‘Together they would be complete’ Female Doubles in C. P. Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and H. James’s "The Bostonians"

Examination Thesis 2008 80 Pages

American Studies - Literature



1 Introduction

2 The Motif of the Double in Literature
2.1 Definition and History
2.2 Forms and Functions

3 Different Perspectives on the Same Disease – Fragmented Selves in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and The Bostonians
3.1 Sane Femininity according to a Nineteenth Century Worldview
3.2 Patriarchal Diagnosis and Cure
3.2.1 Medical Diagnosis, Male Anxiety and the Rest Cure in “The Yellow Wall-Paper”
3.2.2 Male Anxieties and the Silencing Cure in The Bostonians
3.3 Women’s Hushed Voices
3.3.1 The Female Self Torn between Imperatives and Desires in “The Yellow Wall-Paper”
3.3.2 Incomplete Female Selves in The Bostonians
3.4 The Unreliable Narrator – A Third Perspective?

4 ‘Together they would be complete’ – Female Self-therapy in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and The Bostonians
4.1 Discovery of the Other Self in “The Yellow Wall-Paper”
4.2 Seizure of the Missing Self in The Bostonians
4.3 Dubious Victory in “The Yellow Wall-Paper”
4.4 Triumph in Disguise in The Bostonians

5 Conclusion

Works Cited

1 Introduction

I cannot understand the mystery, but I am always conscious of myself as two.

Walt Whitman

It is true all things have two faces, a light one and a dark.

Thomas Carlyle

The nineteenth century was in love with duality. A strict separation between the public and the private spheres, that at the same time meant sharply separated spheres of action for men and women, is only one expression of the general be- lief in fixed binary oppositions that characterized both American and British so- ciety in the Victorian era. Since the innate and natural difference between man and woman, as the most compelling duality, was similarly taken for granted, ni- neteenth-century society was also structured and determined by a rigid gender- role differentiation.

It should hardly surprise us, then, that writings of the mid- to late-nineteenth century are especially preoccupied with the motif of the double. While this fasci- nation with double figures could on the one hand be accounted for with the Victo- rian belief in the essential duality of life, the motif’s proliferation in works written at the turn of the century may also be interpreted as a symptom of the cultural transformation that dominated this era. In America, especially, the rapid growth of the nation following the Reconstruction period, together with the ensuing tech- nological revolution, the rise of industrial capitalism, and the subsequent emer- gence of new social classes brought about a climate of change that stimulated both anxiety and expectation. These conflicting impulses contributed to a general feeling of fragmentation that, in literature, could best be expressed with the cha- racters’ self-division or self-duplication (cf. Miyoshi ix-xix). Grave anxieties, how- ever, were also prompted by the changes women sought, for rigid gender lines were feared to dissolve by the 1880s with women’s nascent emancipation and the emergence of the so-called ‘new woman.’ While political oratory and journal- ism had by then become an important factor in American society of the time, fe- male orators speaking out for equal rights, though growing in numbers, were still regarded an anomaly up until much later (cf. Levander 1-11). These struggles of women for a say in the public arena accompanied another phenomenon related to the female voice: turn-of-the-century America also saw a proliferation of cases of nervous disorders and hysteria, which was considered the classic ‘female ma- lady’ and often linked with the emergence of the ‘new woman’ (cf. Showalter, esp. 129).

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892) and Henry James’s novel The Bostonians (1885) are narratives written at the end of the nineteenth century that not only bring together the cultural phenomena of ‘the speaking woman’ and ‘the hysterical woman,’ but also explicitly or implicitly make use of the literary motif of the double. Placing the female voice at the center of their texts, Gilman and James both deal with women who challenge the male prerogative of public language and public speech. As a writer, the female narra- tor in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” enters the traditionally male sphere of literature, whereas Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant, the female protagonists in The Bostonians, pose a threat to the masculinity of political discourse by entering the public platform and speaking out for women’s rights. The women’s attempted intrusion into traditionally male spheres is diagnosed by the male figures as pa- thological behavior and the cure they prescribe for the ‘speaking disease’ is in both cases an attempt to silence the speaking woman and confine her to her ‘natural’ sphere. While the narrator of Gilman’s short story is prescribed a rest cure and forbidden to work by her husband, the male protagonist in The Bosto- nians tries to silence the female orator by urging her into marriage and a domes- tic life. Restrained by ‘proper’ gender ideals from living out their desires and de- prived of a voice to utter them, the women are presented as fragmented, incom- plete selves who are prevented from developing a unitary self in a patriarchal culture.

I will argue that the women in these works attempt to escape both the patriar- chal diagnosis and the cure through an unconscious process of self-therapy. The disrupted condition of their inner selves becomes externalized in an actual ego splitting into two complementary selves. While the narrator-protagonist of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” projects her repressed desires for transgressive behavior unto an imaginary doppelgänger who rebels against her submissive position, the female protagonist in The Bostonians attempts to realize her fantasies of a dif- ferent life through a complementary personality who speaks out for her. In trying to unite with their doubles, the women not only strive for a voice to express their disagreement with patriarchal power structures, but also for achieving self- knowledge and psychic wholeness. While this strategy of self-empowerment en- dows the heroines of both texts with a greater sense of self, power, and confi- dence, the question whether their inner change also entails an evolution out of inferiority will have to be discussed.

Following a brief synopsis of the doppelgänger motif in literature, its history, forms, and functions, I will explore in the first part of this thesis the male dis- course on femininity, (in)sanity, and the speaking woman that pervades the texts. In so doing, I will show that the male protagonists’ attempts at silencing the speaking women are motivated by a general anxiety about change, the loss of authority, and newly emerging role models. For this purpose, I will only briefly outline the nineteenth-century medical discourse around hysteria.

With that description as a context, I then examine the impact of these dis- courses on the women’s self-confidence and their ability to express themselves. I thereby establish a clear relation between the female protagonists’ fragmented selves and the system of rigid gender roles to which they are expected to con- form. A third question in this section will concern the narrative’s voice and its in- fluence on the reader’s perception of the conflict that is negotiated in the works.

The second part of this thesis will then consist of an analysis of the dop- pelgänger motif as I find it employed in the two literary works. My discussion will illustrate how the manifest or latent doubling in the respective texts can both be seen as the heroines’ attempt at self-therapy and a strategy for self-empower- ment.

2 The Motif of the Double in Literature

2.1 Definition and History

Nature itself seems to have laid the foundations for one of the most prevalent and consistent motifs in human history. The zoological phenomena mimesis and mimicry are common strategies of defenseless animals to protect themselves against natural enemies by taking on or imitating the shape or color of dangerous animals. Similarly, humankind has always been fascinated with the idea of an exact spiritual or physical double of the unique human soul and image.

Thus, in literature, the figure of the doppelgänger (a word adopted from Ger- man into the English High Standard vocabulary[1]) has haunted works throughout the genres and has always served as a means to tackle questions about the self, subjectivity, and individuality. The doppelgänger motif may either concern two autonomous characters of striking physical resemblance who are interchangea- ble and mutually mistakable or, in its extension, two versions of one and the same person. In the latter case, the motif has mostly been used for the expres- sion of a divided mind or split personality.

As a recurrent figure in German folk legends, the double was interpreted as a person’s soul, whose detachment from the body thus signified the imminence of death. Nevertheless, doubles did not appear as a literary motif on a large scale until the age of Romanticism. Jean Paul Richter was the first to coin the expres- sion “Doppeltgänger” in his novel Siebenkäs (1796/97) by defining it as “Leute, die sich selbst sehen” (qtd. in Bär 9). It is interesting to note that, contrary to the current usage of the term, in this definition it is not the perceived other self that is called the doppelgänger, but the perceiving subject who is faced with his alter ego. After Jean Paul Richter, however, the concept’s meaning has been ex- tended continuously. As a prominent and recurrent motif in Romantic Literature, the emergence of a doppelgänger reflects the fragmentation of the romantic soul, that tries to escape reality by immersing itself into the unconscious, dark, and supernatural.[2] Especially in German Schauerromane, most famously by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and accordingly in English and American Gothic fiction, the dop- pelgänger frequently represents the dark side of the human soul, emphasizing such opposites as life and death, body and soul, and good versus evil (cf. Bär 22-36).

Writers of the mid- and late nineteenth century have also been especially intri- gued by the phenomenon. Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson (1839), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Os- car Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) are famous instances of dop- pelgänger stories in the English-speaking world. In these representations, “the doppelgänger is archetypally ‘unheimlich’” (Webber, qtd. in Bär 93), a term that was used by Sigmund Freud to describe experiences that arouse uncanny feelings and that has become closely linked with the concept of the doppelgänger.[3]

Undoubtedly, the growing importance of Freud’s psychoanalysis around the turn of the century – particularly his schematic of id, ego, and superego – has had a great impact on the motif’s usage and enriched its interpretation.[4] Modern writ- ers, living in an age in which the self “no longer has a single Other but a whole series of them,” tended to shy away from the explicit usage of the motif and often based their writings on characters that functioned as their own doubles (Coates 35; cf. 33-35). Postmodern fiction, that often presents itself as fragmented, self- divided, and self-contradictory, rediscovered the motif as an apt means to illu- strate the plurality and fragmentation of the age and reject the idea of consistent personalities and psychological wholeness (cf. Slethaug 1-6).[5]

2.2 Forms and Functions

Naturally, the motif of the doppelgänger takes on a variety of different forms and functions, according to the sociocultural context in which it appears and the worldview it is supposed to represent. However, even though the concept of the doppelgänger is highly elusive and the motif has been used in a tremendous variety of ways, its forms and functions are probably best summarized by a rough grouping into four categories[6]: Firstly, the doppelgänger can emerge as an actual person, figure, or thing of some physical likeness. Secondly, it is often used as an allegory, and, thirdly, it is sometimes only understood as a parapsychological phenomenon. Most frequently, however, the doppelgänger has been used as a representation of inner psychological processes, that is the doubling or splitting of the self. In general, all these modes of the same theme may be used to illu- strate processes of self-reflexivity or self-criticism and to either affirm or question views of a unified, stable self and the concept of self in general. Besides, the mo- tif in all its various forms is frequently an expression of vain fantasies of immortal- ity (cf. Bär 449-51).

As figures of mere physical likeness, often introduced as twins or siblings, doubles have been used as a dramatic tool to create mostly humorous effects through mistaken identities and role change, as, for instance, in Shakespeare’s comedies (cf. Daemmrich 26). The double has also often been used as an alle- gory or as an archetype in literature. The doppelgänger constellation thus comes to represent universal configurations such as God versus devil, good versus bad, youth versus death, or past versus future Echoing the folkloristic interpretation, the double is very often seen as the harbinger of threat and terror (cf. Hallam 16). As a parapsychological phenomenon, the doppelgänger may emerge as a ghost or mystical apparition, such as a person’s astral body. To illustrate the splitting or doubling of the self, doppelgänger can appear as a figuration of the conscience or the unconscious, that is as the personification of one of the Freu- dian parts of the self: superego, ego, or id. Furthermore, the double can represent one’s own self as the object of love, the self in the other sex, and a projection of parts of one’s own self onto another person. While the double of the fourth category thus always serves as the expression of turbulent internal strug- gles, its presence may fulfill more specific functions both for the characters in- volved in the doubling or splitting and for the structure and composition of the literary work. The ego doubling or splitting might serve as a strategy of self-preservation, an escape from law, oppression, or conventions and conse- quently illustrate a discrepancy between society and the self. A doppelgänger figure may also be employed for the identification of a scape-goat or the realiza- tion of narcissistic fantasies. Moreover, the author might want to use a dop- pelgänger encounter to describe a process of catharsis, or ‘purification,’ that is achieved through the projection of unacceptable traits onto another person. More generally, the theme covers fantasies of a different life and self or the desire to live the unlived portion of one’s personality. While doppelgängers, apart from their depiction as real human beings, may also be represented by mirrors, sha- dows, statues, or robots, authors have often used werewolves, wraiths, vam- pires, or phantoms as dark representations of the double (Hallam 8). As an extra- literary phenomenon, that nevertheless may be described in literary works, double vision can also appear as a mere symptom of various psychological ill- nesses, such as hysteria, schizophrenia, or multiple personality disorders (cf. Rogers 14).

To sum up all the various usages of the highly complex theme, we might agree with Paul Coates that “the double exists in literature because of our know- ledge that we are incomplete and cannot master ourselves” (6).

3 Different Perspectives on the Same Disease – Fragmented Selves in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and The Bostonians

3.1 Sane Femininity according to a Nineteenth Century Worldview

As literary works that not only focus on their female protagonists but were also written at a time that witnessed the beginning of organized feminism, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and The Bostonians are almost bound to address the question: “What is a woman?” However, as the following analysis will show, the question that is particularly addressed in these works is: “What is a sane woman?” This question is closely connected with the figure of the speaking woman and yet another question: “How can a woman have a voice?” At the time the two works were composed, these questions would have been answered quite differently, depending on the respondent’s gender, social class and profession. Accordingly, we find different perspectives on women’s conduct and “(in)sanity” in the stories. Even though American society has witnessed profound changes in female role behavior and the figure of the ‘new woman’ has already emerged as a cultural phenomenon at the time in which the narratives are set (cf. Köhler 1-6), the male protagonists in these works are found still to defend the traditional Victorian fe- minine role model of the ‘true woman.’[7] This mid-nineteenth-century concept of the ideal woman, that has often been referred to, was most famously summa- rized by Barbara Welter in her essay “The Cult of True Womanhood,” where Wel- ter deduced – through the perusal of women’s magazines, gift annuals and reli- gious literature of the time – the attributes of ‘True Womanhood’ that can be “di- vided into four cardinal virtues – piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” (Welter 152). Evidently, this model of ideal womanhood was closely linked with the ideology of separate spheres for men and women. While man was traditionally destined to “occupy the foreground of the picture,” that is to stand his ground in the public sphere, woman was meant to be “kept aloof from the bustle and storm of active life” (Dew, qtd. in Engler 504) and expected to stay in the domestic sphere.[8] This radically dualistic structure shaped gender roles particularly of the mid-nineteenth century, but persisted in many heads until much later. Natu- rally, women’s increasing desire for self-assertion and for emergence into the public sphere was posing a threat to this worldview, causing anxieties about change not only in men but also in women who were struggling to adapt to these changes.

In the following chapters, I will both show how male anxieties about change and the loss of authority play a major role in the works under scrutiny, and ex- amine the extent to which the female protagonists feel psychologically deprived by men’s attempts to contain their speech. While for the male protagonists, the women’s ‘disease’ consists in their deviation from traditionally established gender categories, the women themselves suffer from this very rigid system of gender difference that is reinforced by male diagnosis and discourse.

3.2 Patriarchal Diagnosis and Cure

In the late nineteenth century, the power over definitions of femininity and insani- ty, hence the power to name what was normal or not, was firmly in the hands of men. Since the heroines deviate from the traditional feminine roles, questions of “(ab)normal” or “(in)sane” femininity play an important role in both works to be analyzed, albeit more explicitly in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” than in The Bosto- nians. Accordingly, male commentary in these works seems to resemble medical discourse in that it first presents a diagnosis of the disease and then suggests appropriate treatment.

While the women’s real disease is, as will be shown in a further step, their in- ner fragmentation and the lack of a voice, the men in both works, on the con- trary, consider the women’s very attempt to gain a public voice as pathological. In this chapter, I will seek to explore male anxieties attached to woman’s appro- priation of public language and of the literary field that lurk behind their attempt to silence the speaking women.

3.2.1 Medical Diagnosis, Male Anxiety and the Rest Cure in “The Yellow Wall-Paper”

He hates to have me write a word.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story chronicles the fate of a woman who is prescribed a “rest cure” to treat her nervous depression. The narrator-protagonist accounts for her thoughts and feelings during her summer stay at a colonial mansion in twelve undated diary entries. Her husband, who is a doctor, confines her to a room she dislikes and does not want her to write or engage in any other expressive activity. The woman increasingly becomes obsessed with the wallpa- per that covers her room and begins to discern a female figure behind the wall- paper’s pattern. After several days of observing the imaginary figure, the narrator locks herself in the room, tears down the wallpaper, and crawls around the floor, a state her husband sees her in when he finally enters the room. The story closes with the man’s fainting and the woman creeping repeatedly over his fallen body.

Given its first-person narrative situation and its diary format, the story might lend itself to a highly subjective and one-dimensional representation of the he- roine’s situation. However, we are to learn very soon that the narrator’s own judgments, at least during the first entries, actually play a minor role, while the dominating perspective seems to be the masculine one. In fact, her husband’s dominant presence in the narrator’s life as well as in her thoughts becomes evi- dent right from the beginning when she introduces three successive paragraphs with “John”:

John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.

John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.

John is a physician, and perhaps – (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind - ) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.[9]

Being “a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband,” (YWP 3, my ital- ics) seems to grant John a ‘double’ authority to define his wife’s condition, dictate appropriate treatment, and demand her compliance with it. While many scholars have commented on the powerful masculine voice of diagnosis that refuses to see the woman’s condition as serious (cf. esp. Treichler), the contradictions and inconsistencies that pervade John’s discourse have not been fully recognized yet.

On the one hand, John claims that he does not believe that his wife is sick, but he rather assures everyone “that there is really nothing the matter with [her] but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency” (YWP 147). On the other hand, the couple’s stay at the mansion rather resembles a rehabilitation cure for a patient who needs to recover from a long and severe illness. Thus, John once openly admits to his wife that they “came here solely on [her] account, that [she] was to have perfect rest and all the air [she] could get” (5). This clearly contradicts his declaration that there is “really nothing the matter” with his wife. Nor do the “phosphates or phosphites” and “tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise” (4), nor does the “schedule prescription for each hour in the day” (5) lend his diagnosis any credence. We rather gain the impression that, in trying to convince his wife of her sanity, he also wants to assure himself that she is well, while at the same time taking cautionary measures to cure the allegedly nonexis- tent disease. But what exactly is this ominous disease John seems to fear so much? While the reader tends to attribute the narrator’s ill health either to a specific mental disease, as for instance to a postpartum depression,[10] or to a more general psychological distress caused by the oppressive social conditions, for John, it is primarily something “not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (3) that consequently eludes his rationality. Thus, while, on the one hand, “the fact that the origin of the narrator’s condition is never made explicit intensifies the role of diagnosis in putting a name to her ‘condition’” (Treichler, “Escaping” 65), it intensifies, on the other hand, the husband’s unwillingness to investigate for and put a name to the real origin of the disease. Paradoxically, his diagnosis, then, issymptomatic of his disease, namely the fear of a femininity that resists tradition- ally established categories and eludes his rationality.

Diagnosing a woman with hysteria evoked different images at the end of the nineteenth century than it does today. Hysteria, the very name of which derives from the Greek word for womb, had long been the quintessential female malady. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century, however, that doctors in Europe and America recorded an increasingly high number of cases especially among wom- en of the middle and upper class (cf. Showalter 130f). At that time, the term was used to describe a broad range of psychological and physiological disorders that manifested themselves in malfunctions of voice, vision, hearing, and breathing (cf. Veith 199-212).[11] A link between the endemic spreading of the disease and restrictive social conventions and roles for women of the Victorian Age can easily be made. No wonder a ‘true woman,’ who was compelled to constantly repress “improper” feelings and desires, would ultimately suffer from psychic illnesses. Still, the epidemic of women’s nervous disorders at the end of the century has been attributed to the emergence of the ‘new woman.’ While this could on the one hand be explained with women’s struggle to adapt themselves to this new role model, the ‘new woman’s’ attempts at self-assertion were, on the other hand, often interpreted as unnatural and said to provoke the disease in the first place. Accordingly, the hysterical woman was often understood as a mirror im- age of the independent ‘new woman,’ for hysteria was supposed to be the con- sequence of women’s intellectual and political aspirations (cf. e.g. Kahane “Pas- sions” 4-6; Mitchell 115-24).

Thus, many scholars and historians have suggested that women who, in some way or another, did not comply with society’s idea of propriety, were often all too willingly labeled hysterics. As Elaine Showalter puts it, “Victorian madwomen were not easily silenced, and one often has the impression that their talkative- ness, violation of conventions of feminine speech, and insistence on self expression was the kind of behavior that had led to their being labeled ‘mad’ to begin with” (Female Malady 75). On the other hand, women who showed these and other symptoms of “madness,” whatever the underlying causes, acted so much against the idealizing image of the ‘angel in the house,’ that they naturally provoked both a feeling of fear and anger in men. This reaction was also due to a profound male fear of a denigrated femininity, that seemed to break forth in this disease:

Hysteria was linked with the essence of the “feminine” in a number of ways. Its vast, unstable repertoire of emotional and physical symptoms – fits, faint- ing, vomiting, choking, sobbing, laughing, paralysis – and the rapid passage from one to another suggested the lability and capriciousness traditionally as- sociated with the feminine nature. […] Like other aspects of the feminine, it seemed elusive and enigmatic, resistant to the power of masculine rationality. (Showalter 129f.)

Not only did women’s hysterical fits and often violent convulsions defy men’s idea of the gentle, sensitive and submissive woman they wished to have at their side, the hysterical woman also demanded special treatment and expressed ‘un- natural’ desires for privacy and independence (cf. Showalter 134). Carroll Smith- Rosenberg remarks that many doctors, therefore, thought the hysteric to be a “willful, self-indulgent, and narcissistic person who cynically manipulated her symptoms,” and she goes on to quote a nineteenth-century neurologist who complains that “[t]o [the hysteric’s] distorted vision […] there is but one com- manding personage – herself – in comparison with whom the rest of mankind are nothing” (Disorderly Conduct 207). Indeed, husbands often suspected that their wives might only simulate the disease in order to escape the self-sacrifice ex- pected of a wife and mother. Moreover, physicians as well “were concerned that hysterical women were indeed enjoying their freedom from domestic and conjug- al duties, as well as their power over the family and the doctor himself. […] Thus, physicians perceived hysterical women as their powerful antagonists” (Showalter 133).

We cannot help but suspect that Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s John, both as the narrator’s husband and doctor, actually does perceive his wife as his “powerful antagonist.” She certainly does deviate from his idea of a ‘true woman’ in many ways. For once, she ‘attempts the pen,’ which even at the end of the nineteenth century was still considered an ‘unwomanly’ profession for married women. Indeed, just as much as John “hates to have [his wife] sick,” he “hates to have [her] write a word” and she is “absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until [she is] well again.” (YWP 3). It is evident that “[t]he quotation marks, registering [the] husband’s perspective, discredit the equation of writing with true work” (Treichler, “Escap- ing” 65) – at least if the writer is a woman. However, John’s prescription also re- veals his conviction that there is a causal link between his wife’s work and her disease. Why else would the abandoning of her literary activity be a prerequisite for her recovery? For him, her literary efforts, an uncontrollable version of female self-expression, comes close to the liberated tongue of the hysteric. Hence his all-pervading fear of the narrator’s “imaginative power and habit of story-making” and the apprehension that with these “a nervous weakness like [hers] is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies” (YWP 7). As has been shown, John’s hor- ror of “all manner of excited fancies” is on the one hand really an ingrained horror of the feminine nature that, just like faith and superstition, eludes his rationality. On the other hand, the narrator’s imaginative power as an author also grants her authority and a power to enforce obedience since she is ‘fathering’ her own text, as Gilbert and Gubar have noted (cf. 4). We have every reason to suspect that John feels his own authority and his power to enforce obedience in danger, if his wife, as an author, also claims such an authority for herself. As a consequence, not only does he forbid her to attempt the pen at all, but he also tries to suppress her rich imagination, her natural desire for literary activity, if not any attempt at independent thinking. John’s attitude towards his wife’s imaginative talent thus proves that “[a]s the Romantic poets feared, too much imagination may be dan- gerous to anyone, male or female, but for women in particular patriarchal culture has always assumed mental exercises would have dire consequences” (Gilbert 55). We get a glimpse of how dire John expects the consequences of his wife’s mental exercises to be, when – having already gained in self-assurance – she challenges his opinion that she has improved in health and dares to ‘author’ her own diagnosis:

‘Better in body perhaps –’ I began, and stopped short, for he sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word.

‘My darling,’ said he, ‘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 trust me as a physician when I tell you so?’ (YWP 12)

Interestingly enough, John’s posture here reveals his real priorities. It is primarily for his sake that his wife should abandon the idea of being mentally ill, while her own well-being only ranks third. However, it is not only this idea itself that is “a false and foolish fancy,” but also the very fact that she dares to call into question his diagnosis – and consequently his authority – by developing an opinion of her own and contradicting him. This anxiety about female influence is hinted at earli- er on in the story when John similarly beseeches his wife to make an effort to get well: “He said I was his darling and his comfort and all he had, and that I must take care of myself for his sake, and keep well” (YWP 10, my italics).

As we have seen, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” disturbingly demonstrates that “[t]he power that men possess over women is [...] not limited to the authority to prescribe what they may or may not do; they have the far more fundamental power to diagnose – to name what is sickness and health, abnormal and normal” (King 27). Thus, when John insists in his diagnosis that “there is really nothing the matter” (YWP 3) with his wife and that she is really better “whether [she] can see it or not” (11), he certainly abuses this power to diagnose for his specific aims. By making sure that his wife complies with his prescription, he primarily makes sure that she complies with his idea of a ‘true woman.’ Thus, his patroniz- ing remark, “she shall be as sick as she pleases!” (12), should on the contrary rather be understood as: “she shall be as sick as he pleases.” While we should not go so far as to presume a deliberate intent on John’s part to silence his wife, Stephen Post is certainly right to assume that “[s]omewhere within him [John] may be dimly aware of the advantages of keeping her dependent, trusting, sickly, childlike, admiring, and devoted. Perhaps more than anything this state of affairs protects him from his fear of women and of his own wish to depend on them” (178).

3.2.2 Male Anxieties and the Silencing Cure in The Bostonians

You won’t sing in the Music Hall, but you will sing to me.

Although certainly less obvious than in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” questions of sanity are also a major theme in Henry James’s The Bostonians. When writing about his prospective novel in his notebooks, the author expresses his intention to write “a very American tale […] characteristic of our social conditions,” and subsequently delineates its major theme as “the situation of women, the decline of the sentiment of sex, the agitation on their behalf” (qtd. in Habegger “Disunity” 193), he virtually sounds himself like a doctor who is presenting a medical diag- nosis of society’s ill condition. Accordingly, we can make out in this novel a dis- course on the ‘condition’ of society in general and of women in particular that resembles the medical diagnosis referred to more explicitly in “The Yellow Wall- Paper.”

James’s novel portrays the climate of feminist reform in Boston at the end of the nineteenth century. The novel’s central concern is the struggle between Olive Chancellor, a wealthy feminist, and her Southern cousin, the conservative lawyer Basil Ransom, for the heart and mind of Verena Tarrant, a young and charismat- ic girl with a gift for public speaking. While the inhibited spinster Olive Chancellor takes Verena up as her protégée and wants to turn her into a figurehead for the feminist cause, Basil Ransom’s intention to marry the beautiful girl is closely linked with his plan to infuse her with his traditional views and prevent her from public speaking. Shortly before Verena is to have her first public speech in front of a larger audience, Basil succeeds in persuading her to abandon her profes- sion, leave Olive, and marry him.

Basil Ransom certainly echoes a common viewpoint of his time when he ex- presses his “conviction […] that civilisation itself would be in danger if it should fall into the power of a herd of vociferating women.”[12] While women had long been completely marginalized from public life and especially public speech, the nineteenth century saw the emergence of a new type of woman, the woman who enters public discourse and speaks with a powerful voice. With the increasing importance of the suffrage movement by the end of the century, female orators (especially in America) began to represent an influential factor of political life, and the public platforms were, as Basil fears, actually taken over by “a herd of vociferating women.”


[1] The New Encyclopaedia Britannica lists the following definition: “doppelgänger (German: “double goer”), in German folklore, a wraith or apparition of a living person, as distinguished from a ghost. The concept of the existence of a spirit double, an exact but usually invisible replica of every man, bird, or beast, is an ancient and widespread belief. To meet one’s wraith, or double, is a sign that one’s death is imminent […]” (“doppelgänger,” Vol 4, 625-26).

[2] “In nichts spiegelt sich die Zerrissenheit der romantischen Seele so unmittelbar und aus- drucksvoll wie in der Gestalt des Doppelgängers, der dem Romantiker stets gegenwärtig ist und in der romantischen Literatur in unzähligen Formen und Varianten auftritt. Der Ursprung dieser zur fixen Idee gewordenen Vorstellung ist unverkennbar: es ist der unwiderstehliche Drang zur Reflexion, die manische Selbstbeobachtung und der Zwang, sich immer wieder als einen Unbekannten, Fremden, unheimlich Fernen zu betrachten“ (Hauser, qtd. in Bär 58).

[3] “[…] so verstehen wir, daß der Sprachgebrauch das Heimliche in seinen Gegensatz, das Un- heimliche übergehen lässt, denn dies Unheimliche ist wirklich nichts Neues oder Fremdes, sondern etwas dem Seelenleben von alters her Vertrautes, das ihm nur durch den Prozeß der Verdrängung enfremdet worden ist. Die Beziehung auf die Verdrängung erhellt uns jetzt auch die Schellingsche Definition, das Unheimliche sei etwas, was im Verborgenen hätte bleiben sollen und hervorgetreten ist” (Freud 254).

[4] “Not until after Freud revealed the importance of the irrational in man have we been able to admit the possibility that each of us has within himself a second or shadow self dwelling be- side the eminently civilized, eminently rational self, a Double who may at times assert its anti- social tendencies” (Rosenfield 326).

[5] “[M]oving away from a consideration of the Cartesian self – an indivisible, unified, continuous, and fixed identity – and universal absolutes, the double in postmodern fiction explores a divided and discontinuous self in a fragmented universe. Its mission is to decenter the concept of the self, to view human reality as a construct, and to explore the inevitable drift of signifiers away from their referents” (Slethaug 3).

[6] Unless otherwise indicated, I follow Gerald Bär’s schematic of the double’s forms and func- tions here, which strikes me as the most felicitous and comprehensive overview of the topic (cf. Bär 449-51).

[7] While the time in which the action of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is set has generally been said to roughly coincide with the time of production, attempts at dating the action of The Bostonians were not crowned with success. Richard Lansdown, editor of the Penguin edition, challenges the view hold by several critics that it takes place in the mid to late 1870s, and rather con- cludes that “the incongruity of historical events mentioned in the novel suggests that Henry James did not have a specific set of dates in mind” (James 393, note 30).

[8] For a detailed analysis of the notion of separate spheres, see Kerber 159-199.

[9] Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Sto- ries. Ed. Robert Shulman. Oxford, New York: Oxford UP,1995, 3, emphasis in the original. All subsequent references will be to this edition, hereafter cited parenthetically as YWP.

[10] Allan H. Pasco for example observes that “the scribe of Gilman’s account exhibits every symptom of postpartum psychosis” and he assumes that the story’s “astonishingly accurate accounts of what could occur in the mind of someone suffering from postpartum psychosis [were] enabled by Gilman’s personal experience of the disease and her almost certain ac- quaintance with others who were similarly afflicted” (90).

[11] Interestingly enough, medical textbooks nowadays normally list two completely different phe- nomena under the broad heading ‘hysteria.’ Only rarely is it still used to refer to pathological, sensory and motor disturbances of psychosomatic origin, such as those that were frequently described by nineteenth-century clinicians and that medicals today would rather call conver- sion reactions. The more popular use of the term today, however, designates a “Persönlich- keitsstörung, bei der Geltungsbedürfnis, Egozentrismus und ein Bedürfnis nach Anerkennung im Vordergrund stehen” (Pschyrembel 733). It is evident, thus, that, less than the actual symp- toms of the disease, nineteenth-century interpretations of its origins have greatly influenced today’s use of the term.

[12] James, Henry. The Bostonians. Ed. Richard Lansdown. London: Penguin, 2000, 40. The fol- lowing references will be to this edition, hereafter cited parenthetically as TB.


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Female Doubles Gilman’s Yellow Wall-Paper” James’s Bostonians




Title: ‘Together they would be complete’ Female Doubles in C. P. Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper”  and H. James’s "The Bostonians"