William’s and Gilman’s Views on Care and Loss
Although the 1900s and the 1950s are half a century apart, there are many similarities in the values of the time. This is large because the 1950s were a desperate push back to the time of “tradition”-the late 1800s and early 1900s. With World War I in the 1910s, a time of progression and liberation in the 1920s, the Great Depression in the 30s, and World War II in the 40s, by the time it reached the 50s, people longed for imagined “the good old days”-traditional gender roles, obedient children and a happy, nuclear family. Therefore, despite the large time gap, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper” by Perkins Gilman (written in 1892) shares some of the values about identity present in a Streetcar Named Desire by Williams (written in 1947). Although they demonstrate it in different ways, both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and A Streetcar Named Desire to emphasize the importance of a carrying family by demonstrating the tragedies that can occur when care is absent.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper’, Gilman seems to define a “caring person” as someone who listens. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper” is a story of a physician, John, whose wife has some type of mental illness, like depression or anxiety, which needs treatment. She is given a treatment popular during the 1900s: The Rest Cure (something Gilman herself had to once face). The story is made up of the woman’s journal entries while she partook in the Rest Cure. The lack of physical and mental activity required by the Rest Cure eventually led to the narrator’s decline into madness.
From the beginning of the story to her breaking point, the narrator makes it clear to others that she doesn’t believe the Rest Cure is effective, but no one listens. In the very first journal entry, the narrator admits “personally, she believes that congenial work, with exactment and change, would do her good”. The biggest indicator that the narrator is unhappy occurs when she admits to john that she “was not gaining here and that she wished he would take her away”.John missed all the signs of decline and convinced himself “she really is better…whether she can see it or not. I am a doctor. I know”. The narrator replies to this with her final plea for help: “better in body perhaps-”.Instead of listening to the narrator’s plea, John responds with “a stern, reproachful look”.It is after this point in the story that the narrator’s journal entries get shorter and more obsessive about the yellow wallpaper in her room, indicating she has passed a breaking point. If John had only been willing to listen to his wife, perhaps her mental degradation could have been avoided.
While John was “tacking care” of his wife, it wasn’t the proper kind of care. He patronized her and treated her like a child instead of an equal. He “Hardly lets her stir without special direction” and refers to her as a “little girl”. Perhaps if he had viewed her as an equal and not as a child, he would have been willing to listen to her requests. In order to give the narrator, the care she needed, John needed only to stop and listen. When he failed to do that, Gilman depicted the horrors that result from the absence of proper care.
While “Yellow Wallpaper” notes that listening is an important element if being a caring person. Streetcar named desire suggests selflessness is key. The play is about a southern belle, Blanche, Who lost her wealth and must move in with her sister Stella and Stella’s abusive, masculine husband Stanley in their tiny, New Orleans apartment, While Blanche is there, she charms Stanley’s friend Mitch and marry potentially marry him- until Stanley reveals Blanche’s promiscuous past. The play ends with Stanley raping Blanche, followed by Blanche being escorted by a doctor after having a mental breakdown.
Unlike the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Blanche never literally tells anyone that she is troubled; however, Blanche Puts on a person that makes it clear she needs some sort of care. Throughout the whole play. Blanche pretends she is still wealthy, despite having lost of all of her money. At the beginning of the play, .pretty much only Stella could see through this act, explaining to Stanley “those are inexpensive summer furs” and “a rhinestone tiara she wrote to a costume ball”. However, by the end of the play, even Stanley(who was convinced Blanche was cheating him out of money that was rightfully his) is aware of Blanche’s persona. “There isn’t a goddam thing but imagination! And lies and conceit and tricks!”.This act Blanche puts on is a source of comfort for her. She’s clinging to what is familiar in a place that is quite the opposite. It’s her protective shield and an indicator to those around her that she is covering up a painful reality. “I don’t want realism I want magic!”.
Yet, until she reaches her breaking point, Blanche makes it clear she is entirely aware her act is exactly that- an act, one she puts on because she wants to be cared for. She admits it to Stanley. “I know I fib a good deal. After all a woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion”. Up until her final plea with Mitch, Blanche is aware of what is reality and what is an illusion. This final conversation with Mitch is Blanche’s breaking point. Mitch accuses her of lying, and she replies “Never inside, I didn’t lie in my heart…”, again displaying she was conscious of what was real and what was make-believe. She explains that “intimacies with a stranger were all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with…I think it was panic that drove me from one to another, hunting for some protection”.Instead of looking past his own hurt, setting his pride aside, and acknowledging Blanche’s promiscuity as an art of desperation, Mitch tells her “ you’re not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother”. With that, Blanche is aware she lost Mitch, her last chance. She knows she cannot go back to her hometown because she’s been banned for her licentious activities, and she’s aware she cannot lie with Stella and Stanley forever. Blanche becomes mentally unstable after her conversation with Mitch and begins to believe her own lies. Even though she never received a message, Blanche tells Stanley “she received a telegram from an old admirer,” and genuinely believes her “admirer”, She Huntleigh, is going to call. If Mitch had been selfless and had cared about Blanche and not just himself. Perhaps this mental breakdown could have been avoided.
Mitch was not the only character who acted selfishly when selflessness and care were needed presumably, Blanche tells Stella that Stanley raped her. Instead of consoling Blanche and leaving Stanley, Stella calls a doctor to take Blanche away. “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley”. This implies, although Stella marry have believed Blanche’s story, she selfishly chose to ignore it in order to make it easier for herself. Although a selfless act like leaving Stanley would have probably been harder for Stella, perhaps she would have been able to give Blanche the care she needed instead of simply handing her off to a doctor –a “stranger”, Stella chose the path easiest for herself of a path of selflessness—and Blanche had to pay the price.
While Gilman defines care as listening and Williams as selflessness, parallels can also be drawn between the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. To begin with, both women had baggage from the past. For Blanche, it was the trauma of her young husband’s suicide, which had a PTSD-type effect on her. As for the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” she had some form of depression. Both women were plopped into an uncomfortable environment as a sort of last resort. Blanche, a formerly wealthy southern belle, was transplanted into the raunchy, raw neighborhood of New Orleans after she was kicked out of her hometown. The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is placed in a room she dreads with gross, panic-inducing yellow wallpaper. “I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long”. In addition, both women decline into madness when they are improperly cared for. That is truly their greatest similarity: there are both incredibly fragile and unstable people who need to be cared for, but both are failed by those closest to them. Both women are patronized and sympathized for instead of being empathized with. She instructs Stanley to “admire Blanche’s dress and tell her she’s looking wonderful”, And “John hardly lets the narrator from “The Yellow Wallpaper stir without special direction”. Worse than that, both women are ignored in their time of need, which ultimately leads to their mental decline. It is only when it is too late that loved ones recognize the grave error of their negligence—John simply faints when he sees his crazed wife, and Stella asks herself “What have I done to my sister?” as the doctor takes Blanche away.
Both Gilman and Williams acknowledge the importance of care. Although the two authors may define care in different ways, ultimately, they both argue when that value is taken away it can destroy a person. Literature is known for helping to explain and represent the human experience. If readers can take the warning presented by these two stories to heart, perhaps that human experience can be a better experience for all involved.
- Gilman,Charlotte perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature,Vol.C.Ed.Nina Baym,8th ed,New York:Norton,2012,792-803,print.
- Williams,Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire.The Norton Anthology of American Literature ,Vol.E.Ed.Nina Byam.8th ed. New York:Norton,2012.93-155.print.
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