Feminism and The Yellow Wallpaper

Women. Females. Men. Males. What really is the difference between them. Gender and sex, another two words that seem to be pretty interchangeable in our society, and yet they both mean completely different things. But that one word, that word that has so much negativity attached to it, needs to be corrected.

Feminism.

A status was posted onto facebook about Angelina Jolie’s recent operation: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Brad Pitt today after the news about Angelina Jolie”. I like to hope that this was just an inconsiderate and poorly worded post and that the painfully obvious sexist undertone was a mistake. Sadly, I doubt it. The double mastectomy was to decrease her risk in getting breast cancer. If anyone was able to prevent a potentially painful, horrific, upsetting and stressful event, they would. This post also follows on from the lecture by Jackson Katz I wrote a couple of weeks ago. What is the problem is that sexism is embedded so deeply within our society, due to years of patriarchy that it almost acts incognito. Often going unrecognised and with an invisibility cloak.

Feminism is not bad. It is not a movement of bra-burning, hairy misandristic’s who would do anything to see men pay for what they have made women suffer over the years. No. Simply no. Ok, that is a fairly exaggerated statement, and I am sure that most men understand that feminists just want equality. But what also seems apparent is that there are a lot of women who are unaware of what feminists want. That is the problem. A woman who is not a feminist is like saying they are happy to be second best. When in fact there is no best, because there is no competition. Or at least there should not be.

In Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ short story The Yellow Wallpaper the protagonist, narrator (possibly called Jane, although it is not explicitly stated, so for all intents and purposes she is not given a name), is locked in the attic of her house as a treatment for her hysteria, which turns out to be nothing more than post-natal depression. She is prevented from writing because it tires her out too much, and so her only pleasure is taken away in order to help her recover. Her husband John is also her physician. He has prevented her from using her imagination as he fears that it will only cause her condition to deteriorate, but it does so because she is not allowed to use it, and so does it in secrecy. The story is written in the form of her diary entries and so skips around a bit, is rushed in places when she can hear her husband approaching.

To the kitchen.

To the kitchen.

To me, this novella is a criticism of the patriarchal society and the way it is organised. Jane, or the narrator, or just another Victorian woman notices a woman trapped in the yellow wallpaper that covers her room. It isn’t until she makes the connection between herself and the wallpaper woman that she realises that all women are trapped within their marriages and the societal conventions. That women have to creep around, avoid breaking the social rules, lurk in the corner. In order for the narrator to realise this, she has sadly lost herself. She no longer is just imagining these dark things, but is actually experiencing them, in some form of breakdown. She cannot return to the life she had before with her husband, she has noticed the cracks, the invisibility cloak has been removed.

Charlotte Gilman Perkins was a utopian feminist. Writing over 100 years ago she had her sights set high for the work that women could achieve. Granted there have been many improvements in most cultures around the world. But in no society has sexism been abolished, nowhere has sexual equality. Cultures have adapted to the reforms that feminists have pursued and forced into the public eye, but they are still very much controlled by men, for men.

Like the narrator in the novel, she was blind to the truth and then once it was discovered it completely altered the way she saw life. This is what we need. We all need the cloak to be revealed for us. Men and women together. Then we can deal with the changes together.

 

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Losing my graphic novel virginity: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

Another one of the texts that will be making an appearance in my exam in a few weeks alongside The God of Small Things, Lunch Poems and various others is Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a graphic novel. Surprisingly, I loved this book. I honestly cannot express how much I enjoyed reading it contrary to my expectations. Having never read a graphic novel before I didn’t know what to expect from it. I was unsure if the combination of images and writing would work effectively enough to portray the important issues that Bechdel was writing about.

But I could not have been more wrong. Not only did the form make the text simple and elegant to read but the images helped exaggerate what Alison was talking about in the text. My favourite example of this was at the end of the first chapter when Alison commented that the obelisk her father wanted instead of a headstone was ironic as it was a similar shape to a shape he enjoyed in real life…then just to make sure that all the readers picked up on the joke, the next page was dedicated to a single of image of a large obelisk, looking particularly phallic. Bechdel writes about pretty heavy-handed material. Death (or potential suicide), homosexuality, coming-out, growing up, a dysfunctional family. None of the subject matter is easy on the emotion. Yet expressing them through the medium of a graphic novel makes them more accessible and reader friendly.

The non-linear narrative means that we know her father is dead and that there were questionable circumstances around it, but we don’t know the full picture until the very end of the novel. Alison herself doesn’t seem to understand her father’s life until she has mapped it out for the reader, almost as if the text is her stream of consciousness. After his death she looks back and seems to evaluate her and her father’s lives, to try and notice if there were signs. Indications of what would follow. At the time she didn’t notice that her father would stare at the choir boys while they were in church. She didn’t notice that he had an overly friendly relationship with their gardener and babysitter. She also didn’t notice that her father wanted her to look pretty and dress up while all she wanted to do was wear boys clothes. I like this type of narrative. The kind that doesn’t make sense at the beginning, but it is interesting enough to draw you in and make you read on. Similar to The God of Small Things, it doesn’t make sense until you turn over the final page.

The eyes give everything away.

The eyes give everything away.

 

Perhaps I enjoyed this book more because it was my first graphic novel. In fact, although a thick book you could easily read it within a couple of hours because there is barely any text. After re-reading it I also discovered many other pieces of information, symbols and motifs that appear throughout which are not necessarily apparent the first time round. You may not even pay attention to the images whilst reading, or just look at the pictures and ignore the text. In fact, by  doing either you would still understand the plot of the text. Which is what just makes the book so fantastically clever. This could just be the medium acting here, and I being a graphic novel virgin I am unable to compare.

However after enjoying this so much I went ahead and ordered Bechdel’s follow up graphic novel Are you my mother? which I will be reading as soon as the exam season is over. Then perhaps I will be able to offer a less subjective opinion.

The Metamorphosis by Frank Kafka: Political agenda or utter fantasy?

I am currently reading an eBook that was sent to me to read by a publishers, and I am nearly finished so that review will be up here soon. The book is focussed around a funeral and the impact that the death of a loved one has on those who were close to her, the characters all feel alienated with themselves, life and those around them. Which got me thinking about the same topics and all I could think of was Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. 

In The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa is transformed into a cockroach and then struggles to adapt to his new life. His family and those who visit his house are not particularly bothered by this change, they don’t question its impossibility but instead worry about money. How will they know fund their lifestyle that the breadwinner is incapacitated? The father and sister will have to do jobs they don’t like now Gregor isn’t doing the job he didn’t like. They will have to rent some of the spare rooms out to lodgers to create extra income. Hire a cheaper maid to do the cleaning.

There was a complete disregard for Gregor’s feelings. He was the one who had metamorphosed overnight into a bug that was unable to communicate with anyone, unable to protect and defend himself against his family; and yet his family don’t care. He is completed isolated and alienated (similar to Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Ryeis unable to do anything about it. Although alienated, Kafka appears to be critiquing society, with particular reference to Marxism and the exploited worker. Gregor has worked hard to support his family and seems unaware that they take him for granted. he just assumes that his family are incapable of working and doesn’t question their actions, which is interesting to compare at the end of the novella when the family does work. They found work easily, it tires them out and exhausts them, but that is nothing more than what the work did to Gregor. His metamorphosis could potentially have been cause by his physical exertion in order to provide for his family. He felt so alienated from his family, that he physically transformed so that he is also alienated from humanity. He is unable to interact with others and hides behind his sofa to protect himself. This alienation is just a demonstration and exaggeration of the alienation he felt as a human.

It's a bugs life.

It’s a bugs life.

I don’t want to put people off. Although this book is a bit of a criticism on humanity and the treatment of individuals, it is not all doom and gloom. Gregor himself seems unaware of his exploitation and so remains relatively optimistic throughout the novel which shows that not everyone is willing to take and give nothing back. Moreover the text is so full of the impossible, implausible and the absurd that it is hard to take the novella as a serious criticism of society. The possibility of a human metamorphosing into a giant cockroach is next to none and so the text has to be taken as a piece of fantasy. The story never explains why Gregor transformed and so I guess my theory is as good as the next.

Despite the often pessimistic outlook on life, the novella is truly a fantastic piece of literature. Whether it has a political agenda or whether it should be read as nothing more than the story of an overworked man who wakes up as a bug one morning – it is still bursting with value and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Dreams in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

I thought that it was about time that I tackled one of my favourites. I didn’t really want to review books that I unconditionally love because it leaves them open to attack, and I know that every book has its faults, none of them can be prefect because statistically speaking perfection cannot exist; but some of them are pretty darn close.

I recently wrote an essay on the function of dreams in Jane Eyre and it really got me thinking because there seems to be so much relevance, all the events in the novel are so perfectly interconnected and almost mystical that it seems like an obvious observation. Yet the first time I read the book, which has to be at least four years ago, I didn’t pick up on any of the uncanny elements of the text. To me it was just a romance, set in the my favourite time period. Jane was a strong-willed woman who was an inspiring character to both the reader and the other characters in the novel. She always followed her brain, often to the detriment of her heart, but she wanted independence – financially and socially. Once she had achieved this, she was able to wrap the story up with a marriage and happily ever after.

But Jane doesn’t have it easy. She is locked up by her aunts, attacked by her cousins, alienated for the entirety of the novel, even at times by the man she loves. Jane’s experience in the Red Room seems to establish her entire story and future, it is such an important part of her childhood that it influences her in later life. It pops up frequently throughout the novel, particularly involving the incidents with Bertha before her wedding. The Red Room symbolises Jane’s alienation and therefore warns her of her heart and her passions, it protects her from becoming dependent on other people. Jane wants to be independent and marry someone on equal terms, but being financially dependent on her husband is contrary to this.

On the search for independence

On the search for independence

Bertha is also an interesting dream-like character as for the majority of the novel she isn’t seen, isn’t even spoken about she is just heard and the consequences of her actions seen. She is entirely invisible, the madwoman in the attic, locked up because she is ‘crazy’. To some extent she is mad, setting the bed on fire and destroying Jane’s veil, but she is only this way because of her treatment. Abused, mistreated and confused. Jane relates to Bertha, she is the passionate side of her character, the side that let herself become dependent on Rochester, marry him and then be traded in for a younger model.

Of course I don’t read the book in such a cynical way, it is still a love story in my eyes – but something about Bertha and the haunting aspect of dreams has revealed the harshness of the text. Imperialism and the role that Britain played in the colonies is hinted at in the novel, with Bertha and Mason coming from Jamaica. The Lowood institution that Jane is sent to as a child is another example of Victorian cruelty and the expectations of children and orphans.

Yet despite all of that, the suggestions at a political agenda, the hauntings, dreams, deaths, the novel is still beautiful. It is written so eloquently, with Jane as a character dropping in and out of her opinions, talking to the reader as it makes the book personal. Jane is talking to you. Jane is in search for a man she can marry and live happily with, it just so happens that certain events have to get in their way before Edward Rochester is her man. The hauntings are only there to make the novel more realistic. Reading a romance is enjoyable regardless of the likeliness of the conclusion, but when one is so heavily soaked in truth and at the same time impossibility it seems impossible for such a thing to occur. Yet Charlotte Bronte has done it, and created a book that is pretty close to perfection in my eyes.

 

Books, bookcases and deadlines.

I love reading. Always have and always will. There is just something so eternal in reading, you will never run out of things to read. Your library will forever expand, and if you are like me, expand way too quickly for you to facilitate where to store all of those books. I hate to leave books in piles on the floor, they deserve to be shelved or at least stacked on something to avoid being kicked or abused, but sometimes that is just the only option.

A couple of years ago I asked for a bookcase for Christmas. A strange present for a 16 year old girl to some, but it was by far the best investment I ever made. It managed to accommodate all of my books nicely…well it did until I discovered a little secondhand bookshop with all books for £1 and before I knew it…I was back to stacking on the floor.

English Degree...history books seem to be a bit more dusty.

English Degree…history books seem to be a bit more dusty.

But the other real problem that I find with reading, is that because there are so many books I can’t decide which one to read. Or worse than that, I just read them all at the same time. This indecisiveness once led to me reading 7 books simultaneously, in fact I think I still haven’t finished one of them.

You find a nice juicy book. You read for a few hours and get hooked and before you know it chapter 7 has already flown by. But then you find another book, one that you have been searching for and you want to read that one too. Yet you know that the original is at the peak of its excitement and yet the lure of this untainted and unexplored territory is what you really want. You must know whether that new book is as good as you think it is, or how it stands compared to the one you should be reading right now.

And then just as you are resolving your dilemma and you decide that you will finish the one you are reading and then move on, you remember that you have to finish that reading for class. That reading for your essay due in next week. That journal article that has nothing interesting in it, except perhaps for a few quirky gimmicks that make you remember you love history because of the simple stupidity of some people. The book that you have to read and review to keep your blog up to date. Reading to a deadline is the kryptonite to reading, it takes away all the joy that people find in that discovery process. Fair enough you may have got hooked and read the book in a night regardless of the seminar you have on it at 11am tomorrow. But it is the inability for you to decide which book you want to prioritise which is sad.

If I could have it my way, reading in summertime would be year round. But I guess taking a degree in English and History comes with the guarantee of changing people’s love of reading. Hopefully though, it won’t be for long…

Review: The History Boys by Alan Bennett

Education and knowledge are always interesting points of discussion. Learning the right information just so that you will pass the exams at the end of the year, or knowing for the sake of knowing. It is sad that in the modern day schooling system that knowledge has become a necessity and not an enjoyment, even those who go on to read a subject at university normally only do so to further there career. Fast-track way to get a better job in theory…

This issue seemed to be at the heart of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, with the two different teachers Irwin and Hector. Hector taught his boys things that they enjoyed and that they would remember in their last days, poetry recitals, French plays and gobbets of information that could potentially be useful in an exam, but wouldn’t necessarily enable them to make the cut and pass the Oxford entry exam. Whereas Irwin has been specifically hired by the school to help the boys study what they will need to get into the prestigious university, he is their private tutor.

History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.

This was one of the problems that was central to the progression of the play, the clash of old and new in the schooling system. Hector is there to teach the boys ‘General Studies’ things that should help them in later life, but in the current climate the boys have no need to waste time memorizing Thomas Hardy’s Drummer Hodge they want to get into Oxford or Cambridge and so they should be studying for those exams.

The play also questioned the extent to which pupils should have a relationship with their teachers – and I mean that in every sense of the word. The sexuality of both the teachers and the students are not only questioned but pushed to the very limits, which I found very interesting to read. In my school experiences I never saw a student openly ask a teacher on a date and yet it didn’t seem too odd that it could happen at this school set in 1980’s Sheffield.

"History is just one fucking thing after another"

“History is just one fucking thing after another”

Although the narrative jumped around and was in no-sense of the word linear, the flash-forwards and flash-backs because of the intertextual references make the setting believable. The play is set in the past, it is also set in the present day, it also talks about the past even further back than the 1980’s. This is a school where students learn, regardless of what they learn, the primary intention is the pursuit of knowledge. For me, it was this that helped the play really connect with me as a reader. Everyone has been in a classroom and it is a place that is safe, ok you may have to sit a horrific exam in there at some point, but nonetheless it is still a place where you can develop as a person. The characters in the play felt like real people. Real people who just want to do the best and the most they can with their lives.

Review: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is NOT a small book

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things  is one of those books that seems to come along once in a blue moon. It seemed to defy all the conventional ‘rules’ of literature and in the process created a sensation. The characterisation, non-linear narrative, and unfamiliar and yet at the same time familiar setting make it hard to put down.

The story is set in Kerala, India and retraces the lives of an upper caste family in the lead up and aftermath of a tragic drowning accident, with  focus on the destruction of the fraternal twins Estha and Rahel’s lives. The story starts at the end, finds the beginning in the middle and finishes somewhere in the middle which allows the characters to be developed and seen at different stages of their lives. The vast array of characters also aid the storytelling because the narrative is not restricted to one person’s viewpoint; third person narrative enables us as readers to experience India through the eyes of children, grandparents, women, men and untouchables.

What I liked most was the political aspect of the novel. At the very heart of the plot was the transgression of the laws that have built Indian society and yet they were so easily broken, broken by ordinary people. The laws that surround religion, nationality, caste, gender, sexuality, incest: the laws that lay down “who should be loved, and how. And how much.” But it remains relatable, although it discusses and leaves those issues open for criticism it is not a political attack on the system. It questions the importance of the small things over the big, or in this case the social ‘laws’.

Love Laws

Love Laws define who we can love, when and by how much…

I found one of the characters particularly interesting. Velutha who is the God of Small Things. What I most enjoyed was his presence in the text, for the majority of the opening he is only referred to, and is not seen or given a large role because of his place as an untouchable in the Indian caste system, at the bottom of the hierarchical system. But as the ‘laws’ were starting to become more apparent as the plot picked up and they started to be questioned and broken, he became a crucial character. Despite the stereotype associated with the untouchables to the other characters he was, and is for me, one of the nicest characters. He was not aggressive or violent towards those who were ranked higher in the heteronormative society.

Although set in India between 1960-1990 depending on which part of the narrative we look at, the text was familiar. I have been to India and was able to imagine the places I had seen and compare that to the descriptions in the novel, but regardless of my experiences I still felt that I was able to relate to the characters. The descriptions of the exotic didn’t feel like Roy was trying to sell India, like some people have criticised, but it just felt like a description of a family home in India. For Roy, the scenes that she writes about are quotidian, nothing more.