“The Yellow Wall-Paper” Presentation

Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wall-Paper” in the late 19th century. In this story, the woman is significantly restrained by those around her and has no agency in her action. “The yellow Wall-Paper” is often read from a feminist view point; however, this is not necessarily the intentions that Gilman wished to draw attention to.

Her purpose was to draw attention to how unfairly and how drastically medical professionals treated women suffering from mild hysteria, or similar disorders. Gilman’s doctor, S. Weir Mitchell, diagnosed her with a strain of nervous prostration or Neuroasthenia. Gilman was placed in isolation and could not express herself through writing in order to “recover.” Gilman writes about this in her article: “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wall-Paper” in this article Gilman writes her story was: “ It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”

John Bak provides a different argument in his article: “Escaping the Jaundiced eye: Foucauldian Panopticism in CPG’s “The Yellow Wallpaper””

In it he discusses Foucault’s envisioned panopticon and compares it to the house that the protagonist was locked in.


FOUCULT (Taken from Discipline and Punish 1975)

At the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other. All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy. By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery. They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible. The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately. In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions – to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide – it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap…

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen. It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up. The ceremonies, the rituals, the marks by which the sovereign’s surplus power was manifested are useless. There is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine: in the absence of the director, his family, his friends, his visitors, even his servants (Bentham, 45). Similarly, it does not matter what motive animates him: the curiosity of the indiscreet, the malice of a child, the thirst for knowledge of a philosopher who wishes to visit this museum of human nature, or the perversity of those who take pleasure in spying and punishing. The more numerous those anonymous and temporary observers are, the greater the risk for the inmate of being surprised and the greater his anxious awareness of being observed. The Panopticon is a marvellous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power.

According to Bak, the Panopticon developed into an “unscrupulous method of inquisition that perpetuated fear and bread paranoia” (40). The Panopticon created a symbolic relationship between the observer and the observed. It was an instrument of fear and power. Through the transparent cells, the authoritative power inside the Panopticon was irreversible because only the warden could spy on the inmates, not vice versa. The constant unknowing gaze of the warden creates a sense of paranoia amidst the inmates. That being said, inside was relatively pleasant. This is similar to our protagonist’s living situation. She speaks about the house being nice but plagued by terrible yellow wallpaper. Foucault says that the Panopticon created a “faceless gaze” similarly in the story, the observer is unidentifiable because it stems from the protagonist’s paranoia. She speaks of “two bulbous eyes” personifying this gaze.

Bak writes, “what begins as a perfunctory dismissal of the paper’s “optic horror,” however, gradually develops into paranoia that Foucault says is inevitable with unabated surveillance” (43). Once she becomes aware of these unblinking eyes watching her she believes there is something behind the paper. This fuels her madness.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon#/media/File:Panopticon.jpghttp://https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon#/media/File:Panopticon.jpg

Bak argues that Gilman’s character ultimately escaped. He writes, “in objectifying herself through this imaginary woman, the narrator can free herself, if only in mind, from the external prison her husband places her in” (44). She doesn’t need complete freedom from confinement, rather specifically from the wallpaper that she believes to be monitoring her. That’s why she exclaims she has escaped after ripping the wallpaper. “And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” Once she transcends all levels of consciousness she is no longer aware of the gaze and denies The Panopticon’s reality. By doings so, she eliminates the control it has over her. Although she is clinically insane, internally she is devoid of the identity that her husband had inscribed upon her. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who study 19th century literature writes: “the cure is worse than the disease”