The topic of a woman’s voice being silenced by society and becoming heard in writing appears to be among the similar themes of the critical essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” by Cixous and the novel “The Yellow Paper” by Gilman. The present paper includes a short description of the two works and their analysis. In particular, I argue that the narrator of “The Yellow Paper” tries and partially succeeds to gain a voice by keeping a secret diary, which becomes visible when the terminology and ideas of Cixous are applied to the novel. First, it can be proved that the diary performs the functions of helping the narrator to understand her self and reclaim it from her silencing jailers. Admittedly, she damages and, possibly, shatters the self in the process, but this aspect of the novel can be explained by the notion of “antinarcissism” that is introduced by Cixous (1455). Apart from that, even after the self is shattered, it is preserved in the form of a literary work, which implies that the woman’s writing proceeds to serve as an enabler of the woman’s voice.
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In “The Yellow Paper,” a woman who has a mental illness is driven to insanity by the therapy that her husband uses despite her complaints that it is ineffective. The therapy appears to be harmful since the woman has the urge to write and create while the “cure” prohibits intellectual or social activities. As the illness progresses, the narrator begins to discern a strange pattern in the yellow wallpaper of her room: a woman who is “creeping” behind bars. Eventually, she believes that she is that woman, tears the paper away, and starts hallucinating more creeping women. Given her secondary position in her family, it appears to me that her insanity gives her an insight into the truth that she is afraid to admit. As for the bars that hold her, one of them is the habit of silencing her, which can be described in detail with the help of Cixous’ essay.
In my understanding, the key point of Cixous’ work is to urge women to discover their voice through writing, which they can use to reclaim their selves and their bodies and make them known to the phallocentric world (1455). Writing is regarded as the means to become visible by “seizing the occasion to speak” (Cixous 1457). Gilman’s narrator is silenced by her husband and physician who does not believe that she is sick and does not listen to her opinion of her experiences (359). Moreover, he attempts to manipulate her into silence by blackmailing her with his happiness and the happiness of their child (Gilman 366). His opinion is more important for friends, relatives, and society, and the narrator is helpless to change this fact. Thus, the only way to express her thoughts is to keep a diary, which she seizes and keeps secret.
Apart from that, Cixous regards writing as a means to grow to understand oneself. Cixous describes it as the process of a woman returning “to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display” (1457). A similar topic appears in Gilman’s work: the reader might understand the nature of the woman behind bars before the narrator, but for the narrator, this woman is a stranger. Indeed, the narrator refuses to acknowledge her, which manifests in her suppressing her feelings at the beginning of the novel and proceeding to remind herself to control her “silly fancies” throughout the story (Gilman 365). However, the final phrase that the narrator addresses to her husband refers to getting out “despite you and Jane,” and while the narrator is never named, there is no Jane mentioned in the book either (Gilman 371). It can be assumed that it is her name or the name of the personality she abandons when she identifies herself as the woman who comes out of the bars of the wallpaper. By the end of the work, the narrator assumes a different personality, and the previous one becomes the stranger and also the enemy.
The question of how a woman can become an enemy to herself can also be explained in the light of Cixous’ work, and it is connected to the topic of shame and inferiority. In particular, Cixous describes the idea of men creating “antinarcissism” for women and asserts that a woman typically shames herself for experiencing various urges (creative or sexual) (1455). Thus, the woman becomes her jailer through self-shaming. In Gilman’s novel, the topic of shaming oneself is established. From the beginning of the novel, the narrator confesses that she tries to “control” herself, and she is certain that her anger towards her husband is “unreasonable,” even though he silences and imprisons her (Gilman 360). Also, she appears to feel less adept than the “perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper” Jennie in the matters of being a housewife, which, apparently is the role she is supposed to play (Gilman 363). As a result, the narrator can be described not just as a stranger to herself but as her jailer, and, unfortunately, she does not manage to free herself without destroying this jailer.
It is also noteworthy that insanity is mentioned in Cixous’s work as a form of controlling women’s creativity. From this perspective, women’s ideas are dismissed as insane or silly (Cixous 1456). The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is directly confronted with this form of silencing where her logical and educated husband dismisses her ideas about her state as insane or silly. However, there is a twist to the idea of insanity in the novel. For the narrator, the insanity grants her a form of freedom from the shame forced upon her feelings and ideas by many people, including herself. I would argue that she manages to discover the truth about her position in the family and society and her related perceptions and feelings, which are a part of her self. She does lose another part of her self in the process, but that self is also preserved in the work that she leaves: her diary. Therefore, her writing might not have managed to preserve the sanity of the narrator in the environment that could hardly make that possible, but it opened her eyes to a part of her self that she tried to ignore, thus helping her to discover this self and make it visible.
The topic of silence is extensive; it would be interesting to explore the notion of the impossibility of silencing natural urges to create that is described by Cixous, and it would be engaging to consider the devices that Gilman uses to demonstrate and criticize the methods of silencing and self-silencing (in particular, her irony). However, this brief analysis also suggests that Gilman’s narrator employs writing that allows her to combat silencing by taking the chance to speak, reclaiming a part of her self, and preserving all its parts with the help of the diary. Thus, “The Laugh of the Medusa” can shed some light on the dynamics of the narrator’s attempts at reclaiming her self, which is enabled through writing.
Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, edited by David Richter, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998, pp. 1453-1466.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, edited by Richard Bausch and Ronald Verlin Cassill, Norton, 2000, pp. 359-371.