Tag Archives: The Yellow Wallpaper

Sleep in Fiction

Through most of my life sleep has seemed a waste of time. Other people seem to relish it, want more of it, but I have always felt that I would rather be reading, writing, knitting, talking or even awake.

I know that sleep has a function for humans, not fully understood, with both physical and psychological effects. So a recent bout of bad sleeping focused my mind on sleep in fiction. Considering we spend about one third of our lives asleep it is strange that it does not feature more in novels. 

It is useful for novelists as a passage into the next scene. It is used when writers want their main character to emerge from sleep in a befuddled state so they can be surprised by something they take time to understand. Another function is that the sleeper when awoken suddenly is more credulous, or more willing to write off what they have witnessed during the night. And the lack of sleep, as we know, can be very disorienting. 

You can find dreams, any number of dreams, in fiction. Dreams that foretell, or warn, or explain, or reveal the turmoil in the characters’ minds. But dreams are not the focus of this post.

Here are four works of fiction in which sleep plays an important role

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 
  2. Night Waking by Sarah Moss
  3. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  4. Insomnia by Stephen King

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

First Edition of Jane Eyre 1847

We know that our heroine is in trouble again when she is awoken in Thornfield Hall by a woman’s hysterical laughter in the night. Soon after this Jane saves Mr Rochester from being burnt alive during the night. She is told that these events are caused by Grace Poole, but the madwoman in the attic is not Grace Poole. She is of course an inconvenient wife. This is how we are introduced to Mr Rochester’s dark secret and the revelation is the cause of yet another reversal in Jane’s fortunes.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011)

As the title suggests the tensions in this novel come from lack of sleep. Anna Bennett, her husband Giles and their two children are spending the summer on Colsay, a St Kilda-like island. She is suffering from lack of sleep. She also suffers from lack of time to finish her book and from lack of internet connection. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.

Anna’s story becomes serious when the skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house. This leads her to spend time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. Her story is interwoven with letters from May, a young woman from Victorian times, who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants. Eventually the two stories coincide.

The novel is written in the first person and the humour is found in the authenticity of her chaotic life and her commentary upon it. At one point it seems as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end all these difficulties are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation. And by the end Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children’s sleeplessness and recommitted to her marriage. Recommended reading by many people I know.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman found society’s attitude to women deeply repugnant and she was a critic of their treatment. In this long short story she describes how a woman is treated (medically and psychologically) in order to bring her to the proper attitudes of a wife. It was based on her own experience.

The narrator undergoes a rest cure, in a room in which the wall paper is a hideous yellow. Her husband is a physician and it is his prescription. She is required to do nothing and takes to sleeping more and more during the day as she can’t sleep at night. The act of sleeping emphasises her helplessness. She gradually identifies with a woman she sees in the wallpaper, and escapes.

Insomnia by Stephen King (1994)

I have not read this horror story, but I refer to it as it came up repeatedly when I googled some variation of novels/fictions and sleep. When I looked up the plot on Wikipedia I was mystified, but it centred on a main character who sees things as a result of insomnia.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (2018)

And I recommend this memoir:

A sublime view of the treasures and torments to be found in wakefulness. Entertaining and existential, the brightest star in this erudite, nocturnal reverie in search of lost sleep, is the beauty of the writing itself. (Deborah Levy)

This slim book sits on my bedside table and I dip into its paragraphs and reflections on insomnia and sleep as required. 

Over to you …

Have you any suggestions of novels where sleep is important to add to my selection?

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Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Utopias are irresistible. This feminist utopia has much to recommend it, at least as a book. The supreme function of fiction is to offer a different way of seeing the world. Charlotte Perkins Gilman gives her readers a world without men in her utopia, called Herland.

In Women & PowerMary Beard explores the historic silencing of women and the current constructions of power that exclude women. That book reminded me about Herland. I decided to treat myself to a reread.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It is the early twentieth century and young men are proving themselves through exploration in Africa, Antarctica and up the Amazon. Three young men, in search of adventure, are determined to find the fabled land rumoured to be peopled by women only. They approach with many assumptions in place. They assume they will be welcomed, that there are men managing things, and if not seen the men must be pulling the strings from some glorious hiding place.

Terry is a rich, virile and confident young man, not used to being denied by anyone, above all women. He expects to conquer the women. Jeff is a southerner, and his respect and reverence for women makes understanding Herland easier for him than for his macho companion. But his worship is of weak and feeble women, and the inhabitants of Herland are not that. They are assertive, powerful and in no need of protection. Van, the narrator, likes to take a scientific approach to the world, more questioning, less prone to assumptions. Even he is amazed by what they find in that hidden land.

The young men are certain that the place will provide them with opportunities for conquest and power.

“They would fight amongst themselves,” Terry insisted. “Women always do. We mustn’t look to find any sort of order and organization.”

“You’re dead wrong,” Jeff told him. “It will be like a nunnery under an abbess – a peaceful, harmonious sisterhood.”

I snorted derision at this idea.

“Nuns, indeed! Your peaceful sisterhoods were all celibate, Jeff, and under vows of obedience. These are just women, and mothers, and where there’s motherhood you don’t find sisterhood – not much.”

“No, sir – they’ll scrap,” agreed Terry. “Also we mustn’t look for invention and progress, it’ll be awfully primitive.” (7)

On encountering some women, they discover that their accustomed ways of approaching women do not result in the outcomes they expect. And when they become more aggressive many women arrive and subdue and detain them. They attempt one escape but after a while cooperate to learn about Herland.

Reflecting on their early days in Herland the visitors find that they were surprised that many of the inhabitants were older women and that these older women took charge of them.

In our discussion and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women, whatever else they might be, would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy.

“Woman” in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it altogether. But these good ladies were very much on the stage, and yet any one of them might have been a grandmother. (17)

Some of the pleasure of the novel is in anticipating the ways in which the men’s preconceptions will be challenged as they gradually learn about how the women organise their society. In comparing the strange country with their own the three men find that they want to hide much about their homeland: poverty, disease, inequality, war and so forth.

They are eventually expelled, or leave or remain in the paradise. Terry believes in the superiority of men and that the relationships between men and women as he has experienced them are the natural order of things. It is his behaviour, his sexual violence, which leads to his expulsion. Jeff finds happiness in Herland and Van returns with Terry.

Is Herland a paradise?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman constructed a land based on assumptions that challenged those common in early twentieth century America. Its principles were rational, and the women worked together for the benefit of all. Their sexless motherhood was seen as almost sacred by them, and the outcomes of their cooperation included equality, generosity, shared knowledge, wealth and good feeling. Without men the women had rejected competition and values based on strength, acquisition and exclusivity.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was reacting to a society that she found deeply repugnant in its treatment of women. She wrote her short story The Yellow Wallpaper in 1892. In it she describes how a woman is treated (medically, psychologically) in order to bring her to the proper attitudes of a wife. It was based on her own experience of marriage.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman in c 1900

And she is no less a product of her time. In particular, this imagined female-dominated society is governed by rational thinking. And we know, we cannot escape the knowledge that humans, male and female, do not always act rationally.

The chapters in which the men discover the ways in which women organise various aspects of their community, become a little tedious. The expectation by the reader that the narrative will reveal the amusing shortcomings of the men’s attitudes cannot be sustained as they and the reader become more familiar with Herland.

Herald is a mischievous and lively exposition of women’s capabilities, and reminds us of how the men of Charlotte Gilman Perkin’s time viewed women and of how little has changed since then.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first serialised in 1909 and published as a book in 1979. I read the Dover Thrift Edition. 124pp

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Reading with others

Anything you enjoy is better done in the company of fellow enthusiasts. I love talking about reading and books. Here are my six top ways of sharing reading.

 1. On the bus

Actually it has only happened once, or rather twice but about one book. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I was preparing for a reading group. ‘Are you enjoying it?’ a total stranger asked as he sat down next to me. We had a conversation about it how he had always intended to read it. ‘How are you getting on with The Master and Margarita?’ asked the second. I got a 4 minute critique. ‘One of my favourite books,’ she said before getting off.

Great! I thought – conversations on buses, about books. I thought about the conductor who sang calypsos on the 38 bus, and began to imagine poetry readings on the 210 and a 73 bus route reading group. On reflection it seems that the conversations were more a response to the book than the potential of buses for such conversations.

96 73 Bus

 2. With friends

Naturally, friends recommend, deconstruct, give me (I can’t bring myself to say gift me) books. Thanks to Rose I found Sebald, and my sister recommended Barbara Kingsolver years ago. I read Alone in Berlin recently, by Hans Fallada, recommended by a friend (thanks Jennifer). Most meetings with friends include enquiries about current reading and lead to most pleasurable talk about books.

3. When I have my hair cut

Usually the conversation is about holidays. I’ve never sat and stared at myself, all red eyed and too like my parents, and discussed books before. Great stuff. Recently, after 9 months I decided to have my hair cut, and went to see Gill Goddard in Totnes, who subscribes to this blog. Gill did ask me for my holidays recommendations – so watch out!

 4. In a reading group

96 J&JLove this – being required to read a book I may not have considered before, and then discussing reactions to it, hearing other people’s responses, and sometimes seeing things differently. Next up for discussion in my group is Julie & Julia by Julie Powell. It’s about food and blogging and life. Lots to enjoy and talk about there then. The first book I ever read for a reading group was one I had decided would be too difficult: A Child in Our Time, by Ian McEwan. A young child disappears from a supermarket … I am glad I have faced that one, and (like much of McEwan) it’s a tough starting point.

5. On courses

A day talking with other people, usually women, who I have not met before, and learning about books on a particular theme. What’s not to love? While I was in London I attended courses at City Lit. I remember one excellent course on women’s short stories at the end of the C20th. We focused on the collection edited by Elaine Showalter called Daughters of Decadence (Virago). And that led me on to Women Who Did, a Penguin Classic collection of stories 1890-1914. That was a good course, one that extended my reading.

A good way to talk books in Devon came my way a couple of weekends ago. I attended a day in the Reading Room on madwomen in the attic. Oh, the pleasure, an indulgence as so many of the participants described it, of a day looking at fiction, in an environment entirely consonant with the conversation! The house was on a hill, just outside Chagford. The drive through Dartmoor was a treat, the refreshments and lunch entirely delicious, and the room itself comfortable, warm, everything a reading room should be.

96 2 booksThe day provoked, entertained, introduced new ideas and we enjoyed much laughter. Again I want to revisit some of the books we explored: The Awakening by Kate Chopin and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilmour Perkins are two of them. Thank you to Leah, Naomi and Frances.

6. With children

96 Reading with motherThe physical closeness of reading to a small child, watching them engage with the text and pictures, sharing the love of certain books – I spend hours doing this. Current favourites with my nearly 3-year-old grandson are still the Aybeeceedee book (in the picture), and also Not Now Bernard, by David McKee. I’ve been reading with both grandsons since they were just weeks old. Magic. I hope to read to their children in time. (That’s my daughter in the picture, by the way.)

96 Not now BAnd there is another way I am coming to enjoy conversations about books …

 7. Blogs.

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