Pretentious Literary Review

Anyone who has studied a second or third language in school is likely to be familiar with amateur literary reviews. The literature section of the syllabus usually consisted of short stories in a variety of different settings. Watered down stories about child marriage in South India, unemployment in the USA during the Great Depression and Norse mythology provided nuggets of insight into different cultures. Also, the stories invariably had hidden, ‘inner’ meanings that were beyond my limited imagination. And linguistic skills, probably.

After years of writing half-hearted analyses of how lamp light is a metaphor for wisdom and how the cutting of one’s hair symbolizes an escape from social norms (or a loss of social status, depending on the context- why can’t these things be consistent?!), I was glad to embrace a career in engineering. Unambiguity is essential in computer languages, a fact that provides me with much reassurance. I remain firmly convinced that all literary devices- similes, metaphors, personification and whatnot- are concepts cooked up by language teachers to harass gullible students. Don’t try to convince me otherwise.

But once in a while, one comes across a piece of work that works clearly and flawlessly on multiple levels.

The other day I came across The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman on someone’s to-read list, tagged as a literary classic. A Google search told me it was a psychological thriller in 6000 words, so I abandoned my buggy code for a while and read it then and there.

On the surface it is a commonplace story of a young mother’s descent into madness during a ‘rest cure’ for what is diagnosed as nerves- post partum depression, maybe. Her description of the unpleasant yellow wall paper in her bedroom serves as an indicator of her weakening grip on reality. It begins with a mild irritation with the vivid colour, and ends with hallucinations of a woman trapped behind the garish patterns on the wall.

So why is this review accompanied by a rant about literary analysis? This story has a real life context that gives it a whole new dimension. Its author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, suffered from depression for several years. A renowned physician, Dr S Weir Mitchell, prescribed what was then known as a rest cure- an extended period of time without any intellectual or physical stimulation. After a couple of months of this, Gilman felt herself sinking further into mental illness and began to work on her writing once more. She intended this story to be a warning to Dr Mitchell and other patients.

Gilman was of the belief that the concept of the rest cure stemmed from the patriarchal structure of society at the time. Men were unwilling to allow women to do anything that might eventually allow them to carve an identity for themselves, so they were actively discouraged from writing and painting. Portraying women as having delicate nerves or fragile mental health was an indirect way of subjugating them.

Whether you view the story as a feminist work, or a public service announcement, or merely a psychological thriller is up to you. It works well at any level and makes a good short read, despite the obvious datedness of the language and setting. It is available in the public domain (legally, for a change) at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1952. It’s worth a shot. 3.5/5

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