Hi readers! My apologies for this late post! I was traveling most of the day yesterday and could not find a moment to sit down at my computer. Although I often do my daily writing and post it the next day, I try to keep the weekend posts current for you. But remember there is no need to wait for me! Our whole reading list of weekend short stories can be found here.
Yesterday we read “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” by Charlotte Perkins Stetson, an 1892 story about the progression of a woman’s mental illness that reveals much about then-contemporary attitudes toward women’s health. The narrator tells us, through a series of diary entries, that she has been diagnosed–by her husband and brother, both doctors–with a “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency.” Her treatment consists of removal from ordinary life and tasks (she is not permitted to work or to do anything intellectually stimulating, like writing), a lot of fresh air, and rest. This seems to have quite the opposite of the desired effect, as the narrator becomes obsessed with the intricate wall-paper of the room she is confined to in a vacation home she is staying in with her husband. We witness the steady loss of her grasp on reality.
The story is considered an important early work of feminist literature, revealing the oppression of 19th century patriarchal society and the ill-effects of a woman lacking any sort of life outside the home. Read more here about how the story was inspired by the author’s own experience.
The story is also often placed in the gothic/macabre/horror genre, for its intimation of a haunting and exploration of mental illness.
One Thing I Noticed: This story makes very effective use of an unreliable narrator: a narrator who is too subjective to be entirely credible, whose personal experience does not correspond to reality, or who, frankly, we suspect might be lying to us (or to herself). The first time the narrator mentions the damage “the children” have done to the nursery, we accept this as true, but it becomes clear as the story goes on that the narrator herself is likely the one who has done these things, over her period of confinement. This realization makes us question other things that the narrator reports, such as what her husband and their housekeeper have done or said to her.
In some ways, you have an unreliable narrator problem any time you write from the first-person point of view, because there is no such thing as a perfectly objective character. But in cases of mental illness, altered states, and stories told from more than one character’s point of view, the unreliability can be an effective tool for engaging the reader in the story. We are not passively receiving this story, but actively trying to figure out which parts of it are true and which are imagined.
One Idea: Write a story in which your character becomes obsessed with something. Let this obsession unfold over time through a series of diary entries or other writings (blog posts, e-mails, notes from therapy sessions, etc.).
And now, on to our weekday freewriting sessions! If you’re new to the challenge, read more here about how we are working this month with literary writing prompts. Happy writing!