No Place Like Home: Magical Ruralism as Cultural Discourse

Introduction

The iconic film The Wizard of Oz (1939) begins with Dorothy (Judy Garland) desperately wanting to escape from Kansas.  At its core, The Wizard of Oz is a film about a magical journey from rural Kansas to the gleaming Emerald City.  This basic narrative of a young person leaving his or her rural home for the intoxicating promise of urban opportunity underlies many works from the canon of modern American literature.  Since the colonial era, negotiations of rural and urban, country and city, have been central to the shaping of American nationalism.  In the United States, perceptions of countryside influenced settlement and colonization, Jeffersonian ideology, visions of the frontier, agrarian fantasies, the aftermath of the Dust Bowl, and a host of other historical developments and attitudes.  Essentially, American history reflects shifting attitudes about rural cultures and landscapes with contemporary rural culture struggling, in a sense, to define itself against urban-oriented cultural paradigms.

Characters like Dorothy Gale are commonplace in modern American literature.  During the first half of the twentieth century, canonical, widely known literary works by Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, and others portrayed rural American life as essentially alienated from modernity.  Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber and Sinclair Lewis’s Carol Kennicott yearned to escape small town life in favor of the opportunities and excitement promised by the city. Jay Gatsby, arguably one of the most famous characters in all of American literature, sheds his Minnesota identity to remake himself into a sophisticated, wealthy Easterner.  Gatsby’s lavish mansion is Oz-like in its colorful extravagance and absurdity; he is so obsessed with the pursuit of urban excess that his fantasies ultimately destroy him.  Gatsby’s dream hinges on a complete departure from his rural origins—to win Daisy, he must become a wealthy, sophisticated Easterner.  This narrative of departure works as a kind of twentieth century rural “grand narrative” in that canonical works of American literature legitimized and codified the inferiority of rural culture within the broader context of modernity.  This rural grand narrative hinged on presenting rural life as stifling, boring, and lacking in opportunities.

The question of how rural culture has responded to this grand narrative throughout the late twentieth century and beyond requires further scholarly attention.  While various theories of postmodernism address what Frederic Jameson calls the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” work on rural narratives and culture from the postmodern era is sparse.  In Knowing Your Place: Rural Identity and Cultural Hierarchy (1997), Barbara Ching and Gerald W. Creed argue that postmodern scholarship and society as a whole tend to marginalize rural culture and suggest that “the urban-identified can confidently assume the cultural value of their situation while the rural-identified must struggle to gain recognition” (4).  This “struggle to gain recognition” is a defining feature of rural cultural discourse from the postmodern era and beyond.  In his recent study of Midwestern regionalism, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge (2017), Jon K. Lauck describes how dominant culture in the twentieth century turned away from once-celebrated rural regionalisms: “For the past half century, the prevailing forces and trends in high and popular culture and in the American academy have not been conducive to the study of midwestern history and have cut against a focus on the Midwest as a particular region” (2).  I argue that re-enchantment emerges as the means through which rural culture has attempted to “gain recognition.” A study of postmodern rural narratives and cultural artifacts reveals historical re-conceptualization wherein marginalization of rural space is acknowledged and transformed through magical rural imagery. The conditions of multinational capitalism form the driving force behind the marginalization of rural culture, and postmodern rural narratives respond to these conditions through re-enchantment of pastoral images, forms, or other rural symbols.  I call the cultural discourse that emerges magical ruralism.  In the discussion that follows, I describe how place has functioned in pastoral and modern rural narratives as a way to show how postmodern rural literature and culture more generally can be read as responding to the conditions of postmodernity through re-enchantment of mythical, pastoral, or modern (often industrial) forms.  I trace how postmodern texts by Tim O’Brien, Stephen King, Louise Erdrich, E. Annie Proulx and others exemplify the use of magical ruralism in literature.  Various cultural artifacts, including roadside monuments, are surveyed as a way to show how magical ruralism is a discourse evident in both literature and culture more broadly.

 

Rural Grand Narratives

Because magical ruralism surveys a broad range of examples not limited to literature, a broad definition of “rural” informs my analysis. The Oxford English Dictionary (2011) provides multiple definitions of “rural,” including “as living in the country as opposed to the town or city” and “of, relating to, or characteristic of peasants or country people; simple, unpolished; rustic.” Definitions of “rural” consistently characterize “rural” as alienated from sophistication. As described above, many grand, canonical narratives of the early twentieth century reinforce the idea that one must abandon rural life in order to achieve modernity and sophistication. In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), Jean-Franҫois Lyotard argues that postmodernism involves the collapse or revising of the grand narrative. Attempting to understand the tension between rural and urban culture is a kind of grand narrative in itself.  As Raymond Williams explains in The Country and the City (1973):

On the country has gathered the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue.  One the city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light.  Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness, and ambition; on the country as a place of backwardness, ignorance, limitation. A contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches back into classical times. (1)

The qualities Williams assigns to the country—peace, innocence, and simplicity—are familiar elements of what might be termed the primary rural narrative form: the pastoral.  According to Terry Gifford, a pastoral narrative features a rural or country setting, often juxtaposed in some way with an urban setting (2).  A traditional pastoral work represents the rural country environment as idyllic, simple, and desirable.  Of course, the pastoral narrative is familiar when viewed in the context of the grand narrative underlying American history and nationalism.  In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964), Leo Marx explains that rural landscape figured prominently in how early America was imagined as a garden of unlimited potential:

Beginning in Jefferson’s time, the cardinal image of American aspirations was a rural landscape, a well-ordered green garden magnified to continental size. Although it probably shows a farmhouse or a neat white village, the scene usually is dominated by natural objects: in the foreground a pasture, a twisting brook with cattle grazing nearby,     then a clump of elms on a rise in the middle distance and beyond that, way off on the   western horizon, a line of dark hills.  This is the countryside of the old Republic, a chaste, uncomplicated land of rural virtue. (141)

As Marx documents, land was a crucial factor in how the early American republic defined itself against Europe.  Fascination with “unsettled,” remote landscapes spurred westward expansion as individuals searched for arable land, gold, or other early symbols of the American Dream.  Rural life occupied a prominent position in the cultural hierarchy of the early American republic as evidenced by its role in both the formation of a national mythology and in its ability to inspire the general population.
At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the closing of the American frontier.  This is a crucial moment in that Jackson’s speech symbolically suggests that the promises of happiness and riches linked to the pastoral and frontier myths are no longer accessible.  Modernity and modern literature would only confirm this, and a number of fundamental examples of the modern American novel can also be read as rural grand narratives.  In his book The Midwestern Ascendancy in American Writing (1992), Ron Weber notes that many seminal works of modern American fiction were penned by Midwestern authors and made use of Midwestern settings as microcosms of “American life.”  Weber points out that the pinnacle of this “Midwestern ascendancy” was the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Minnesotan Sinclair Lewis in 1930.  In the canonical texts that Weber addresses in his study, including Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Lewis’s Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Arrowsmith (1925) and others, the Midwest is portrayed as “cut off” from civilization and as hopelessly conformist.  The Great Gatsby suggests that Gatsby’s dream is of a kind of sophistication not available in Jay Gatz’s Midwestern home.  Similarly, in Winesburg, Ohio, George Willard as author and artist must flee Winesburg—a town portrayed by Anderson as a place where dreamers turn into “grotesques.”  In L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), which is especially important to the forthcoming discussion of magical ruralism, Kansas is described as a colorless, exhausted world.  Like the urban areas in The Great Gatsby and Winesburg, Ohio, the Emerald City appears as a place where dreams supposedly come true and wherein the “drab” qualities of small town Midwestern life might be countered.
These rural grand narratives provide context for how rural space has assumed a marginalized, inferior position in the postmodern cultural hierarchy.  As foundational examples of canonical texts, these novels also position marginalization of rural space and culture as a central narrative within the field of literary studies.  As Max Weber argues in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), the modern condition is one of disenchantment.  The canonical modern narratives discussed above present rural landscapes and communities as disenchanted and lacking in sophistication.  Magical ruralist texts use re-enchantment as a strategy for countering this cultural marginalization.  Ching and Creed identify a “radical embracing of that marginality by many people in order to contest the late twentieth century’s hegemonic urbanity and it associated socio-political structures” (5).  Magical ruralism surfaces as the cultural discourse where this “embracing of marginality” takes shape, with the supposedly boring and ordinary elements of rural life transformed into something spectacular.

 

Magical Ruralism
Importantly, a major figure in postmodern literature has pointed to a famous rural narrative as a significant factor in his development as a writer.  In his 1992 essay “Out of Kansas,” Salman Rushdie describes the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz as the text that inspired him to write.  The similarities between the film and Rushdie’s use of magical realism are obvious, and Rushdie acknowledges the prominent green hues in the movie as a source for the “green and black” dreams of Saleem Sinai, narrator of Rushdie’s 1980 novel Midnight’s Children (17).  The links between magical realism and postmodern rural literature extend beyond Rushdie’s essay.  In her excellent discussion of the elements of magical realism, Wendy B. Faris writes that “magical realism has tended to concentrate on rural settings and to rely on rural inspiration—almost a postmodern pastoralism” (Zamora and Faris 182).  In both well-known magical realist narratives and in postmodern rural narratives, rural or “village” life is often threatened by the forces of late capitalism.  Magic and fantasy emerge as means through which characters manage the anxiety associated with existing in such an environment.
Both magical realism and magical ruralism are discourses of marginalization, but to equate magical realism and magical ruralism would be to overlook the significant differences that emerge when tracing the sources of marginalization.  Whereas the forces of capitalism have contributed to marginalization and displacement of indigenous populations and villages worldwide, colonialism and its legacy play a significant role in how magical ruralism and magical realism differ.  In suggesting that both magical realism and magical ruralism are discourses of marginalization, I am not suggesting that the sources or effects of marginalization are equal.  In his article “Magic Realism as Postcolonial Discourse” (1995), Stephen Slemon describes magical realism as a postcolonial discourse historically associated with the Third World (Zamora and Faris 408).  Slemon points out how overuse of “magical realism” can prove problematic: “the concept of magical realism itself threatens to become a monumentalizing category for literary practice and to offer centralizing genre systems a single locus upon which the massive problem of difference in literary expression can be managed into recognizable meaning in one swift pass” (Zamora and Faris 409).  Magical ruralism offers an alternative lens, related to magical realism, through which cultural responses to the marginalization of postmodern rural space and culture can be approached.  Magical ruralism differs from magical realism in that magical ruralist texts enchant or re-enchant decidedly rural forms and materials, both natural and unnatural.  Like pastoralism, these rural “raw materials” are largely Western, often secular forms and concepts.  As with many magical realist texts, ordinary forms and materials assume magical or supernatural powers in the magical ruralist text.  In her article “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction,” Faris explains that “magical realism combines realism and the fantastic in such a way that magical elements grow organically out of the reality portrayed” (164).  Magical ruralist texts tend to draw from a more recent past than magical realist texts; although this is not true of all magical ruralist texts, many of the examples I survey below reveal a re-enchantment of machinery, commercial imagery, or other post-industrial material.  Magical realist texts often make use of a more distant, pre-industrial past, including “non-Western cultural systems that privilege mystery over empiricism, empathy over technology, tradition over innovation” (Zamora and Faris 3).

Magical ruralist literature typically reveals a central anxiety concerning rural life and/or rural landscapes.  Re-enchantment of rural raw materials functions as a response to that anxiety.  In Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods (1994) and in Stephen King’s story “Children of the Corn” (1977), rural raw materials are re-enchanted in a way that both re-conceptualizes history and manages anxieties concerning rural space.  In both texts, enchantment is linked to commodification, in the sense that tourism plays an important role in both narratives.  In In the Lake of the Woods, the Lake of the Woods in Northern Minnesota—a definitely “remote” location—is presented as a locus of subjectivity, mystery, and supernatural power linked to re-enchanting of rural Midwestern landscapes.  “Magic” works in the novel as a depictive re-conceptualizing of the dominant, popular constructions of remote Midwestern space as empty and vacuous—in the novel, remote space as empty and vacuous is aligned with rural space as landscape of spectacle, which is in turn related to the hyper-violent nature of postmodern society.  Importantly, the lake is also linked to protagonist John Wade’s apparently “magical powers”—Wade, a Vietnam veteran and probable PTSD victim—is nicknamed “Sorcerer,” and the novel details his ability to make people disappear.  The subsequent disappearance of Wade’s wife conjures ghostly imagery and references, calling to mind relevant moments in Winesburg, Ohio as George Willard looks upon the deserted fairgrounds in “Sophistication” and notes that “there are ghosts all around,” and reminiscent of the ghostly voices that permeate Masters’s Spoon River Anthology.  Enacting a pastoral journey to the lake forces Wade and his wife into a confrontation with anxiety that eventually culminates in an unsolvable mystery potentially fueled  by rural magic.

In King’s “Children of the Corn,” two Eastern tourists, Burt and Vicky, are driving through Nebraska on their way to California.  The story makes clear that Burt and Vicky are anxious about their encounter with rural landscapes—they point out how “boring” and monotonous the surroundings are, for example.  Importantly, the story complicates whether or not the couple’s eventually horrific discoveries and experiences are even real, as Burt at one point wonders whether he might be dreaming (King 267).  Quantic and Hafen describe the Great Plains as a “state of mind” (xxi) which informs the dreamlike quality of Burt and Vicky’s confrontation with rural space.  Just as the ghost-like baseball players in Phil Alden Robinson’s film Field of Dreams (1989) seem to originate in the corn field, so too do the beings that torment Burt and Vicky. Like O’Brien’s novel, the story revolves around a confrontation with remote space; unlike the modern rural grand narratives discussed earlier, In the Lake of the Woods and “The Children of the Corn” assign magical properties to rural space.  Burt notices that the corn is “perfect” and “impossibly” free from weeds.  The corn also takes on a supernatural, intoxicating quality, as Burt “became aware of the corn fragrance in his nose now, all around him.  The wind through the tops of the plants made a sound like voices.  Soothing.  Whatever had been done in the name of this corn, it was now his protector” (King 269).  Upon getting lost in the cornfield, Burt oscillates between feelings of comfort and feelings of intense fear, with the sacred and the profane coalescing in the image of a crucifix made from corn husks, which Burt describes as “fabulous art” and which Vicky describes as “hideous.”  Again, the marginalized status of the Midwest is re-conceptualized.  King presents the rural Midwest as a landscape of spectacle and as a re-enchanted, postmodern Arcadia of sorts where rural raw materials assume magical properties.
This re-enchanted Arcadia is also populated by species of images, to borrow garden terminology, that are both natural and mechanistic.  As Leo Marx points out, the “garden myth” is bound up in the idea that gardening represents a kind of ideal fusion between nature and machinery.  This is perhaps best symbolized in the work of Willa Cather and in the famous image of the shadow of the plow in the setting sun that Jim Burden describes in My Ántonia.  Relatedly, Marx explains that Ralph Waldo Emerson saw “genius” as stemming from uniting the nature and the machine.  Texts invested in magical ruralist discourse tend to engage with these ideas and to revise related images through postmodern strategies of historical re-conceptualization (Hutcheon) and pastiche.  In the postmodern world the “rural,” like the notion of “wilderness,” is largely illusory or simulated, and it is difficult to posit that an ideal harmony between nature and machine can truly exist when nature has grown increasingly difficult to separate from “the machine.”  In the work of E. Annie Proulx and Louise Erdrich, Cather’s image of the plow in the setting sun is revised and re-worked in ways that evidence the inseparable nature of “the rural” and “the machine” within the postmodern world but that also attempt to expose the unique, magical nature of the rural machine.

In Erdrich’s The Beet Queen, Karl describes an air seeder as “a miracle” (101); the novel also presents the local beet refinery as “Oz.”  Importantly, both the air seeder and the beet refinery are machines in the garden; neither is a natural form, yet both are clearly symbolic of rural culture.  The novel engages with the difficult place of the rural within the postmodern world, as the butcher shop where Mary Adare works and which unites all of the characters in the novel is threatened by an increasingly apparent desire for “one stop shopping” and the “big box store.”  Although Quantic reads the novel as evidencing the “unbearable” nature of the “closed garden” (98-99), I argue that Erdrich’s work is actually invested in a kind of re-enchantment of the uniquely rural materials that do remain and that do serve as important ways in which rural Midwesterners understand their own identities, even when these objects—air seeders and local beet refineries—are related to machinery.
A similar strategy of historical re-conceptualization and recycling of familiar “garden” images is used by E. Annie Proulx in her collections Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999) and Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 (2004), wherein remote Wyoming landscapes are juxtaposed with often strange, fantastic imagery that is often related to a revision of “machine in the garden” imagery.  In her essay “Making Space: A Notebook,” Sandra Lim describes remote Wyoming landscapes as a way to reflect on the relationships between time, place, and poetry.  Lim writes, “To arrive at any one place in a poem is like witnessing the poet come to his or her own senses: you see a vivid and reasonable hallucination before you” (Lessley and Snider 77).  This “reasonable hallucination” evokes the blending of rural reality and magic typical of magical ruralism and illuminates this blending as it surfaces in Proulx’s stories.   In “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World,” Aladdin, a rancher, is given a magical moniker as a result of a green-shaded lamp arriving in the mail from Sears on the day of his birth.  In this way, the rural rancher is a product of both a kind of frontier landscape but also of a capitalistic commodity.  The symbolic space where these two factors meet overlaps with the space of enchantment.  The story also details Aladdin’s sister Ottaline’s conversations with a run-down John Deere tractor.  Both Ottaline and the tractor are presented in the story as similarly “ugly,” marginalized, and “broken”; the voice of the talking John Deere, not dissimilar from the voice in Field of Dreams, essentially voices the concerns of both the tractor and Ottaline as outsiders.  Giving the tractor a voice, although the story later reveals that the tractor cannot actually talk, works as a kind of re-enchantment of a symbolically “outdated” rural machine.  At one point in the story, Ottaline asks the tractor, “Are you like an enchanted thing? A damn story where some girl lets a warty toad sleep in her shoe and in the mornin the toad’s a good-lookin dude makin omelettes?” (138). Ottaline demonstrates a clear awareness of herself within a broader narrative.  The quotation also draws on fairy tale imagery and situates Ottaline as a character within her own fairy tale.
Proulx employs magical ruralist strategies in blending re-enchantment and postmodern narrative technique.  In her stories “A Lonely Coast” and “The Trickle-Down Effect,” Proulx engages in a kind of pastiche of Cather’s plow image that, I argue, inverts and re-enchants that image that, on its own, is no longer a viable ideal in the postmodern world.  “A Lonely Coast” begins with a question to the reader as to whether or not he or she has ever seen a burning house off in the distance while driving at night on a remote highway.  “A Lonely Coast” goes on to describe the spectacular, unique qualities of that image, emphasizing that it is unique to the type of landscape found only in Wyoming or in similarly remote areas:

You ever see a house burning up in the night, way to hell and gone out there on the plains? Nothing but blackness and your headlights cutting a little wedge into it, could be the middle of the ocean for all you can see.  And in that big dark a crown of flame the size of your thumbnail trembles.  You’ll drive for an hour seeing it until it burns out or you do, until you pull off the road to close your eyes or to look up at the sky punched with bullet holes, see them trying for the stairs, but mostly you don’t give a damn.  They are too far away, like everything else.  (189)

“The Trickle-Down Effect” makes use of a similar image.  Deb Sipple is hauling a load of hay bales back to Wyoming, driving through the night and throwing cigarette butts out the window.  Unknown to him, the cigarette butts are actually landing in the hay, igniting the bed of his truck.  Proulx describes the image of Sipple piloting the rig back into town as “the closest thing to a meteor ever seen in Elk Tooth” (54).  These images can be defined as magical images.  At its most basic level, a “magic” entails a power or happening contrary to natural law or logic.  Additionally, the Oxford English Dictionary (2011) defines “magic” as “an inexplicable and remarkable influence producing surprising results; an enchanting or mystical quality; glamour, appeal,” and further as “the art of producing. . . apparently inexplicable phenomena; conjuring.”  Both images from Proulx characterize isolated rural landscapes as theater for spectacular phenomena; the burning house and ignited hay bales are extraordinary to the point of conjuring illusions of oceans and meteors.

I argue that both images represent a kind of re-working and re-enchantment of Cather’s plow in the sun image in that they depict fantastic, distinctly postmodern, distinctly rural juxtapositions of nature and machine.  Postmodern rural space is constructed through the discourse of magical ruralism not as a resurrection of the “real” pastoral garden or of the frontier, but as a re-enchanted, postmodern space of spectacle.  Indeed, part of the value of the work of Erdrich and Proulx, for scholars, is in how both authors’ narratives cast postmodern rural culture and space as inherently different and perhaps even strange in the presence of experiences and imagery that are not available in urban areas.

Giants on the Earth: Rural Landscapes of Spectacle

“If you build it, he will come.”  In the film Field of Dreams (1989), this message from an unknown, disembodied voice drives Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella to plow under his corn to build a baseball field.  Kinsella is anxious about his rural life; originally from California, Kinsella has moved to his wife’s home state of Iowa to try his hand at farming.  Despite mockery from his fellow farmers, Kinsella follows the voice’s advice and watches in disbelief as dead former baseball players, including Kinsella’s father and Shoeless Joe Jackson, inexplicably emerge from the cornfields to play baseball on Kinsella’s “field of dreams.”  By the end of the film, the baseball field has become an impossible portal of sorts, where those who believe in its magic can travel through time and space.  However, the film ends with a clear message: the magical baseball field and the family farm can simultaneously survive only if the Kinsella family starts charging admission.  Young Karen Kinsella, the voice of a new generation, prophesizes that “people will come,” and the closing image of the film shows a long trail of car headlights piloting through the dark Iowa countryside toward the magical farm.

Implicitly, rural life can persist only if it is willing to re-cast itself as a landscape of magic and spectacle to be consumed by urban outsiders.  Many actual rural communities have embraced “re-enchantment” as a way to spur tourism and economic activity.  In her book The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol Along the American Highway (1984), art historian Karal Ann Marling studies the cultural significance of various Midwestern roadside attractions, including the Paul Bunyan and Babe statue in Bemidji, Minnesota; the Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minnesota; and Pierre, the Talking Voyageur Statue in Two Harbors, Minnesota.  The Blue Earth Jolly Green Giant functions as a bricolage of mythical, modern, and postmodern.  As a completely green, towering figure, the Jolly Green Giant resembles various mythological characters, including the Green Man, the Green Knight of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and, to a contemporary visitor, perhaps even the Incredible Hulk.  Built in 1978, the Blue Earth Jolly Green Giant statue contributes to characterizations of the rural landscape as a landscape of spectacle. The statue re-conjures the magical, idyllic conditions of Fitzgerald’s “green breast of the new world”; this is evident on the company’s present-day website, which currently features a video of the Green Giant happily strolling through green rolling hills while a family eats Green Giant vegetables (GreenGiant.com).  Marling describes how the statue is also imagined by the community of Blue Earth, MN as a way for the community to assert its uniqueness to a largely urban audience: “Like the Paul Bunyan of 1937, the Jolly Green Giant of 1978 is a resonant mark of local presence, a magnet drawing the traveler off the highway, into the mythical realm of the American Midwest” (4).  This example shows how magical ruralist artifacts often paradoxically respond to the conditions of postmodernity while simultaneously appropriating capitalistic and/or commercial forms or agendas.  As a kind of secular “god” figure, the Blue Earth Green Giant is a pastoral image in that the character is literally made of green leaves.  However, the statue also glorifies a processed commercial product.  Unlike magical realist texts, which are often read as “writing against” or challenging hegemonic forces, the Blue Earth Green Giant seems to satisfy these forces through re-enchantment of pastoral and commercial imagery.  Countless other unusual monuments and roadside attractions exist throughout rural America and function as examples of magical ruralist discourse: like the baseball field in the film Field of Dreams, these texts attempt to characterize rural elsewhere as unique destinations worthy of interest.  Geographer Jeffrey Hopkins argues that the kind of “place promotion” evident in such roadside monuments functions as a “postmodern imperative” (66) for many rural communities.  Re-enchantment works as both an imaginative and commercialized narrative strategy.

 

Implications for Scholars and Beyond

Even as the digital age has closed the gap, to some extent, between rural and urban space, the differences between rural and urban culture continue to shape not only artistic and popular imaginations, but also the everyday lives of individuals throughout the United States.  As Minnesota-born Mark Wunderlich writes in his essay “Famous Mushroom,” “Growing up queer in the rural Midwest, I knew there was no life for me there; I would have to leave, and I would most likely have to move to a city.  In an urban place I could make friends, find a society in which I belonged, and live a life of culture and books and like-minded comradery” (Lessley and Snider 269).  A quick glance at the 2016 United States Presidential Election electoral map reveals distinct trends in the voting patterns of “red states” versus “blue states.”  The electoral map is a useful symbol for understanding the intriguing position of rural studies in the twenty-first century.  While general cultural, ideological, and socioeconomic differences certainly persist between rural and urban spaces, these differences are complex, shifting, and shaped by narrative and historical forces.  Negotiating the challenges that can come with growing up in a rural area with the natural affections and nostalgia linked to one’s sense of “home” is often both bewildering and transformational.  In turning to the rural, scholars will encounter a trove of examples for how rural culture has responded to its perception, both self-defined and externally defined, in the era of late capitalism and beyond.

Specifically, Midwestern and Great Plains literary studies continue to explore the concept of Midwestern regionalism.  Magical ruralism provides a theoretical pathway for new scholarship on rural cultural discourse.  In defining magical ruralism, I have chosen texts situated in rural Midwestern settings and published squarely within the postmodern era; the surveyed texts call into question how both individuals and communities make sense of postmodern rural existence.  In focusing on Midwestern and Great Plains texts, I hope to advance discussions of the nature of Midwestern and Great Plains regional literatures in the era of late capitalism and beyond.  While situating magical ruralism within the context of rural American literature as a whole is beyond the scope of this article, the discourse is grounded in yet not confined to Midwestern and Great Plains literature.  Indeed, rural, agrarian landscapes and cultures exist throughout the world, and magical ruralism can provide a lens through which scholars might examine cultural responses to the conditions of postmodernity from various perspectives and regional contexts.
Magical ruralism is also relevant to broader discussions of urbanity, scholarship, and the management of human resources within the field of literary studies.  While rural states house some of the most prestigious English programs in the country, including the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, rural colleges and universities simultaneously struggle to attract and keep quality faculty who may not want to live in a remote location.  Scholars from rural states may feel pressured to leave their home regions for large and/or urban universities in other states, where both prestige and opportunity are more plentiful.  Ching and Creed explain, “In the West, few intellectuals have deep rural roots, and for those who do, education often severs these connections.  The traditional pedagogical agenda, with its emphasis on enlightenment through the liberal arts, has long been opposed to the supposed essence of rusticity—lack of cultural sophistication and a preference for practical know-how over erudition” (10).  The goal is not to generalize practitioners of education at the college and university level as hostile to rural concerns and citizens, but rather to point out the real implications, for our field and beyond, of the popular attitudes toward rural space and culture in the postmodern era and beyond.  For any scholar who has ever discounted a job due to its remote location, or for any rural student who has wondered why no courses in “local” literature appear in a curriculum, the question of how the academy shapes, contributes to, and historicizes rural culture is relevant.

Finally, magical ruralism is borne out in real economic and community development strategies.  As Hopkins demonstrates, “place promotion” has emerged as an economic strategy for many rural and remote communities.  In examples like the Blue Earth Green Giant, “Oz” has become an economic strategy intended to bring tourists to rural communities.  Karen Kinsella’s prediction that “people will come” reflects a strategy of survival for rural communities: magical ruralism is a theoretical lens for approaching rural literature, but also a broader cultural logic wherein magic and re-enchantment collide with and often attempt to counter historical forces.

 

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Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood.  Winesburg, Ohio.  1919.  New York: Penguin, 2005.

Baum, L. Frank.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  1900.  Penguin, 2008.

Cather, Willa.  My Ántonia.  1918.  Mariner, 1995.

Ching, Barbara, and Gerald W. Creed, eds.  Knowing Your Place: Rural Identity and Cultural Hierarchy.  Routledge, 1997.

Dreiser, Theodore.  Sister Carrie. 1900.  Norton, 1994.

Erdrich, Louise.  The Beet Queen.  1986.  HarperCollins, 2006.

Faris, Wendy B.  “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction.” Zamora and Faris 163-190.

Field of Dreams.  Dir. Phil Alden Robinson.  Perf. Kevin Costner, Ray Liotta, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones.  Universal Pictures, 1989.  Film.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott.  The Great Gatsby.  1925.  Scribner, 2004.

Gifford, Terry.  Pastoral.  1999.  Routledge, 2010. GreenGiant.com. B&G Foods of North America, 2018, http://www.greengiant.com.

Hopkins, Jeffrey.  “Signs of the Post-Rural: Marketing Myths of a Symbolic Countryside.” Geografiska Annaler, vol. 80, no. 2, 1998, pp. 65-81.

Hutcheon, Linda.  A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction.  Routledge, 1988.

Jameson, Frederic.  Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

Duke UP, 1990.

King, Stephen.  “The Children of the Corn.”  1977.  Night Shift.  Anchor Books,

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Lauck, Jon K.  From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920-1965.  University of Iowa Press, 2017.

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Discourse on Anxiety: An Analysis of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Discourse on AnxietyPDF icon

 

Stories exist to act as a sort of virtual reality of the mind allowing readers to interact with various ideas and concepts that may require alteration.  Altering the definition of what it means to be a woman in any society has become an important arena for consideration.  In her short story, “Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman captures the essence of this anxiety of definition in narrative journal format allowing a first person view of the inner struggle and thought the process of self-identity.  Discourse, in the story, can be observed to be divided in a very Platonic way in the conception of two social spheres representing the enlightened men and the ordinary women, doctor and patient, and husband and wife.  Rather than placing women in a position to explore a self-realized identity based on education, Gilman’s story divides men and women into distinct categories where dialog becomes the means in which to explore women’s identity.

To streamline the examination of Gilman’s dialog this essay will be divided into three distinct parts.  First, the historical context of the place of women in the nineteenth century will be reviewed to better understand the place of the narrator as well as the purpose of the diagnosis.  Secondly, a review of previous interpretations of the story will be considered in light of a Platonic interpretation of the story.  Finally, the essay will examine discourse as a means of understanding the place of women as being the domestic sphere which acts as a metaphorical cave.

Historical Context

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of reading any work of literature is to understand the social and cultural contexts in which of a story is set.  While autonomous projection can serve a useful purpose for a contemporary interpretation of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” understanding the place of women in the late nineteenth century can also provide insight into understanding the story.  Essentially, it is important to keep in mind that the story was not written directly for a contemporary audience, and that can change the overall meaning within the story.

The story, published in 1892, during an era that promoted the concept of “separate spheres” where men and women were moral, ethically, and politically divided (Hughes).  The ideology tended to rest on hard definitions of “natural” characteristics of men and females.  Women were considered physically inferior to men, but they were also considered morally superior to men as they never left the domestic environment (Hughes).  Moral superiority was the quality that best-suited women to care for the “domestic sphere” where women would raise children, care for the home, cook, and clean.  They also acted as a ballast to ensure that when men came home, they would not also bring the taint of the immoral public sphere with them (Hughes).  Along with the duty of raising children, a woman who may have been middle or upper class would ensure that the servants were doing an adequate job in taking care of the domestic environment.

Women’s rights did not exist in any meaningful way during this era.  Both law and public opinion supported the family as a patriarchal institution in which the husband, and father, was considered the only legal “person” in a household (Goodsell 13).  While this may have operated to make the family a robust and coherent unit, it also legally recognized men as the land owners, property owners, and the owner of his wife and children (Goodsell 13).  In fact, women’s rights could only be considered within the framework of separate spheres.  There were many tracks, embellished with easy to remember poems, which encouraged the subservient behavior.  It was audaciously titled “Women’s Rights.”  These rights consisted of:

The right to be a comforter,

When other comforts fail;

The right to cheer the drooping heart

When troubles most assail.

The right to train the infant mind,

To think of Heaven and God;

The right to guide the tiny feet

The path our Savior trod.

The right to solace the distressed,

To wipe the mourners tear;

The right to shelter the oppressed,

And gently chide the fear…

Such are the noblest women’s rights,

The rights which God hath given,

The right to comfort man on earth

And smooth his path to heaven. (Hughes)

Women’s rights, then, were solely guided by the domestic sphere, and their foremost duty was to their husbands as they “smooth his path to heaven” in a “cheerful” manner (Hughes).  It also highlights an economy where the woman’s cares and concerns come last.  Her first duty is to her husband, next to her children, then to God, and, finally, the oppressed.  Not having any time for herself, the woman acts as a slave to her husband and the domestic environment.

Apart from being enslaved by social and cultural norms that dictated their vocation as raising the next generation, it was assumed that women did not seek sexual or emotional satisfaction.  As William Acton declared, “the majority of women (happy for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind” (112).  When young women were finally married, they were united with men who were at least five years older.  This served a dual purpose.  First, it allowed a man to pursue an education that would provide a foundational income for raising a family (Hughes).  Secondly, the age difference reinforced the perception of the natural hierarchy between the sexes allowing the man to maintain headship over a younger woman (Hughs).

While these marriages were essentially the enslavement of women, many women believed that they belonged in the domestic sphere.  Graves wrote in 1841 that, “Fathers should be the patriarchal sovereigns, and mothers the queens of their households…The sanctuary of domestic life is to her (the wife) the place of safety as well as the ‘post of honour’” (45,60).  The French thinker Alex De Tocqueville was greatly impressed by the fact that in America, “the independence of women is irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony” (245).  While the single girl “makes her father’s home an abode of freedom and of pleasure; the wife lives in the home of her husband as if it were a cloister” (245).  Overall, women could be viewed as little more than property designed for the particular purpose of serving a husband as a nun might serve God.

Masculine Definition of the Narrator

Within the framework of the two spheres dichotomy, Gilman’s story becomes a recognition of two separate worlds in the form of the physician or scientist, and patient.  Contained in the title of “physician” is the complete history of Western Civilization.  All man-made philosophy has elevated John, and all those who remain unblessed by Enlightenment education are those who live in Plato’s cave watching shadows on the wall.  It is from his position as a “physician of high standing” that allows John to authoritatively diagnose and, thus, define his young wife.  He diagnoses the narrator with “temporary nervous depression” with “slight hysterical tendencies,” but found nothing physically wrong with her (Gilman 138).  In the absence of physical evidence of a malady, John subjected his wife to the “rest cure” pioneered by Weir Mitchell and applauded the world over for its innovation, seemingly only be men who would have dominated the medical field.  The “cure” would only work, however, if key elements were followed:

…isolation, complete physical rest, a rich diet of creamy foods, massage, and electrical stimulation of disused muscles, and complete submission to the authority of the attending physician.  All physical and intellectual activity is to be prohibited.  A patient is to be lifted out of her own social and familial milieu and transported to a neutral environment tended only by a nurse and her doctor. (Mitchell)

Based on the conception of women as inferior in every way to man, the concept of the rest cure was designed to provide respite from regular domestic duties that had become a source of stress and anxiety.  The removal to a neutral environment was intended to take all that was stressful from the woman’s life.  However, by the second page of the story, the narrator already feels helpless and frustrated in light of her husband’s diagnostic declaration:

If… 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?…I take phospahtes or phosphites- whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.  Personally I disagree with their ideas.  Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. (Gilman 138-139)

John has defined his wife, apparently, very publicly, and he has done so in such a way as to veto any self-identification from the narrator.  If the unexamined life is not worth living then, John has examined the narrator’s life for her and has decided that she requires more restriction to heal.  Further diagnostic definition becomes necessary on John’s part to restrict the narrator as a thinking and creative being to relieve her anxiety.

Despite the fact that the narrator may know what is best for herself, she allows her husband to exercise his authority over her out of social obligation to her husband but also out of a sense of inferiority.  Given the public nature of the diagnosis as being both declaratively professional and masculine, the narrator must adhere to the regiment despite the fact that she feels that something is wrong, but she is unable to contradict her husband.  The narrator then becomes “unreasonably angry,” but she reminds herself that she is overly sensitive given her condition further allowing her husband to tighten the chains that enslave her to his person (Gilman 139).

The narrator reacts to the diagnosis by striving to define John.  Her definition of her husband describes him as extremely practical to the point that he has no patience for faith, and he also has an “intense horror of superstition” (Gilman 138).  She initially identifies him as a cold scientist, that believes only observable fact and cares nothing for feelings and less for imagination (Gilman 138).  While John is representative of early modernist Enlightenment thought, he also embodies all of the Western philosophy.  He is the Platonic prisoner set free from the cave through education, and he no longer looks at the world as shadows cast on the wall (Bloom 194).  John can look at and contemplate the light of the sun believing he pursues the source of all knowledge (Bloom 195).  All is illuminated and bright for John, and he is the enlightened man of science.

John’s diagnosis of his wife’s sickness as a nervous disorder is indicative of Enlightenment concepts of women.  Her disorder is a product of the very fact that she is a woman and not a man.  Rousseau said of women, “Consult women in all bodily matter, in all concerns of the senses; consult men in the matters of morality, and all that involves understanding” (59).  Women, according to Hegel, also lack self-conscious reflection which would necessarily mean that women were weaker than men both intellectually and self-consciously as they would have not a human consciousness (Kant 78; Hegel).  Finally, Kant describes women, while beautiful, as being intellectually inferior to men and not cut out for the work of exercising logic or engaging in complex thought (77-79).  All of these definitions of women serve to illustrate the belief that not all were designed to crawl out of Plato’s cave, and, in fact, only a handful of men would achieve the prestige of coming into the light.

As John is dedicated to reason, he decides to remove his wife from the stressful environment of the home and moves her out to the country.  However, his choice of location for respite is worth exploring.  John rents a “secure ancestral hall for the summer” that the narrator also describes as a “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate” and, even, a “haunted house” (Gilman 138).  Considering that women are part of the domestic sphere, it would stand to reason that remaining at home where everything would be familiar would have been a healthier choice.  The narrator does not seem to appreciate the new surroundings, and she believes that there is “something queer about it” (Gilman 139).  John shrinks her world to a minuscule cocoon meant to envelop and heal, but in so doing he has condemned her to the impossible task of recovering without thought or vocation enshrouded with the vestiges of the shadow of patriarchy.

The “hereditary estate” can also serve as the idea of secluding the narrator in the darkness of Plato’s cave.  To this point, John has provided every definition by his education and gender.  Now, as she has a kind of existential crisis he prescribes a remedy that would take her away from her home and into the country.  Like the cave, the colonial mansion represents repression for those who are too uneducated or unworthy to be left to the steady upward slope toward the light of truth.  The ancestral halls embody the shadow of patriarchy that casts shadows upon the wall to allow the narrator some little understanding of why the rest cure is necessary.

Not only has John chained her to a metaphor for the cave, but he also uses condescending childish language as a way to explain why she must stay in the house.  He belittles her as a thinker and writer as he explains:

…that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. (Gilman 144)

He also, out of frustration, reminds his wife of the domestic hierarchy:

My darling…I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!  There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours.  It is a false and foolish fancy.  Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so? (Gilman 147)

John not only controls the light of her life, but he also manipulates the statues that cast shadows upon the wall to help his wife understand what is best.  She is not to imagine, but to be practical and willful, both tendencies that suit the masculine.  When the narrator claims she is not feeling better, he tells her that she must get better, not for herself, but for him, their son, and that she just needs to trust him as a doctor.  There is no appeal for his sake as a husband, and she must become more like him if she is to heal.

The majority of healing in the narrator’s case also means identifying within her domestic sphere.  She is anxious and stressed because she may be trying too hard to be selfish and independent.  The diagnostic relationship, rather than being therapeutic, serves to reorient her to the established social order.  She does not belong to herself, and John not only continues to remind her that she does not belong to herself but he also never refers to her by name.  He refers to her by very simple pet names such as “blessed little goose” (Gilman 141), “darling” or “dear” (Gilman 145,147), and “little girl” (Gilman 146).  By not using her name, the narrator’s identity must attach to John to have an identity.  Treating her as a child also serves to allow John the advantage of continual definition to the point that narrator can only identify herself by John’s dictates.  While the narrator reacts negatively to these definitions, they still make self-definition much harder as she has undergone extensive re-description by the light of her life.

Self-Identity

While John defines the narrator using scientific language, the narrator fights to understand her personal identity.  Given the rigid definition of women in her day, the narrator struggles to understand who she is.  The conflict makes any definition bipolar as she swings from one extreme to the next in the space of a few sentences.  One moment she describes how much she disagrees believing that “excitement and change” would be better than resting (Gilman 138-139).   Above all, however, she strives to conform to her husband’s wishes, but there is no rest in conformity.  At first, she aims to become the expectation of her society, but the exertion is overwhelming:

… I take pains to control myself- before him, at least, and that makes me very tired…Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able- to dress and entertain, and order things… (Gilman 139, 141)

The act of conformity to please her husband is a heavy burden that contradicts John’s edict as a physician, but the narrator seems to recognize that it is the only way she will be declared cured and released.

However, no matter how hard the narrator strives to conform, she has nothing to occupy her mind except the contradiction and confusion of defining herself.  The narrator allows the contradictory nature of her husband’s definition to oppose her desire for self-actualization.  Ford notes that “but,” the conjunction of contradiction, is used fifty-six times in the short space of the story (311).  Other words such as “and, so, only, besides” are also used as substitutes for “but.”  Even though her thoughts are written secretly on “dead paper,” the narrator seeks a small internal rebellion as a means of identifying separately from and contradicting her husband (Gilman 138).  Having nothing else to occupy her time, the narrator begins to study the wallpaper as it reflects the confusion she feels.

With no other stimulation, however, the yellow wallpaper covering her room becomes her focal point.  She reads it as she might read a book, and she wishes to interpret it as she is interpreting her life.  However, she finds that neither makes sense.  Just as the narrator is to be domestic, so too is wallpaper domestic and humble used to decorate a room or hide drywall or cover blemishes.  Outside her domestic environment, however, the wallpaper becomes a nightmarish symbol of being trapped in her domestic life. Both become:

Repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.  It is dull yet lurid orange in some, a sickly sulfur tint in others (Gilman 140).

Just as the yellow wallpaper has been warped and faded, so too has the narrator personified and projected her confused feelings onto that wallpaper.  She feels repelled, revolted, and she smolders against the definition that John has assigned her, but she still finds no self-definition since she can only describe what she is not as John provides her singular self-conception.

Confusion over who she is can also be examined in the simple nature of her confinement. Her prison is a nursery, with rings on the walls, and bars on the windows (Gilman140).  The only piece of furniture in the chamber is a large bed that is immovable as it has been nailed to the floor (Gilman144).  Here rests another absurdity suggesting that she is a child, but the bed fixed to the floor also defines her sexual life regarding being beholden to her husband.  The nursery has become a place of childishness as well as sexual slavery designed to keep her ignorant and subdued making her recovery an extreme return to Plato’s cave.

Given the contradictory nature of her existence, and having no intellectual stimulation, the narrator studies and observes the wallpaper:

…by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind…it changes with the light.  When the sun shoots in through the east window- I always watch for that first long, straight ray-it changes so quickly that I never can quite believe it…by daylight it is subdued, quiet…in the day time it is tiresome and perplexing. (147,148-149)

While the sun subdues the wallpaper, it also becomes confusing to behold.  What makes the pattern complicated may stem from two similar reasons.  First, it could mean that the narrator is being exposed to the light of knowledge too soon and has no idea how to self-identify apart from John.  Just as in Plato’s cave, exposure to the light too soon may cause disorientation and confusion as the prisoner’s eyes are not yet accustomed to the light and must only receive definition from her husband.  Secondly, the wallpaper may be the narrator’s confusion as she realizes that she is a separate self, and is uncertain how to proceed without a voice.  During the day, in the absence of her husband, she can relax, her journal serves as her voice, and she writes with some certainty of opinion.  There is no burden to conform in the same way as when John is present.  In John’s absence, the narrator seems to use the wallpaper to reflect on her identity and what it means to be an individual.  In any case, the wallpaper becomes tiresome and perplexing as the narrator tries to force a definition of conformity upon it so that she may subdue it in the same way that she is subdued and wishes to overcome herself (Gilman 149).

While the narrator is unable to make sense of the pattern of the wallpaper under the light of the sun, she does discover that under certain dimmer lights she can make out a pattern.  The moonlight, however, becomes the most helpful light as it reveals the true nature of the pattern:

By moonlight- the moon shines in all night when there is a moon- I wouldn’t know it was the same paper.   At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all moonlight, it becomes bars!  The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind them is as plain as can be. (Gilman 148)

Just as in Plato, Gilman uses the moon to illuminate what cannot be observed during the day.  The narrator, then, can see the truth of the wallpaper, and the wallpaper’s true nature is that of a prison.  It may be the prison of her identity or freedom of choice based on the concepts of family and social structure that trapped so many married women of the nineteenth century.  The moonlight unveils the nature of wallpaper identifying by night what becomes impossible to fathom by day.

Besides the bars imprisoning the woman, the yellow wallpaper is also festooned with other designs.  The first designs that she makes out are the heads of many women, strangled, necks broken, and bulbous eyes that stare at her (Gilman 142).  Those women who tried to escape the bars by forcing their heads through it were strangled and killed.   It may be that this accounts for the rancid smell connected to the “yellow” of the wallpaper:

It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper.  It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw- not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.  But there is something else about the paper- the smell!  I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad.  Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here.  (Gilman 149).

The smell and the color may be tied to the idea of Gilman nodding to the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre as the segregation of the “other” where “yellow” can mean anyone who is not white (Lanser 428; Owens 77).  While this is an excellent interpretation of the color yellow, I would suggest that the color yellow becomes so pervasive because it is emanating from the narrator.  It’s in her clothes, her hair, and she notices it even when she is out riding in the open air (Gilman 150).  Perhaps it has always been her natural smell, and it was accepted because she took her role and definition in society without question.  Understanding that her definition does not come from her self-consciousness has allowed her to realize that she is part of the “yellow.”  Perhaps the whole world is yellow apart from the patriarchs of the West who form the definitions of not just their society but the world.  Women, ethnic minorities, gay and lesbian, and any who do not fit John’s misogynist definition may be yellow.

While this may generalize the color yellow, it also includes all those who would continue to be yellow even today.  Rather than making it a single group such as women or designing a concept of the Orientalization of the world from the color, it seems that any whose definition could be inhibited by a rhetoric of conquest and definition would fall into the category of the wallpaper.  In the case of the narrator, just as in the event of all who may be yellow, a new self-conception takes drastic action.  When the author finally does tear down the wallpaper, she liberates the shadow woman behind it, and they are united.  She becomes so convincing that she bends John to her will.  Having been out all night, John returns home to find the door locked, and no key.  He calls for an ax, but the narrator stops him:

“John, dear!” said I in the gentlest voice, “the key is down by the front steps, under the plantain leaf!”  That silenced him for a few moments.  Then he said- very quietly indeed, “Open the door my darling!”  “I can’t,” said I, “key is down by the front door under the plantain leaf!”  And then I said it again, several times, very gently and slowly, and said so often that he had to go and see, and he got it of course and came back. (Gilman 154)

Being free of the norms represented by the wallpaper, the narrator can stay the hand of her husband from destroying the door with an ax.  While it takes a repetition, John eventually leaves to find the key and uses it to open the door.

Finally, the door open, the discourse ends when John observes his wife creeping around the room.  Creeping is an interesting word that means to go without being noticed.  Throughout the story, the women of the wallpaper have crept, sometimes on all fours, but always the creep.  They do so, it would seem, in order not to be noticed.  Once they escape their prison and realize that they are human and intelligent, they have no desire to return.  However, lacking a definition, the narrator seems to have gone mad.  Finally, she has come from the cave, but she is just as confused as when she was confined, “I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane.  And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back” (Gilman 154).  John faints.  Patriarchy has been temporary reversed, but she creeps over him (Gilman 154).  She must continue to creep over him until he wakes.  There is the idea that he will wake at some point since he’s only fainted.  Patriarchy is only temporarily suspended, and while he cannot put her back behind the bars of the wallpaper, at some point, she will have to be contained to return her to the healthy society of her day.

Practicality

Gilman’s story represents an ongoing struggle for women as they seek to identify themselves separately from preconceived notions of the masculine social convention.  Language can become the chains that constrain and require conformity to social conventions.  One area that is rife with a similar dialog as Gilman’s is the concept of extreme complementarianism.  One such example is John Piper and his conception of living as a Biblical man or woman.  On his radio show, he was taking phone calls answering questions and providing a view of what it meant to live as a Biblical man or woman.  Piper accepted one particular call that interested me, and that was a woman who was interested in becoming a member of law enforcement.

Piper listened to the young lady, but his response to her was similar to reading the dialog of John as he berated and belittled his wife in his sarcastic, condescending fashion:

At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to man’s differing relationships.  The postman won’t relate to the lady at the door the way the husband will, but he will be a man.  At the heart of mature womanhood is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to woman’s differing relationships. (Piper)

Just as the wallpaper reflects the confusion of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” so too does Piper use a language that confuses the identity of women trying to live in the public sphere.  Just as the poem “Women’s Rights” suggests, Piper draws a list of acceptable behaviors for women as, “the heart of a mature woman is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men” (Piper).  Piper seems to suggest that all men are entitled to if the postman, who is not the woman’s husband, has natural authority over a woman because he is a man strikes me as being very similar to the way in which John belittles his wife as if she were a child.

Despite the fact that Piper began his comments with a disclaimer that he would never make a declarative category that would divide people into distinctly male or female groups, he still felt that there was a difference between masculine and feminine jobs.  Police officers, doctors, lawyers, or, basically, any position where a woman would have authority over a man was unacceptable:

Some influence is very directive, and some are non-directive.  For example, a drill sergeant might epitomize directive influence over the privates in a platoon.  And it would be hard for me to see how a woman could be a drill sergeant- hut two, right face, left face, keep your mouth shut, private- over men without violating their sense of manhood and her sense of womanhood. (Piper)

Again, Piper uses words to bind the authority and ability of women.  A woman should never have authority over man as “it would violate his sense of manhood makes men seem weak in the first place” (Piper).  However, his language is also the language of definition intended to shape the future.

Patriarchal language begins developing the minds of people when they are mere children.  Lately, my ten-year-old daughter has experienced subjection to afore-mentioned language and practice of patriarchy.  She loves to play sports, but recently she was told by a group of boys at school that boy’s sports were all that mattered because their dads said so.  They told her that nobody cared “about girl’s sports.”  She came straight home and asked me if that was what everybody thought.  When I explained to her that was not what everybody thought, she seemed happier, but she informed me that she was going to prove all those boys wrong.  She would outplay any of them any day if they let her play.

Gilman masterfully captures these ideas in her story.  John embodies the social conception of women as being substandard.  Much like Piper and the boys at school, John mostly treats his wife as if she were complaining, and Rousseau suggests, “Women do wrong to complain of inequality of man-made laws; this inequality is not of man’s making, or at any rate it is not the result of more prejudice, but of reason” (571).

Even more than just complaining, however, Gilman represents the flawed logic of her day as well as the advice given by Piper.  There is a suggestion that men are necessary as logical beings to bring definition to women.  Piper’s language is indicative of the same linguistic category suggested by Gilman, namely that the justification for dominance over women through medical definition, family position, and social roles is due to women being merely creatures rather than fully formed adults that can reason and desire without outside definitions.

The dialog between John and his wife oversimplifies women.  He treats her as a child using language that would be more appropriate for a child.  He lords his scientific prowess and high reputation over her as if he were a god and her his creation.  The narrator strives to fit into the conception of what it means to be a woman for her husband.  She struggles to admire him, she obeys his orders as a doctor and a husband, and she struggles to appease him even when she has done nothing wrong.  The dialog has changed since Gilman wrote this story, but it has not changed so drastically to erase the image of the yellow wallpaper from out of the hearts of women in Western society.  The urge to perform according to the social standards still exists, and that desire can still be tyrannical.

In conclusion, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman provides an astounding commentary on the desire of women to define themselves as individuals apart from social convention.  Just as masculine identity does not depend only on a profession, so women should not be defined by the social tendency to categorize women as “other.”  The concept of what it means to be a woman must not continuously and continually find definition through patriarchal cultural institutions; instead, women need the freedom to explore and identify who they are without the interference of so many overarching interpretations.  In the end, an institutional definition serves to confuse individual identity both socially and privately.  The idea of the yellow wallpaper provides a discourse on how women can be trapped desiring to know who they are and how they should act or be.

 

 

Works Cited

Ford, Karen. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Women’s Discourse.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 4, no. 2, Autumn 1985, pp. 309-14. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/463709. Accessed 23 Apr. 2017.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” The City University of New York, edited by Catherine Lavender, Department of History, 8 June 1999, csivc.csi.cuny.edu/history/files/lavender/whyyw.html. Accessed 25 Apr. 2017.

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Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, Fall 1989, pp. 415-41. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/317798. Accessed 26 May 2017.

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