Narratives of traditional manhood and womanhood

Loneliness to Insanity

In “The Second Sex,” originally published in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir explored the historic situation of women and concluded that women have been prevented from taking active control of their lives (Vintges pp). Beauvoir believed that women had always been the “Other” throughout culture, and that man had been the “Self,” the subject (Vintges pp). In other words, the female had been subjected to the male, who, partly with her own consent, had made her an extension of himself (Vintges pp). The female characters in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” are victims of male domination, leading first to solitude, then to the point of actual madness.

In the beginning of Gilman’s story, the narrator confesses that her husband laughs at her, that he is “practical in the extreme,” and that 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 pp). And then she states that her husband, John, is a physician, “and perhaps … perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster. You see he does not believe I am sick” (Gilman pp). The narrator then goes on to state that she is helpless because, “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do” (Gilman pp)? Moreover, her brother is a physician of high standing, “and he says the same thing” (Gilman pp). The narrator is certainly appears to be a woman prevented from taking control of her life.

Beverly Hume writes in “Managing madness in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper'” in a 2002 issue of Studies in American Fiction, that Gilman stated in “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wall-Paper” that she did not intend to drive readers “crazy,” but to expose a serious and extreme lapse in medical judgement, or wisdom, regarding the “treatment of neurasthenia” (Hume pp). Gilman’s short story was published five years after her own recovery from the ill effects of S. Weir Mitchell’s rest cure treatment (Hume pp). Gilman wrote:

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia — and beyond.

During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with the solemn advice to ‘live as domestic a life as far as possible,’ to ‘have but two hours intellectual life a day,’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as I lived.’ This was in 1887″ (Hume pp).

Of course Gilman’s narrator does not recover, and most critics view this story as “the dark and complex record of a woman’s oppression, victimization, collapse, and paradoxical emancipation” (Hume pp). Gilman’s story is about those “wise men” who attempt to manage “mad” women medically, however, it also implicates her narrator in a pathological and twisted domestic tale of self-sabotage and self-hatred, as well as displaying a chilling potential for domestic violence (Hume pp).

Faulkner’s character, Emily Grierson, is also a woman who has been caught in the web of male domination. As Faulkner writes in the beginning, ”

Colonel Sartoris invented an involved tale to the effect that Miss Emily’s father had loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying. Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’

generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it” (Faulkner pp).

In other words, women were taught to believe what they were told, no matter how unbelievable or illogical. Faulkner paints Emily as a sort of southern-bell relic, who believed she was better than the rest of the townspeople. Speaking of Emily and her father, the narrator of the story says that the town thought of them “as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip … None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily” (Faulkner pp). When her father died, it was three days before she would accept it and let him be buried, but, “We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her” (Faulkner pp). Thus, Emily had become a spinster due to her father’s domination that had prevented her from taking active control of her life.

Susan Donaldson writes in “Making a spectacle: Welty, Faulkner, and Southern gothic” in a 1997 issue of The Mississippi Quarterly, that Faulkner creates short stories “about dangerous women who serve as disrupters of male narratives and as signifiers of the breakdown of cultural narratives of traditional manhood and womanhood” (Donaldson pp). According to Donaldson, Faulkner may have been responding to the anxiety about the New Woman in the South, and the implications of her presence that might explain the intertextual relationship between Faulkner’s frieze of gothic women in his short stories of the 1920’s and 1930’s, especially, “A Rose for Emily,” in which explicit attention is brought to the activity of watching the suffering of a confined woman (Donaldson pp). Donaldson writes that the narrator “underscores the intense scrutiny by the town under which Emily falls and by implication the reader as well by suggesting that Emily lies trapped in the collective gaze like a fly in amber” (Donaldson pp).

According to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, the New Woman “challenged existing gender relations and the distribution of power” and as such became a “sexually freighted metaphor for social disorder and protest” (Donaldson pp). And according to Bertram Wyatt-Brown, the subordination of women was required for the maintenance of a white elite culture of honor and shame, intertwining the identity of an individual white male with the esteem of the community at large. For white women to step off the pedestal, for black women to take off their aprons, was to shake the very foundation of white Southern culture” (Donaldson pp).

Thus, Faulkner’s short story portraits of women being beaten in one form or another evoke the type of imprisonment for women that is often associated with the gothic, such as Emily Grierson, who undergo narrative trials similar to public executions, by being subject to the scrutiny and even brutality of other characters and their communities, and face the ritualistic punishment of their culture’s judgement (Donaldson pp). In other words, the readers watch them “being punished, by being exposed, confined, and figuratively beaten, for not being the Southern women they are supposed to be” (Donaldson pp). Faulkner actually sums up her reputation and her lifestyle in the first paragraph of the story:

“When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant – a combined gardener and cook-had seen in at least ten years” (Faulkner pp).

Thus, the men kept her on a pedestal, regarded as their “fallen monument,” the women thought of her only as a “curiosity,” and the readers learn of her loneliness, that no one has been in her house for “at least ten years.” To emphasis the town’s judgement, Faulkner writes, “So when she got to be thirty and was still single, we were not pleased exactly, but vindicated; even with insanity in the family she wouldn’t have turned down all of her chances if they had really materialized” (Faulkner pp).

Both Faulkner and Gilman use the backdrop of a large house in their stories to emphasis the loneliness of their protagonists, and the forced solitude upon their lives. In a 1994 issue of The Mississippi Quarterly, Renee Curry writes in “Gender and authorial limitation in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily,'” that “Faulkner’s extensive authorial power … looms evident in the design of a large Southern gothic house … The complex generations of a Southern community, and unweaves a mystery through a limited omniscient point-of-view” (Curry pp). According to Curry, Faulkner not only reveals, but also revels in an authorial lack of knowledge when presented with writing a “lady” into a patriarchal Southern text, knowledge “proves unavailable to him (and consequently to the reader) for about thirty years before we meet her — before her father dies and elts her out of the house — and also for the last twenty-seven years of her life” (Curry pp). Faulkner writes, “her front door remained closed,” and with these words, he both instigates and reveals an extended period of limited knowledge” (Curry pp). And Gilman opens her story by revealing the confinement of her protagonist by describing the “ancestral halls … A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house … But that would be asking too much of fate” (Gilman pp). By open her story with these lines, Hume writes that the narrator suggest that her tale may be gothic, but immediately dismisses the notion” (Hume pp).

Faulkner reveals the confined solitude when he writes, “after her sweetheart – the one we believed would marry her – had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all” (Faulkner pp). And throughout Gilman’s story, the narrator reveals that her only visitors are her husband and her sister-in-law, and says, “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus – but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition” (Gilman pp). Both women have been forced into confinement by the culture of their societies.

According to Hume, when Gilman writes that “if only this house had been haunted, if only the yellow wallpaper had been a supernatural horror, she implies, perhaps she could explain her nervous condition, her sick state of mind” (Hume pp). Yet her husband and those like him do not believe that she is sick or even capable of understanding her sickness, which suggests, says Hume, that what “the narrator elects to do is what Gilman did … attempt to create an elaborate and deceptive narrative, one appearing as twelve journal entries written over several months” (Hume pp). Although many critics argue that the entries recount the narrator’s descent into madness, Hume believes they are better understood as part of both Gilman and her narrator’s attempt to sabotage and triumph over the certainty and authority of John and those wise men of medicine (Hume pp).

Both protagonists are capable of violence. In Gilman’s story, the narrator has been locked up and so cannot harm anyone, especially her child, and stresses that she “cannot be with him,” because it makes her “so nervous” (Gilman pp). In Faulkner’s story, readers learn the protagonist had killed her lover when the townspeople find his body, “lain in the attitude of an embrace, rotted beneath what was left of his nightshirt” (Faulkner pp).

Both women had been prevented from taking active control of their lives, thus, leading to forced solitude, then insanity.

Work Cited

Curry, Renee R. “Gender and authorial limitation in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.'” The Mississippi Quarterly. 6/22/1994. Retrieved July 22, 2005 from HighBeam Research Library Web site.

Donaldson, Susan V. “Making a spectacle: Welty, Faulkner, and Southern gothic.” The Mississippi Quarterly. 9/22/1997. Retrieved July 22, 2005 from HighBeam Research Library Web site.

Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.”

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Hume, Beverly A. “Managing madness in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’.”

Studies in American Fiction. 3/22/2002. Retrieved July 22, 2005 from HighBeam Research Library Web site.

Vintges, Karen. “Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Thinker for Our Times.”

Hypatia. 9/22/1999. Retrieved July 22, 2005 from HighBeam Research Library Web site.

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