©Mary Crockford November 13, 2016
The sensation novel, with its madwoman in the attic and other “sensational themes and devices,” is reflexively associated with the British Victorian novel as popularized by Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Nevertheless, the form has American Nationalist-Romantic precursors in numerous ghost and other “domestic gothic” (Anolik 49) stories such as Washington Irving’s “The Spectre Bridegroom,” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” Themes of female alienation and madness can also be found in modern works as diverse as Faulkner’s Southern Gothic “A Rose for Emily” and Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s feminist-realist “The Yellow Wallpaper.” For the purposes of this paper, I will focus upon Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” and Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” as representative within their authors’ respective Romantic and Realist movements of the patriarchal nature of two foundational institutions of society – marriage and the medical establishment – which systematically limited mobility of women, both personally and professionally, based on a conception of the ‘fairer sex’ as physically and emotionally fragile and even mentally unstable. By excluding women from the intellectual sphere through methods of surveillance and confinement, and denial of substantive autonomy even within the ‘woman’s world’ of the home, it is apparent that the archaic sexual bias against feminine agency persisted into the so-called modern era regarding popular conceptions of societal and domestic cohesion. In particular I will give attention to the role of Foucauldian panopticism as a means of psychic control, conspiratorial recruitment of family relations and domestic ‘help’ in the cause of isolation, and Faustian elevation of science over empathy and fidelity in promoting masculine dominance within these institutions, to the detriment of wives ostensibly chosen as emotional, psychological and sexual partners.
Both “The Birthmark” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” employ gothic tropes of the naive and vulnerable female, and the egoistic “mad scientist” against a backdrop of “the conventional social structure of the upper-class institution of marriage” and domesticity (Richetti 209). For Dr. Aylmer, a “man of science” and “eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy,” and his wife Georgiana – unidimensionally described as a “beautiful woman” – romance early on becomes “second passion” to his dedication “too unreservedly to scientific studies” (Hawthorne 5). The tale’s omniscient narrator admits freely that for the Enlightenment man of science, it is “not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy,” so that Aylmer’s love for his wife “might prove the stronger of the two…only by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own [emphasis mine].” In the same breath he confesses the alchemist’s overarching desire to “lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself,” so that his own “higher intellect…imagination…spirit” and “heart might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits” within the laboratory to which he denies his wife access. The erasure of what Aylmer perceives as a flaw in his otherwise “beautiful wife” – a hand-shaped birthmark upon her cheek, “the semblance of a flaw” which converts his “specimen of ideal loveliness” and “Eve of Powers to a monster” – is his stated aim, so he makes a cynical allowance for his wife’s participation: “Georgiana,” said he, “has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?” (5-6).
Georgiana, in stereotypical feminine naivete believes her husband to be joking, but then “perceiving the seriousness of his manner,” blushes with shock that he should be repelled by what other “lovers” had since “the hour of her birth…so often called a charm.” In light of her husband’s purportedly superior intellect, she laments that she must throughout her life have been “simple enough to have imagined” the mark as one of individual beauty – “a token of magic endowments that were to give her sway over all hearts” (6). Aylmer psychologically grooms his wife to be the object of experimentation sacrificed on the altar of “man’s ultimate control over Nature” and desire to “ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another” (5). Through one side of his mouth he professes that “Envy’s self could have found aught to sneer at” in her physical beauty, while he obsesses inwardly over removing “the prettiness of the mimic hand…stealing forth again and glimmering to and fro with every pulse of emotion that throbbed within her heart” (6). Thus it is not “his own blood” but Georgiana’s with which the Faustian Dr. Aylmer “seals a pact with the devil” of irreligious science to facilitate his “supernatural journey” (Mulvey-Roberts 30) to remove the birthmark connected to her very essence, but which he sees as making her only “nearly perfect from the hand of Nature” (Hawthorne 5).
Unlike Georgiana’s lovers who “contented themselves with wishing it away” (6), Dr. Aylmer comes to see his love as “fantastic and monstrous,” a feminine “spectacle” of “frightening difference” (Anolik 48) marred by “the visible mark of earthly imperfection.” Interestingly, his jaded view is one he shares with others of “exclusively… her own sex” who find her “countenance even hideous” (Hawthorne 6). Having such a response in common with her jealous female counterparts calls into question Aylmer’s fragile Adamic masculinity as effeminate, as his transgressive Eve’s cheek becomes the subject of his every waking thought:
In this manner, selecting it as the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin,
sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer’s sombre imagination was not long in
rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and
horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given
him delight. (Hawthorne 6)
How and to what degree Georgiana’s birthmark symbolizes imperfection is the subject of debate. Possibilities range from her being a subtler version of “seventeenth-century Puritan heretic” Hester Prynne who “rebels against patriarchal authority” (Persons 23), to a symbol of the barren and “deformed idealism” of Transcendentalism that Hawthorne found “too dreamy and optimistic” (21) and criticized in “Rappaccini’s Daughter.”
Georgiana is without child and thus unrealized for purposes of an heir, and appears aimless, with too little to occupy her as the lady of the manor. Like Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Hawthorne’s Georgiana “demonstrate[s] a delicacy of representation of otherness” and her “otherness is implied, rather than delineated in horrifying, shocking detail.” The birthmark – representative of the seat of her emotions, the heart – in connection with her blood and femininity becomes the femme fatale’s “cipher for her otherness” (Anolik 182) from “fastidious members” of her own gender and the husband seeing her as bearing “the fatal flaw of humanity” and her “liability” to sin and “sorrow, decay, and death” (6-7). Georgiana’s seductiveness unrealized by reproduction may connote to Aylmer the intrusive “stranger or monster” who lurks “behind [her] attractive, comfortingly maternal and therefore heimlich [uncanny] interior” (Anolik 182) so that in “soul or sense” (Hawthorne 7) she is all but invisible. While Hawthorne is silent on any medical root, infertile females have traditionally offended culturally ingrained aesthetics of the female body as the source of sex and heirs, with each monthly “triumphant rush of blood” and “crimson stain upon the snow” (6) of the once virginal bride’s menstrual blood. Having subverted “the solidity of the family institution and the safeguarding of society” by remaining childless, Georgiana’s sexuality would become a manner of toleration to be “controlled and regularized” by her husband until her “reproductive functions” are “legitimized…and sensuality approved through maternal definition” (27). Like Beatrice of “Dr. Rappaccini’s Daughter” and other “Gothic tales in the medico-science tradition” (Mulvey-Roberts 32), this otherness based on gender and reproductive potential and/or failure embodied something “Hawthorne understood,” that being the discomfiting effect of the burgeoning feminist movement’s “radical women” seeking sexual and intellectual autonomy in rapidly morphing Romantic-industrialist society (Person 23).
Like Beatrice Rappaccini, Georgiana attempts to inject her intellectual curiosity and creative powers in the scientific domain, while still expressing her Romantic desire for love and elevation to man’s helpmeet in spite of her growing awareness that she risks self-destruction. She becomes the sympathetic heroine bearing “the signifier of woman’s embodied being” (Person 23), the Puritan’s “properly submissive wife” (Zanger 366) turned wayward Eve escaping Adam’s control and momentarily transgressing in the Garden of Eden which is the husband-scientist’s professional domain. Acts of feminine agency by innocents like Georgiana and Beatrice, and their destruction by the myopic mad scientists charged with their care, lead to “explorations of the guilty psyches” of men like Aylmer and Rappaccini, so Hawthorne’s tales also function as “subtle allegories of American’s own, troubled, revolutionary ‘coming of age’” in the vein of English and German “Gothic tales in the medico-scientific tradition” (Mulvey-Roberts 32), which strongly influenced Romantic New England’s philosophical, intellectual and artistic landscape in the late 19th century.
Themes of surveillance and discipline turn “The Birthmark” into not merely a Gothic tale of domestic confinement, but “a more complicated and nuanced tale” from a sociopolitical standpoint “than many literal and even historical readings would suggest.” In Foucauldian terms, the tale becomes a medium for illustrating “a historically situated political and social ideology” expressing “a pragmatics of social control and resistance” (Simon 2) in which Dr. Aylmer as representative of the intellectual “paternal figure” who “polices the boundaries of legitimacy” in the home and abroad. When she expresses the gothic heroine’s “intellectual frustration” (Mulvey-Roberts 183) at being excluded from Aylmer’s work, Georgiana briefly challenges her husband’s violent wrath:
“Why do you come hither? Have you no trust in your husband?” cried he,
impetuously. “Would you throw the blight of that fatal birthmark over
my labors? It is not well done. Go, prying woman, go!”
“Nay, Aylmer,” said Georgiana with the firmness of which she
possessed no stinted endowment, “it is not you that have a right to
complain. You mistrust your wife;” (Hawthorne 16)
In response to Georgiana’s challenge to his authority, Aylmer epitomizes “Foucault’s rendering” of the patriarch’s “role of division and decision” as “God, father, teacher, priest” through “acts of imposture” (Hogle 282) designed to instill fear and shame in his disobedient bride. His “peculiar expression” and the scowl of his “innumerable trains of thought” from “morning to twilight” daily fall upon “the stain of the poor wife’s cheek,” so she becomes conditioned to “shudder” under her husband’s panoptic, disciplinary gaze (Hawthorne 7). Conditioned by the “tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind” regarding aesthetic perfection, Georgiana is convinced by her husband “of the perfect practicability” of removing her “cureless deformity” (10) by pseudoscientific means on an almost “equally fantastic scale” as that of Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein (Hogle 283) and Igor, the “lunatic assistant” (216) mirrored in Aminadab. As emblematic of “the failure of the male inventor to produce a compliant female subject,” the barren, mechanized Georgiana embodies “the inward turn and spectacular implosion of utopian optimism,” becoming the “hollowed out symbol” of the 19th-century social scientist’s “fantasy of pleasurable ordering” (Sipe 185). She submits instead behind “the door of the boudoir” (Hawthorne10) to Aylmer and Aminadab, the doctor’s “unimaginative assistant and subordinate intellectual” who typifies “the earthy, gross side of man’s nature” about whom the “serenely confident” Aylmer is “scornful.” The hunchback-like symbol of scorned Romantic consciousness and “religion subverted to the ends of science,” “is in no position to assault the bastion of science which Aylmer represents,” so “stoops and drudges” and “answers the beck and call of the imperious new man” Aylmer, whose “star is ascendant” while his is “in decline” (Thompson 4 14). He assists Dr. Aylmer in infusing the bedchamber with an atmosphere of pagan magic as the Faustian doctor extols the “virtuous potency” of the concoction he will apply to his wife’s “stained” cheek:
Airy figures, absolutely bodiless ideas, and forms of insubstantial beauty came and danced before her, imprinting their momentary footsteps on beams of light….the illusion was almost perfect enough to warrant the belief that her husband possessed sway over the spiritual world. (Hawthorne 11)
In submitting to herself bodily to her husband-scientist upon the marriage bed, under Aminadab’s voyeuristic gaze, “through her sexuality” Georgiana “enters into the hidden side of the working class” (Elbert 26), accepting “the bourgeois appropriation of woman’s body” which Hawthorne observed as “the locus of public scrutiny” (Elbert 27). Like many of Hawthorne’s fictionalized females “yet unredeemed by maternity,” her “sexuality is alarming” (Elbert 27) and must be erased with the bloody birthmark on her cheek. Aylmer carries on with his “abortive experiment” (11) until the “hateful mark” is faint “upon the marble paleness of [her] cheek (18), and she dies lamenting that her husband has “rejected the best the earth could offer” by his discontent with her love and body. In erasing the birthmark running “as deep as life itself” (8), he has “flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture of the celestial” (19), wishing “through the boundless realms of invention” to perfect “the completeness of the higher state” that Georgiana’s innocence and beauty already represented (19).
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman also portrays a female protagonist surveilled and controlled by her physician husband John, extending conceits of confinement and alienation to criticize what were “Hawthorne’s apprehensions concerning the budding brave new world of the nineteenth century” and the lingering “conflict between science and authoritarian religion” (Thompson 414) justifying relegation of women to primarily reproductive and domestic figures. Gilman’s tale more overtly exposed the professional and creative alienation of women than Hawthorne’s did—and obliquely suggested culpability in their own cultural marginalization in the late 19th century. Gilman’s story is representative of the literary movement of Realism, mirroring her own experience with Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell’s popular “rest cure” for women suffering from postpartum depression, neurasthenia or “hysteria,” and other “nervous disorders” (Monteiro 43) seen as predominantly female in nature. This reflects the still lingering view of the period “condoned by a spectral yet powerful medical establishment” (Davison 48) of women as sexually and psychologically threatening, and thus a threat to male domestic and professional control. Like Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” Puritanical ideas of femininity and post-Enlightenment scientific gender ideals made “The Yellow Wallpaper” an alchemic psychosocial critique of the surveilling state’s reinforcement of traditional absolutes of gender superiority. While consistent with the Realist nature of the period, Gilman’s tale is told using Gothic elements through its unnamed “distraught heroine” trapped in “a forbidden mansion” with a “powerfully repressive male antagonist.” Her story “adroitly and at times parodically employs Gothic conventions to present an allegory of literary imagination unbinding the social, domestic, and psychological confinements of a nineteenth-century woman writer”living in “a world full of Johns” (Davison 47-48) – an interesting turn of phrase given the sexual partitioning of women and the prevailing madonna-whore binary presenting woman as either the virginal Ophelia of “tragic innocence” and “tender madness” (Hogle 111), or a “horrifying spectacle of female power, agency and subversion” (116) through sex, in either case meriting physical confinement and intellectual or creative repression. Gilman’s view of domesticity in the period, in which women were prescribed acceptable labors such as gardening and childrearing, is conveyed through the distorted and jaundiced psyche of a postpartum narrator denied by her husband and brother, both doctors, any occupation but rest and seclusion in an attic room. The room takes on hellish character and proportions beginning with the “sprawling flamboyant patterns” of its “sickly sulphur” wallpaper:
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to
constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame
uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—
plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of
The narrator’s isolation is not simply physical, but also social and psychological as her husband responds with “stern, reproachful look[s]” and insistence “I am a doctor” to her pleas for movement about the grounds. Her alienation and dismissal are reinforced by family members who echo her husband’s placations that she is improving in spite of what she knows is her deepening depression, her paranoia at his increasingly “queer” behavior toward her, and his refusal to let her “write a word” in her author’s notebook (Gilman). She begins seeing a woman imprisoned inside the yellow wallpaper representing her domestic and professional captivity. Her husband’s “concerted repression of her natural authorial instincts,” and the “apparent collusion” by “the domestic ideal” Jennie as well as her brother, represent the “policed religious heresy” of nascent turn-of-the-century feminism (Davison 60) advanced by female artist. For the constrained woman and writer embodied in the narrator, her husband and brother as medical patriarchs are “policeman for, the constraining ideology of femininity” (Davison 60) and its own conflicts with “individual autonomy and identity” of transgressive persons including “America’s women in general” (59). Jennie, “John’s sister” and “perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper” who “sees everything” (Gilman) functions within the Foucauldian panopticon which renders his wife alienated and paranoid in the isolated country home. She therefore fears not only punishment, but her gender’s own complicity in engineering the “terrifying periods of isolation…sense of foreboding, claustrophobia and/or entrapment; and horrifying treatments” that are “powerful tool[s]” in the authoritarian “quest to destabilize influential prevailing fears” (McAllister and Brien 75) and coerce obedience. Objects in the room like barred windows, “rings and things in the walls” and the locked “beautiful door” (Gilman) are frightening fixtures of “the socio-material template for institutional orders…ranging from prisons, to schools, to factories, to hospitals” (Simon 2) which forced “the social body as a whole, and virtually all of its individuals to place themselves under surveillance” (Foucault 116). As a result of the cloistered environment of her home and attic room, Gilman’s narrator is worse off medically for the enforced isolation in the name of her health, and Jennie a co-conspiratorial, feminine Aminadab desiring “no better profession” than to keep house with her brother, and a marginally incestuous “sly thing” who also “wants to sleep” with her (Gilman). Gilman is mute on the unsettling question of Jennie’s sexuality, or her awareness of the seriousness of the narrator’s predicament. In any case Jennie replaces the narrator as lady of the house, and possibly elevated in John’s affections as seen in the nearness of her bedroom to John’s. With the narrator’s brother who is “also a physician,” the trio cooperate to minimize the depth of the woman’s suffering as her postpartum mind and body deteriorate as “the site upon which the battle of the classes [is] fought” (Elbert 23) in Gilman’s gender-conflicted America:
And I heard him ask Jennie a lot of professional questions about me.
She had a very good report to give. (Gilman)
Jennie’s laughter and statements that she also “wouldn’t mind” removing the wallpaper and freeing the woman trapped within it, while ignoring the “fairly gnawed” bedstead of her sister-in-law’s bed, confirms her complicity in the narrator’s coddled but dangerous captivity. Her “good reports” along with John’s “all sorts of questions” and troubling “look in his eyes” leaves the narrator guilt-ridden that the members of what should be her household “are secretly affected” by her descent into madness, while they do nothing to free her from the room driving her “to do something desperate” like “jump out the window” or hang herself with the rope hidden beneath her mattress (Gilman).
Unlike Hawthorne’s Georgiana, Gilman’s narrator’s body is “aligned with bourgeois ideals of maternity” in having given birth to a son, so one would be tempted to see this “fallen woman” as having found “redemption…through her maternity”; but Gilman is well known her views that “even maternity has its limitations” (Elbert 24), having relinquished child-raising to her former husband and his new wife, in favor of her writing and speaking career. Thus Jennie, who is dismissive of her mistress’s obvious suffering and is “so good with the baby,” becomes a benign variation of the “wicked stepmother” of German Nationalist fairy tales who is “an alien in the home, an outsider” (Snyder 220) who becomes the domestic surrogate for the princess banished to the tower. The “madwoman in the attic” must be constrained within the Foucauldian panopticon of the isolated rural manor so her alienating husband may watch her, and recruit others to manage her while he “pronounce[s] judgments in superior tones” (Elbert 28), calling her “little girl” and “blessed little goose” while refusing to let her “write a word” or sleep beside him downstairs, insisting she is getting “all better” right where she is.
“Better in body, perhaps–” I began, and stopped short, for he sat
straight up and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look
that I could not say another word.” (Gilman)
Under his disciplinary gaze and characterization of her thoughts as “false and foolish fancy” and “dangerous,” John extends her imprisonment within the room with the hallucinatory roommate imprisoned in the wallpaper visible from every angle of the gnawed, “nailed down” bed. Her postpartum depression, exacerbated by her husband’s efforts to remove from society the wife he has “become terrified of…shortly after marriage,” is the invisible birthmark of her traumatized psyche and emotions, “an imperfection in his wife and in nature that must be tampered with and eradicated” by the clinical “scientist husband” (Elbert 28) who see – and is content with – her descent from “slight mental derangement to raving lunacy” (Monteiro 42).
The narrator’s story ends with the reader suspended as if from the room’s “rings and things on the walls” (Gilman), consigned to her hallucinations of “strangled heads and bulbous eyes” shrieking “with derision” as they “commit suicide” within the wallpaper, and Gilman’s suggestion that the narrator will hang herself with a rope “that even Jennie did not find.” Her husband finally bursts into the room with an ax and faints while his infantilized wife “creep[s] over him” like a small child, then retreating like a Kafkaesque cockroach unable to break free of her hopelessly claustrophobic “path by the wall” (Gilman). Reflecting what she saw as the ongoing struggle for female autonomy in the male-dominated field of writing as well as the home, Gilman does not reveal to the reader if the narrator ever escapes her “dark and perhaps final madness” (Monteiro 42) to return to functional mental or physical health, or even if she survives to reenter society.
Through the male protagonists of “The Birthmark” and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Hawthorne and Gilman both address issues of fetishization, surveillance, and isolation of women in the authors’ respective periods, and the dangers of post-Enlightenment “faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature” through over-reliance on conventional scientific “truths” at the expense of egalitarianism in marriage and society. Aylmer, as both husband and doctor objectifies and marginalizes the woman he professes to love by “elevating his wife into a scientific problem to be solved” (Zanger 366). He subjects her to surveillance and experimentation in their manor turned intellectual “premises of panoptic egotism” (Brand 105), and discipline in the bedchamber turned “completely visible panoptic cubicle” (119) in which “the female body” failing its purpose of “conception, pregnancy, and childbirth” is destroyed (Benziman 381). Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” expresses its author’s concerns about “the destabilization of the self and the questioning of the progressive quality of the scientific project at large” affecting both the medical and social community. In portraying women surveilled and destroyed by brilliant but reckless father figures, Hawthorne obliquely critiqued the surveillance and rejection by patriarchal institutions of marginal classes, especially women, as individuals seeking inclusion and mobility beyond the “feminine” spheres of the home and bedroom.
Hawthorne’s Romantic-era concerns became “more acute in” stories “written toward the end of the century” by authors such as Gilman (Benziman 376). Both Georgiana and Gilman’s anonymous narrator critique archaic religious conceptions of women as prone to disobedience and unreason, and primarily vessels of reproduction requiring curtailment from “activity and work, especially anything involving the intellect” (Monteiro 43) to guard their reproductive function. Gilman’s narrator, having produced a male heir but questioning the efficacy of the Weir-Mitchell rest cure, still loses her sanity to the hallucinatory Poesque “catacomb or crypt” of the room and its patterned wallpaper, and enacts a desperate final “victory of the madwoman over the man of reason” to whom she is married (Monteiro 45) by way of a nervous breakdown. Both authors espoused to varying degrees the inclusion of women by society and men in the prevailingly patriarchal institutions of marriage and medicine still viewing women as emotionally and intellectually flawed, sexually utilitarian, and dangerous when exercising – or even expressing the desire for – equal and individual agency.
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