If not you can read the short story here or listen to the Suspense radio play, starring Agnes Moorehead. This short story is the chilling journal of a woman suffering from "hysterics", forced by her doctor husband to undergo a "rest cure" in a country home for the Summer and her subsequent descent into madness. Kept shut up in the house with little to no mental stimulation, our narrator writes, in secret, of her boredom, malaise, and the strange wallpaper of her prison, I mean, bedroom. Imagination, paranoia, and eventually a complete disconnect from reality follow. It is an early example of feminist literature and a prime example of an unreliable narrator. It is this unreliability that makes The Yellow Wallpaper so terrifying, in my opinion.  The audience can never quite be sure if the wife, our narrator, is driven mad by the neglectful and perhaps nefarious dealings of her husband or if her madness is inevitable and her paranoia merely a symptom of the disease.

This uncertainty is one of my favorite elements in a good suspense, the eerie of not knowing. Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel is another great example of this. In this novel, young Phillip, the ward of his older cousin, Ambrose, leads the comfortable life of confirmed bachelorhood. But Ambrose, while wintering in Italy for his health, makes the acquaintance of a long lost cousin, Rachel. Much to Phillip's dismay they marry and in the year or so following, Ambrose writes of his joy, then his failing health, and, at last, his suspicion of Rachel. Ambrose passes away and Rachel comes to England with his possessions, to return them to the estate, which Phillip has now inherited. Phillip, mistrustful of this woman, welcomes her to the estate and is surprised to find her beautiful and charming. Any misgivings he had of her are easily explained away by the brain tumor which caused his cousin's passing. Phillip's love for Cousin Rachel blossoms but is made uneasy by little occurrences - a missing note from Ambrose about Rachel's extravagances, an unsigned will leaving the estate to Rachel and her progeny, and a certain "healthful" tea Rachel gave to Ambrose to ease his pain when he was ill, made from a poisonous plant. To this day, after many read-throughs and movie-sittings, I cannot tell you if Rachel killed Ambrose or not. And that uncertainty is what keeps me coming back for more.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love a straight-forward, moustache-twirling, scheming bad guy too. As in the film Gaslight, where our heroine is driven to mental instability by the underhanded plotting of her husband. By making noises in the attic and dimming the gaslights when she is the only one at home, evil-husband convinces his wife that she is going out of her mind and, of course, insanity has always run in the family. When she finally breaks, he'll have her committed and inherit her vast fortune all for himself. Muahahahahaha. He even goes so far as to rent the house next door to complete his evil plan. Which really, is all unnecessary because this story is set in the late 1800s/early 1900s and he would pretty much have control of her fortune anyway. Just saying.


  1. What a nice theme for a post. I have read The Yellow Wallpaper, and wasn't a big fan. I guess I just didn't have all that much sympathy for her since I didn't feel a connection to her, since she doesn't try very hard to get out. At least that I remember. Bear with me as it's been quite a while.

    I read this in Margot's class at school, and had to argue from the husband's side and totally kicked ass in that debate, so I've felt a bit of a kinship with him since. She just doesn't come across as the most mentally stable person at any point, though that could be arguably because of the way women were raised. *shrug* Unreliable indeed!

    That Daphne DuMaurier book sounds wonderful.

  2. She certainly doesn't help herself, does she? I read an interesting note somewhere that current studies of The Yellow Wallpaper diagnose her with post-partum. When women get classified as "hysterical" or "high strung", it makes me so glad I was born in this era. And then I always wonder about other hysterical women. Was Mrs. Bennett really that ridiculous or was she suffering from a mental illness or severe anxiety?

    You should totes read My Cousin Rachel. It gets so much creepier too.

  3. Agreed dear friends. Totally creepy. That I had to read it for class was not in it's favor either, but...shrug.

    hmm...I tend to think Mrs. Bennett was really that ridiculous, but that may also be because she's much funnier to watch/read about than she would be if she was suffering from illness. Speaking of which...I can't wait for the next episode of the Lizzie Bennett Diaries ;) Oh, I watched Lydia's few too, but they are not nearly as good. You get to meet Mary though.

    And, yes My Cousin Rachel is def worth reading! Also a good creepy read for Fall.

  4. Buddy Holly finds The Yellow Wallpaper so unsettling that I'm not allowed to talk about it in the evening.

    It's hard to find Mrs. Bennet such a funny character if she's suffering from mental issues. I agree. Yay for the LBD! I think Mary, in this rendition, may be my favorite character.

    It is a great Autumn read, you're right. The movie is good for this time of year too.