Written in the late 1800s primarily as a response to actual events in the authors life, Charlotte Perkins Gilmans The Yellow Wallpaper and its jarring statement against patriarchal society (most specifically against a patriarchal medical field) continues to be relevant in literary and theoretical discussions regarding the female Other and the politics of gender. A pioneer of feminist writing, Gilman indeed presents us with a complex and multi-layered text that, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar explain, illustrates well the anxiety-inducing connections between what women writers tend to see as their parallel confinements in texts, houses, and maternal female bodies (emphasis added; 89). For Gilbert and Gubar, as for many critics that precede and follow them, the significance of Gilmans The Yellow Wallpaper lies precisely in its role as a feminine text about feminine textuality; it is in its truest and most politically salient form the woman writers text and story. Although, needless to say, these readings of Gilmans story have strengthened the relation between the literary text and its relation to gender politics and identity formation, I propose that given the emergence of the concept of Otherness in critical theory, it is useful to engage Gilmans text with notions of Otherness that go beyond the gendered Other.
In fact, the continued significance of The Yellow Wallpaper lies in part it in its ability to evoke the question of marginalization on the level of subjectivity itself. Jane, the narrator-protagonist finds herself embodying Otherness on more than one level: Jane is female, Jane is an artist and Jane is mentally ill. Unreasonableness and irrationality, the qualities against which the patriarchal Western center defines itself, are according to that center qualities expressed through her gender, her vocation, and her mental state. However, up to this point in the critical history of The Yellow Wallpaper, Janes gender and her vocation have taken center stage over her mental state in the discussions concerning this text. My reading of The Yellow Wallpaper proposes to take her mental illness as the focal point of the text, contending that we cannot ignore like John, the narrators husband and physician, the indications of the nature and extent of her illness. In viewing Jane only as a woman in need of escaping the strangling hold of the patriarchal system of order, we risk repeating Johns mistake by either ignoring the very fact of Janes illness or by attributing her illness to an erroneous source.1 Whereas John asserts, according to Jane herself, that Jane is not ill but merely depressed, our lack of attention to Jane's mental state produces a similar diagnosis: Jane is not ill; she is merely oppressed. Such a reading of Janes condition discards the significant possibility that Jane is oppressed because she is ill. This essay, then, takes into consideration the specifics and symptoms of Janes mental illness in order to consider this possibility. In place of reading The Yellow Wallpaper primarily as a feminine text, I will read it as a psychotics text. The purpose of this is not to foreclose future feminist readings but rather to open further avenues for understanding Janes condition beyond those already explored and to encourage the continuance of an already forged relationship between feminism and psychoanalysis.
In my reading, Janes inability to fit properly into the symbolic order of phallogocentric Western society is an inability rooted in her illness rather than her gender. And the medical field, ill-equipped to deal with such a subject, precipitates her final and unfortunate decline. Thus, the final scene of The Yellow Wallpaper is not the site of Jane's triumphant liberation or of the materialization of her self-identity as some readings have purported. These readings fail to note that at the end of the story Jane has identified herself with an imaginary figure which has left her crawling around on the floor like a child and likely more vulnerable to harmful treatment than before. In any case, whether or not Jane has broken free of the strangling hold of the patriarchal symbolic order seems irrelevant considering the predicament she is left in. Presenting disturbing evidence of a psychotic break, Jane seems destined to a darker fate than that already intimated in her journal.
Before reading Janes predicament in relation to Lacanian psychosis, we should have an understanding of what it involves. According to Bruce Fink, psychosis is defined as the mental state of an individual who has foreclosed or radical[ly] reject[ed] a particular element from the symbolic order (that is, from language) (Fink 79). In his seminar entitled The Psychoses, Jacques Lacan explains: It can happen that a subject refuses access to his symbolic world to something that he has nevertheless experienced, which in this case [the case of the psychotic] is the threat of castration (12). That is, the psychotic like the neurotic or normal subject of the symbolic order is exposed to the threat of castration, but unlike the neurotic, the psychotic, does not experience this threat symbolically. This threat of castration manifests itself in the fathers prohibition, in his verbal No, or in the symbolic authority attached to the fathers name, what Lacan calls the paternal function or the Name-of-the-Father.2 It is through the Name-of-the-Father, through the prohibition and interruption of the paternal function, that the individual in childhood is separated from the mother and her jouissance and introduced into the symbolic order.
Before this move to the symbolic order is made, the individual has already, during what Lacan calls the mirror stage, begun to organize the early chaos of perceptions and sensations, feelings and impressions into some type of structure (Fink 88). This structure is the imaginary register, spurred by the child's visual recognition of his image in the mirror and his parents' reaction to that recognition. Constituting visual images, auditory, olfactory, and other sense perceptions of all kinds, and fantasy, the imaginary register forms prior to the individual's internalization of the paternal function, and serves as a structural foundation for the symbolic register (Fink 88). In the imaginary, the real is perceived but does not have meaning such as it would in the symbolic. Meaning is inoperative in the imaginary and impossible in the real. It is the paternal function, a symbolic function embodied in the father and/or the authority he represents, which enables the individual to make the move from an imaginary relation to the real to a symbolic (meaningful) relation to it. If paternal function works as it should, the imaginary register characterized by affect is restructured, rewritten, or 'overwritten' by the symbolic and the individual becomes a subject of language (Fink 88). But in the psychotic the paternal function fails and the Name-of-the-Father is rejected or foreclosed. Instead of evoking in the subjects imaginary, the signification of the phallus by bringing to fore the absence of the real father, the paternal function in the psychotic is met with the absence of the signifier itself. Lacan explains: At the point at which the Name-of-the-Father is summoned a pure and simple hole may thus answer ; due to the lack of the metaphoric effect, this hole will give rise to a corresponding hole in the place of phallic signification (Ecrits 191). Ultimately what the psychotic forecloses is that element that not only would have granted him/her entrance into the symbolic order, but also and more importantly that grounds or anchors the symbolic order as a whole (Fink 79).
This foreclosure of the paternal function in the psychotic prevents the overwriting of the imaginary by the symbolic. The psychotic then is stuck in an unmediated relationship with the real. Language, as the ultimate buffer against the devastating (m)Other, against jouissance, is not effective for the psychotic. This does not mean that he cannot speak in his native language, but that unlike a normal subject, the psychotic does not have a meaningful relationship to the real through language. Language in the psychotic cannot perform its proper function, to fill the gap left by the separation of mother and child; the psychotic, having foreclosed the Name-of-the-Father, has not experienced this separation and thus does not experience the lack that can be compensated for through language. Fink explains that although the symbolic (language) is assimilated by the psychotic through imitation, it is never truly internalized. According to Fink, that the psychotic never internalizes language is confirmed by the fact that [psychotics] are unable to create new metaphors (90). Whereas the normal subject can create new meanings by substituting one noun for another, in this manner making possible the meaningfulness of language, the psychotic cannot create metaphoric meaning but rather, according to Lacan, only a meaning that refers above all to meaning as such (The Psychoses 33). Because of this, the psychotics relationship to the real is fixed and overbearing. This is a result of the lack of the paternal metaphor, which according to Lacan is the essential metaphor, the first substitution which allows for substitutions thereafter. But without this paternal metaphor, in the absence of the fundamental button tie that links the father's name or No! with the other's desire, signification is impossible and the psychotic is left to deal with words and meanings, signifiers and signified, [that] are condemned to drift aimlessly (Fink 107). Thus, a psychotic's relation to the real and to language is tragically marked by the absence or failure of the paternal function, and the psychotic is destined to permanent exclusion from the symbolic order; this failure to assimilate the structure of language can never be reversed. Thus, in the psychoanalytic analysis, if the paternal function fails, no amount of psychoanalytic treatment will restore the damage.
The psychotic may remain undisturbed by this confused relationship to language and to the real prior to a confrontation with the purely symbolic father in his or her adolescent or adult life. Indeed, it is not until after a psychotic break that the irregularity of psychotics comes to light. And, according to Lacan, for psychosis to be triggered, the Name-of-the-Fatherverworfen, foreclosed, that is, never having come to the place of the Other 3/4 must be summoned to that place in symbolic opposition to the subject (206). In other words, it is, as Fink explains, [an] encounter with the One-father, with the Father as a pure symbolic function ... that leads to ... a psychotic break (106). This break is the manifestation of the breakdown of the imaginary structure that has up to then ordered the way the psychotic perceives the world. Marked by hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and discernible language disturbances, the psychotic break in is followed by his attempt to restructure, through a delusional metaphor, the world and his relation to it. I will argue that this is the case of Jane in The Yellow Wallpaper.
Jane as Lacanian Psychotic
From the onset of The Yellow Wallpaper, one can see that Jane, the narrator of the story, is disturbed in some way. In her first journal entries, the narrator herself expresses a desire for relief and explains that because her husband John does not believe that she is sick she does not get well faster (2). Her writing seems rushed, choppy, and frantic; one can begin to see in Jane's disconnected paragraphs (some of which are only one sentence long) that Jane has an unusual relation to language. In spite of her frenzied style of writing and within these fragmented early entries, Jane manages to expose two important pieces of information. First, Jane tells us that John has moved the family to a country home in an attempt to treat Jane's nervous weakness. This is important because it illustrates that both John and, to some extent Jane herself, have noticed a disturbance in Jane perceptible enough to require the relocation. Not only does this point to a clear materialization of what is possibly a psychotic break, but, it also suggests that if Jane is psychotic, her confrontation with the One-Father has happened prior to their moving to the country home. Thus, it may not, as is often assumed, be the wallpaper that drives Jane mad or her oppression as woman that leads her to read or write the wallpaper. Indeed, it may be that her illness itself produces her relation to the wallpaper.
The second piece of information that Jane provides early on in the story is of utmost importance in diagnosing Jane as a psychotic because it points to what has triggered her psychotic break and subsequent hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and language disturbances. Jane, however briefly, mentions that she has recently had a baby. Although only a few sentences are dedicated to this topic, the anxiety and nervousness the mere topic produces is marked by an exclamation point, a paragraph break, and the use of italics3 Such a dear baby! [end of paragraph] And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervouscan be read as an indication of the possible connection between this occurrence (the babys birth) and her subsequent breakdown (5). I would suggest that, in fact, Jane in giving birth has come in contact with the One-Father or the father repressed in the real.4 This confrontation with the One-Father could have been experienced in one of two ways: In the new baby itself Jane could have recognized the Name-of-the-Father as that name (the surname) which is given to the child by the father... the name that comes from the father, or (and this seems more likely) in her husband's new role as father (Fink 244, n2). According to Lacan, the One-Father responsible for the psychotic break can present itself to a new mother in her husband's face (Ecrits 207). During this brief mention of the baby, Jane also makes note of John's lack of anxiety in view of his new paternal role: I suppose John never was nervous in his life (Gilman 5). This observation is made immediately after she expresses her anxiety about motherhood. Thus, it suggests that Jane has perceived the significance of John's role as father, the paternal function to which she cannot relate.
Identifying the One-Father in The Yellow Wallpaper guides our reading of the remainder of Jane's narrative. We can now conclude that what Jane sees in the wallpaper is not merely an imagined representation of the narrator herself, a projection of her own confinement but a case of delusion belief (The Psychoses 75). According to Lacan, the hallucinations tied to psychosis require not only that the individual believe that he is seeing what he is seeing, but that the individual believe in what he or she is seeing. This certainty characteristic of psychosis is evident in Jane throughout the text. Although Jane's writing style is chaotic, her tone is always certain. Her voice may be meek or dutiful when speaking to or about her husband, but this should not be confused with uncertainty. Jane is always sure that she is perceiving what she is perceiving even if she does not understand what it may mean. Furthermore, her certainty takes on a paranoid quality. She is certain there is something wrong with the house, an observation which she writes down twice within the first few pages: Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it [the house] (emphasis added; 1) and [T]here is something strange about the house; I can feel it (3). She is certain there are people in the garden and a woman in the wallpaper: now I am quite sure it is a woman (emphasis added; 13). And again, she is certain that John and Jennie are as affected by the wallpaper as she is (an assertion she makes several times): Ive caught him several times looking at the paper! And Jennie too. I caught Jennie with her hand on it once I know she was studying the pattern (13-14), and but I feel sure John and Jennie are secretly affected by it (17). Janes narrative is full of declarations and assertions such as these.
This certainty is only more obvious as her narrative continues. Scattered generously throughout are phrases such as the fact is, I am convinced, and I know. But, more importantly, it is Janes belief that she has a special relation to what she perceives, to her hallucinations, that indicates Janes psychosis. Lacan explains the psychotics delusional belief:
This particularly applies to Jane's hallucination of the woman in the wallpaper. Jane is convinced that only she has discovered or must discover what is hidden in the wallpaper. At one point she states, There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will (10). A few entries later she ascertains, there is one marked peculiarity about this paper, a thing nobody seems to notice but myself (12). Both statements illustrate Janes delusions of grandeur and her belief that she, as Fink states about the typical psychotic, has been chosen among all others to possess such knowledge (84). Thus, that others such as John do not see the woman in the wallpaper in some way further validates Janes belief in the woman. In addition, Janes obsession with freeing the woman in the wallpaper emerges from her conviction that only she can help the trapped woman, conviction which further illustrates Janes delusion.5
Although Janes hallucinations and the certainty she displays regarding them are convincing indications of her psychosis, further analysis of her narrative provides other noteworthy signs of her illness. One especially interesting manifestation of her psychosis is her writing. Janes writing is a materialization of her distorted relationship to language and thus of her psychosis, not only because it is choppy and frenetic in style, but for the simple fact that it is happening continuously. Her insistence on writing, even when she must do it in secrecy, and her contradicting views on writing echo another psychotics writing experience, that of the psychotic Bronzehelmet. Fink explains that Roger Bronzehelmet, a patient of psychoanalyst Jean-Claude Schaetzel, expressed both being frightened by words and feeling comfort in writing. He quotes Bronzehelmet: Words frighten me. I've always wanted to write, but couldn't manage to put a word on a thing ... It was as though the words slipped off things (Fink 107). Nevertheless, Fink explains, Bronzehelmet [felt] a bit safer when he [wrote] things down, as writing seems to fix or freeze meaning to some extent (Fink 107). Like Jane, Bronzehelmet experienced both relief and anxiety in his writing.
Indeed, Janes writing is marked by her conflicted relation to it.6 Several times during her narrative she expresses that writing makes her feel better: I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me (Gilman 6). However, she also claims several times that writing exhausts her: I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good dealhaving to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition (2). Although this heavy opposition could refer to John and Jennie, it could also refer to the opposition that Jane perceives in words themselves. She, like Bronzehelmet, may feel unable to put a word on a thing. Lacking the anchoring point or button-tie instantiated by phallic signification, Jane is unable to attach meaning to words. Thus, her writing experience, rather than being cathartic (as it could be for the normal subject), is only more anxiety-producing and a further revelation of her psychosis: I don't know why I should write this. I don't want to. I don't feel able...But I must say what I feel and think in some wayit is such a relief! But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief (9). Moreover, this semiotic bearing is carried over from her writing itself to her interpretation of the wallpaper, which she is constantly attempting to retroactively write into meaning. Writing for Jane is thus problematic because she has not entered the symbolic order. Whereas for the normal subject the acceptance of the paternal function guarantees his or her entrance into the symbolic order (language), which then functions as a permanent defense against the mOthers jouissance, for the psychotic, this entrance is unachieved, and he or she can use language and writing only in imitation. This superficial use of language rather than effectively holding off the mOthers jouissance only temporarily distracts her (the Others) overwhelming desire. Janes last reference to her writing (the quote provided above) suggests that she is no longer able to keep this jouissance at bay. In fact, it is after this section that Jane succumbs to her hallucination of the woman in the wallpaper and that her decline is fully realized.
As Greg Johnson indicates in his reading of Gilmans The Yellow Wallpaper, the story as a whole describes a woman attempting to save herself through her own writing (523). Indeed, Jane is trying to save herself from something which I have suggested is the jouissance of the Other. However, Johnson in his reading of The Yellow Wallpaper suggests that Jane through her writing is attempting to save herself from the oppression of the patriarchal symbolic order. Yet, Jane as a psychotic has no concept of the symbolic order or of its oppression. Her conflicted relationship to writing illustrated in the previous section is a result and an indication of her foreclosure of the paternal function and, consequently, the symbolic order. Therefore, Jane's writing happens within the imaginary, not the symbolic and thus is evacuated of social content. Not only does her narrative hint at her difficulty in tying signified to signifierthus indicating her exclusion from the symbolic orderit also seems to be fixated on physical and perhaps fantastical experience. Jane is affected not by what the wallpaper represents, as in a metaphoric meaning-structure, but by its physical manifestations. She is taken by the sight of its color and pattern; she is amazed by its texture; she smells it and at some point she even hears it shriek with derision (19). Thus, it is evident that Jane's relation to the real, that is to things, to others and to herself, is caught in this imaginary register of visual images, auditory, olfactory, and other sense perceptions of all kinds, and fantasy (Fink 88). Furthermore, her inability to relate to the real through the symbolic prevents Jane from acquiring the subjectivity which could ensure the redemption assumed in readings such as Johnsons. According to Terry Eagleton, the imaginary is the condition in which we lack any defined centre of self, in which what self we have seems to pass into objects, and objects into it, in a ceaseless closed exchange (142). It is only in the symbolic that we can conceive of ourselves as unified centered subjects. Thus, I disagree with Johnson when he states that the narrator's experience should finally be viewed not as a final catastrophe but as a terrifying, necessary stage in her progress toward self-identity and personal achievement (523). The narrator has achieved nothing.
Janice Haney-Peritz in her article Monumental Feminism and Literatures Ancestral House: Another Look at The Yellow Wallpaper, a reading in some ways closer to my own, comes to a similar conclusion about the narrators presumed achievement. According to Haney-Peritz, readersin particular feminist readersshould, rather than identify with Jane, feel sympathy for her (124). Although this reading suggests that Janes final actions are anything but triumphant, Haney-Peritz comes to this conclusion based on an erroneous reading of Lacanian psychoanalysis. In her article, Haney-Peritz provides excellent definitions of the imaginary and the symbolic, but then argues that Jane has moved from the symbolic order to the imaginary realm, a movement brought about by her futile attempts to use symbolic discourse: Without mediation, the subject has no access to the symbolic dimension of his or her experience and is therefore driven to establish the imaginary in the real (119). Haney-Peritz claims that the reader can see the exact moment in which the narrator's register shift[s] from the symbolic to the imaginary and which results in the narrators ultimate identification with the woman in the wallpaper (118). This shift she asserts happens when Jane states, I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did? (19). The problem with this reading of Janes narrative and her relation to the woman figure in the wallpaper is that, according to Lacanian psychoanalysis, once the imaginary has been overwritten it remains so. Likewise, once the subject arrives at the symbolic, both the imaginary and the symbolic registers are always present. What Haney-Peritz is suggesting then is not plausible. Jane could not have made a shift to the imaginary from the symbolic, at least not in terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Such easy and discrete movement amongst registers entirely belies the complication of each of them that is at the heart of signification itself. Yet, Janes relationship to the real towards the end of The Yellow Wallpaper is, as I have argued above, clearly within the imaginary. In view of this, it is not as Haney-Peritz contends the shift that has become apparent; what has become apparent in the narrators identification with the woman in the wallpaper is that the narrator has always been in the imaginary, outside of the symbolic.
Indeed, Janes identification with the woman in the wallpaper at the end of her narrative may be her way of restructuring the world after her psychotic break. According to Lacan, the encounter with the One-Father sets off a cascade of reworkings of the signifier from which the growing disaster of the imaginary proceeds, until the level is reached at which signifier and signified stabilize in a delusional metaphor (Ecrits 207). This functions as a new starting point on the basis of which the psychotic reestablishes a bearable world and a place for everything in it. Janes relation to this woman, her rebirth as someone else, no longer Jane but the woman in the wallpaper, could be an attempt to reconstruct her genealogy, an attempt characteristic of the psychotic in need of restructuring his understanding of the world.7 This delusional metaphor stands in for the paternal metaphor (the original absent/failed father), which allows for words and meanings to be bound together in a relatively stable, enduring way and creates a space and a bearable role for the psychotic (Fink 109).
In An Unnecessary Maze of Sign-Reading Mary Jacobus alerts us to a particular problematic of feminist readings of the The Yellow Wallpaper. She claims that, [t]he feminist reading contradicts the tendency to see women as basically unstable or hysterical, simultaneously (and contradictorily) claiming that women are not mad and that their madness is not their fault (233). That is, the tendency of feminist readings is to say on one level that Janes illness is constructed by a society that imagines woman as unstable and on another that Jane is ill because of the oppression of patriarchal society. But this, as Jacobus points out, is a contradictioneither Jane is ill or she is not. In my reading Jane is of course ill, and indeed her illness is related to a paternal, patriarchal structure. But what if, as Lacan suggests, this is a structure which is immanent to language itself, rather than imminent within the world Jane inhabits? This is not to say that the subjects entrance into language isnt a construction of sorts; by Lacans very definition, it is. Rather, it is to open up our reading of Gilmans text to the possibility of a feminist interpretation whose logic proceeds from the uncertainty of the relationship between gender and subjectivity to begin with, rather than one which picks up on the way they are related from within the very constructions which name them.
1. For John, the medical field to which he belongs, and patriarchy in general, Janes illness comes from being a woman; similarly, in certain paradigms of feminism Janes illness comes from being a woman in a mans world. In either case, Janes possible mental illness remains untreatable as such.
2. The Name-of-the-Father is not to be confused with the actual father. The Name-of-the-Father can be experienced in the actual father or any such similarly castrating figure or institution that stands in for the law.
3. The conjunction of these three structural features of emphasis (the exclamation point, the paragraph break, and the italics) is unique to this passage. Although emphasis is found elsewhere in Janes text, this particular matter, the baby, requires, unlike other matters in the story, emphasis over emphasis.
4. Having failed to overwrite the imaginary and push the subject into the symbolic, the threat of castration as the father remains in the real and resurfaces as the One-Father.
5. It is striking that Daniel Paul Schreber, whose Memoirs of My Nervous Illness constitutes much of Freuds initial speculation on psychosis as well as Lacans later analysis, like Jane reports hallucinations of multiple heads: there was a time when souls in nerve-contact with me talked of a plurality of heads (that is several individuals in one and the same skull) which they encountered in me and from which they shrank in alarm crying, For heavens sake that is a human with several heads. (78). Janes hallucinations are of a woman that has so many heads (16).
6. Daniel Paul Schreber also has a similarly problematic relationship to writing as illustrated by what he calls his writing-down-system (123-129).
7. In On a Question Prior to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis, Lacan explains that Daniel Schreber upon his psychotic break constructs a delusional genealogy.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P,1996.
Fink, Bruce. A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.
Gilbert Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Second Edition. New Haven: Yale, 2000.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings. New York: Bantam Books, 1989. 1-20.
Haney-Peritz, Janice. Monumental Feminism and Literature's Ancestral House: Another Look at 'The Yellow Wallpaper.' Women's Studies 12 (1986): 113-28.
Jacobus, Mary. An Unnecessary Maze of Sign-Reading. Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism. Columbia UP: New York, 1986.
Johnson, Greg. Gilman's Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in 'The Yellow Wallpaper. Studies in Short Fiction. 521-530.
Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 2007.
---. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III: The Psychoses, 1955-1956. Trans. Russell Grigg. New York: Norton, 1993.
---. The Psychoses 1955 -1956. Trans. Russell Grigg. New York: Norton, 1993.
Schreber, Daniel P. Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. New York: NYRB Classics, 2000.
Melinda Mejia is ABD in the Department of Comparative Literature at SUNY Buffalo. She is completing her dissertation entitled Oedipal (Re)visions: Home and Exile in the Literatures of the Americas.