Virginia Woolf’s instruction for the woman writer to kill the ‘Angel in the House’ underpinned the crux of her argument Professions for Women delivered in 1942 to the Women’s Service League. American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ predates the essays of Woolf in the 20th century, contemporary to the ‘Angel in the House’ convention. Woolf refers to the 19th century concept which had defined the ideal wife and mother:
intensely sympathetic. . . . immensely charming. . . . utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draft she sat in it—in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all—I need not say it— she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty— her blushes, her great grace. In those days—the last of Queen Victoria—every house had its Angel.1
Deriving from Coventry Patmore’s poem The Angel in the House2 (1854-1856), Woolf believed that this conceptual model was derogative to women and reductive in literature. A Victorian epic of the mid-1800s might have presented the character of the virtuous house wife as follows: passive, graceful, self-sacrificing and virtuous. This proved a heavy mantle with the added burden of Rousseau’s ‘cult of true womanhood’3 to follow and Woolf identified this element of the canon as stifling among women writers when she writes ‘It was she who used to come between me and my paper […] It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her.’4
In order to kill the ‘Angel in the House’ an anti-type would need to surface, challenging these conventions in an ultimately positive and freeing way. Here Danielle Clarke’s distinction of the ‘true self’5 becomes critical. Emily Dickenson’s poem ‘The Soul Selects Her own Society’6 presents freedom as a closed door and I argue that cases of women in isolation, as in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (available to read online here – which I’d highly advise ahead of continuing with this article) allow a sense of internal and external freeing from convention and conformity. Gilman writes ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ having left her child and husband, described as ‘not between going and staying […] but between going, insane, and staying, sane,’7 and its female narrator provides a meditation on the true self against a background of imposed constraints, mirroring Gilman’s own experiences. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ acts against the patterns of behaviour and expected norms of ‘The Angel in the House’ figure. Its narrative documents the horrifying trajectory of a woman’s descent into madness, reversing the expected outcome of the prescribed ‘rest cure’ in confinement. Gilman works as a woman writer to challenge the expectations, diagnosis and perceived condition of a wife and mother in body and in mind.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ looks at gender relations and those repressive forces used to instate the laws of domestic ideology. Models of behaviour are juxtaposed and discussed through what Dieter Meindl identifies as ‘a signally society-orientated text’8, dealing with what the narrator herself terms ‘ordinary people’. The characters of narrator-wife, husband and live-in sister provide an American middle-class family unit in the nineteenth century and therefore a ‘sociological tract’9 whereby Gilman can inadvertently observe and comment on what ‘one expects in […] in a marriage’.
Constructs condition behaviour and the narrator is subjected to an environment which Barbara Welter comments on in her article ‘The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860’10 where piety, submissiveness, domesticity and purity are identified as well-established doctrines. The institutions of marriage and motherhood inform the narrator’s submissive attitude towards her husband’s instruction. Evidence of her docility and passivity tie in with concepts of submission to the patriarchy, for example, through her diary, the narrator documents the routine imposed on her under her husband’s regulation. The line ‘it is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so’ emphasises that it is a man who determines what is good for the woman. Indeed, it is John’s constant patronising ‘what is it little girl’ […] ‘Don’t go walking about like that — you’ll get cold’ […] ‘I am a doctor, dear, and I know’ and his insistence on progress ‘but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not’ […] ‘but now let’s improve’ in dialogue that establishes his absolute role in a male-dominated society.
This hierarchy is reinforced through John’s frequent use of diminutives in describing or referring to his wife, such as ‘bless her little heart!’, ‘my darling’ and ‘my dear’. Furthermore as his wife, the narrator is expected to solely occupy the domestic safe sphere11, which, becomes her initial primary subject when she states ‘so I will let it alone and talk about the house’. She has been relegated domesticity and Greg Johnson points to show she is placed in what could be a ‘protective victorian nursery’12 and, I would extend this metaphorically to postulate that this observation fully incorporates a victorian society that is protective of its institutions.
Indeed, Carol Margaret Davison writes that ‘John both promotes, and acts as a policeman for, the containing ideology of femininity’13 and this is exemplified through the inclusion of his sister, who fits this model as the narrator notes that Jennie ‘is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper and hopes for no better profession’. However the narrative drive of the story implies an ambivalent relationship to these prescribed patterns, ultimately suggesting ‘that social ideal of femininity is irrational and may engender insanity’14 in repeated practice. As a critique of traditional roles, the questions raised point to ‘The Angel in the House’ being a failing model of behaviour, as the narrator is conflicted in relation to her assigned identity and her condition worsens…
I shall be posting this analysis in instalments, so keep an eye on the available chapters.
1V. Woolf, ‘Professions for Women’ in The Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose: Second 1 Edition, ed. by Tammy Roberts, Mical Moser, Don LePan, Julia Gaunce, Laura Buzzard (Broadview Press, 2011), pp. 100-106 (p.101).
2C. Patmore, The Angel in the House (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), pp. 2 1-96.
3E. Ann Kaplan, Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama 3 (Routledge, 2013) p. 24.
4Woolf, p. 101
5D. Clarke, The Politics of Early Modern Women’s Writing (Routledge, 2014), pp. 248-249.
6E. Dickinson, ‘The Soul Selects Her Own Society’ in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, 6 ed. by Thomas H Johnson (Faber & Faber; Main edition, 1976), p. 143.
7C. Cort, ‘Gilman, Charlotte Perkins’, in A to Z of American Women Writers, ed. by C. Cort 7 (Infobase Publishing, 2007), p. 106.
8D. Meindl, American Fiction and the Metaphysics of the Grotesque (University of Missouri Press, 8 1996), p. 107.
9Ibid., p. 107
10B. Welter, ‘The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860’, American Quarterly, 18 (1966), 151-174
11ushistory.org, The Emergence of “Women’s Sphere” (U.S. History Online Textbook: 11 Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia, 2008) [accessed 19 November 2015] (p. 1).
12G. Johnson, ‘Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in “The Yellow Wallpaper”’, 12 Studies in Short Fiction, 26 (1989), 521-30 (p. 525).
13C. M. Davison,’ Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in “The Yellow Wallpaper”’, Women’s Studies, 33 (2004), 47-75 (p. 60).
14ibid, p. 62. 14