Nietzsche, Woman, and Wallpaper

By Benjamin Norris

Nietzsche has been called many things but not often a feminist. The goal of this paper will be to show how there is a certain thematic resonance between the epistemology Nietzsche outlines in Beyond Good and Evil and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”. In order to address a small part of the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, I will suggest that from the short story can be extracted an ethical idea that can be paralleled with a certain reading of Nietzsche’s epistemological proclamation in Beyond Good an Evil about the relationship between truth and woman. In highlighting this parallel, I will show how there is a way that Nietzsche can be read as putting forth a pro-feminist perspective similar to one that can be drawn out of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

Nietzsche follows his pronouncement at the beginning of Beyond Good and Evil “supposing truth is a woman” with a critique of the philosophical approaches of his predecessors. Nietzsche criticizes the dogmatic pursuit of truth when he writes, “the gruesome seriousness, the clumsy obtrusiveness with which they have usually approached truth so far have been awkward and very improper methods for winning a woman’s heart”(B, 1). Nietzsche has transposed his entire discussion of truth at this point into a relationship between woman and man in the game of seduction.
We must first notice Nietzsche’s condemnation of dogmatic methodology. The two things he dismisses are seriousness and obtrusiveness. These are not qualities of proper seduction. In light of the dogmatist’s seriousness and clumsiness, Nietzsche tells us “she [truth] has not allowed herself to be won”(B, 1). Nietzsche has painted a picture of a woman too good to be won over simply by force and seriousness. She has evaded the clumsy and obtrusive attempts of her suitors because she is dissatisfied with their efforts. “Science offends the modesty of all real women. It makes them feel as if one wanted to peep under their skin – yet worse, under their dress and finery”(B, 87). Once again, Nietzsche is showing the humiliating nature of current scientific inquiry. Man searches for truth and is unable to respect truth at the same time. The process that was designed to bring man closer to truth does nothing but push truth further away from man.

In order to move toward the connections between Nietzsche’s theory of truth and Gilman’s articulation of pro/proto-feminist views, it is important to analyze the way that Derrida’s reading of Nietzsche is a response to the 70’s wave of feminism. In an article titled  “‘Women’ in Spurs and Nineties Feminism” Jane Gallop makes very insightful connections between Derrida’s re-reading of Nietzsche in Spurs and the 90’s anti-essentialist backlash against many of the ideas within 70’s feminist theory. Gallop notes that, “Woman in Spurs is figured as insistently plural. Derrida, through Nietzsche, criticizes feminism’s desire for a singular concept of woman”(W, 127). This can be drawn back to Nietzsche’s supposition –and “what then?”

If there is no such thing as the essence of woman and truth is like a woman, then there is no essence of truth. But we must realize that Derrida does not say that there are no women. Woman does not exist as a universal concept. By emphasizing the multitude of expressions of women, “the feminine” and the impossible depths one would have to descend in order to form a cohesive, universal concept of woman, Derrida effectively dismisses any form of essentialist construct for women and the feminine. Gallop writes, “Derrida’s celebration of the woman who cannot be taken is, to be sure, an affirmation of what slips away from our inept attempts to pin her down and name her” (W, 132). Let us now move directly into Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper. The 1892 story is a first person account of a woman who is locked up in a room for a summer where her husband attempts to give her the rest cure because he believes she is suffering from “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency”(Y, 42). In isolation, the heroine of the story delves deeper and deeper into herself through her writing and her interactions with the room that becomes her cell. The writer of the account we receive is very mysterious because she is never formally named in the story. In one of the final sentences of the story she writes, “’I’ve got out at last’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane’”(Y, 58). This is the only mention of any character named Jane. Throughout the story she, the narrator, is nameless. Perhaps her namelessness is intended to show us that what she is called has no bearing on who she is. She evades her name and in that way she seems to evade herself. For the remainder of this of this essay, in the interest of clarity, I will refer to her as Jane.

We can consider the relationship between Jane and her husband as very similar to the relationship between truth–the-woman and the men who pry and prod her in an attempt to divulge her secrets. Jane describes her husband as,  “practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures”(Y, 41).  We must not forget Nietzsche’s claim that, “Science offends the modesty of all real women. It makes them feel as if one wanted to peep under their skin – yet worse, under their dress and finery”(B, 87).  Throughout “The Yellow Wallpaper” Jane’s separation from John continues to get worse. Jane tells us that, “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him”(Y, 44). Through the use of reason (note the italics, present in the original), John increases the distance between him and his wife. Her condition is not necessarily one that can be understood in strict rational terms. Distance is a form of protection. We stray away from what is threatening. John distances himself from his wife by rationalizing her depression and in coming to this “Truth” he has actually just stepped further from his wife. Derrida writes that, “Not only for protection (the most obvious advantage) against the spell of her fascination, but also by way of succumbing to it, that distance (which is lacking) is necessary”(S, 49). Once again we have found an example of how a “truth” is often simply a mask for something that evades “Truth” eternally.

Another significant symbol in the story, as the title suggests, is the wallpaper itself. The yellow wallpaper masks the walls of the room that Jane is trapped in. Throughout the story, Jane forms a strange bond with the wallpaper. Why is this? In what ways does Jane see herself reflected in the wallpaper?

In order to answer these questions, lets start at the beginning of the story. After telling the reader a bit about her relationship with John and her “treatment”, Jane gives a thorough description of her room. She writes, “The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off – the paper – in great patches all around the head of my bed, as far as I can reach, and in great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw worse paper in my life”(Y, 43). The paper forms a mask for the walls of the room, but it is incomplete and unfitting. Even if the paper covered all of the walls, it would remain appalling. Yet the walls cannot remain bare. In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche writes, “Man created woman – out of what? Out of a rib of his god? – of his ‘ideal’” (2). Like the wallpaper, Jane cannot not fit this “ideal” and is consequently labeled to be unstable and in need of treatment. Even though John attempts to downplay the seriousness of Jane’s condition, he also thinks she is in some way sick. The walls of the room can be considered in a similar light. A wall cannot stand naked. Through painting and finishing a wall becomes the “ideal”. The main significance of this lies in the fact that the walls surround Jane. The walls form her environment and obviously dominate her thoughts. She is encased, imprisoned even entombed by the ideal. In the end of the story we must ask ourselves what Jane was really fascinated with. Was it the wallpaper, or what lies beneath? Is she fascinated by the mask or the mirror?

What does lie beneath the wallpaper? Jane does not sleep much. Instead of sleeping, she stares at her wallpaper, trying to de-code it. One night while watching the wallpaper in the moonlight Jane discovers that, “The front pattern does move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think that there are a great many women behind, and sometime only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over”(Y, 55). First we must note that Jane makes use of both woman and women. Singular and plural. The woman/women in the paper are crawling, forever in the position of an infant. She/they is/are not allowed to stand on her/their feet. This crawling shakes the wallpaper, the veil that hangs over the truth. Derrida writes, “ ‘Truth’ can only be a surface. But the blushing movement of that truth which is not suspended in quotation marks casts a modest veil over such a surface. And only through such a veil which thus falls over it could ‘truth’ become truth, profound, indecent, desirable”(S, 59). We must realize that the women that move the veil on the wall are simply shadows, phantasms, silhouettes. As Derrida suggests, the play of silhouettes on the walls at night serve as a warning. Keep your distance. What would happen if all of the shadowy women stood up? The walls can barely contain the force of their crawling.

At the end of Gilman’s short story Jane reaches her breaking point. After much analysis and debate Jane decides to tear the paper off the walls. This happens on the very last day of her treatment. Jane retells her actions on her last night, “As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her. I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of paper”(Y, 56). We must note how Jane uses the pronoun “we”. Tearing down the paper is a joint process. She must work with the phantasm on the paper in order to tear the paper down. If we look at Jane’s actions and not the motivations for her actions, she is simply tearing down wallpaper. She is literally stripping the wall bear and exposing it. She penetrates the veil of distance in order to free the shadows that rest on the paper. She is freeing the illusion from the surface that it is projected on.

What happens once the paper is off the walls? John enters the room in the morning while Jane is finishing her remodeling. Jane says “ ‘I’ve got out at last’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’ Now why should the man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”(Y, 58). Jane now identifies herself with the paper, or perhaps the woman trapped on the paper, completely. She has gotten out. She cannot be put back. She has seen past the paper. She has seen what it does to the shadows. She has seen what lies underneath. She is celebrating the room’s liberation but John faints. He cannot handle the scene, but why? John sees not only the walls naked, but his wife as well. She no longer wears any mask. She embodies her a-rational impulses and lives as herself. She has “gotten out at last” and she is thus no longer the “Truth” (capital “t”) John placed upon her. She has not yet begun creating truths (lower case “t”, plural) for herself but she confronts the prison of “Truth” placed upon her. Jane’s mental break down represents a leveling rejection of the identity placed upon her. This both decimates her sanity and the identity John forces her to assume. She has not created a new identity for herself yet but she has created a space/surface to begin the process of “true” individuation.

Just as there is no such thing as totality of women that equals the universal woman, there is, for Nietzsche, no totality of truths that equal a universal Truth. Derrida claims that, “All the emblems, all the shafts and allurements that Nietzsche found in woman, her seductive distance, her captivating inaccessibility, the ever – veiled promise of her provocative transcendence, the Entfernung [German – distance or removal], these all belong properly to a history of truth by way of the history of an error” (S, 89).  Just as Jane needs the shaking of the woman on the wall in order to pull the paper down and expose the naked wall, truth needs to intertwine with untruth in order to drive the so called “history of truth” forward. Or as Nietzsche puts it, “To recognize untruth as a condition of life – that certainly means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil”(B, 12).

In the end we are left with a very striking image. Jane is tearing the paper off the walls while stepping over her husband’s limp body. She never finishes tearing down all of the wallpaper in the room. Gilman leaves Jane eternally circling the room tearing the veils of the walls and stepping over her husband who, as a result of his shock, cannot assist Jane in her task or even look at the bare walls. The only thing that helps Jane expose the walls is the shadow of the woman. The illusion. We can never know Truth, we can only gaze upon the masks it wears from a distance. Some masks seem to be more expressive, or perhaps transparent is a better (or at least more reassuring) word, than others but all masks necessarily hide what lies behind them. The profundity that requires a mask, the distance that must be respected through distance never appears naked. This is why the unknown is so seductive. There is no reason why the distance cannot be crossed, why Truth/woman cannot be named because both concepts lie beyond the boundaries of reason.

But what can this cross consideration show us about aesthetics and ethics? In his essay “Le Facteur De La Vérité”, a text on Lacan’s reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s, “The Purloined Letter”, Derrida asks the following question: “what happens in the psychoanalytic deciphering of a text when the latter, the deciphered itself, already explicates itself?”(P, 414). Perhaps this is a question we can ask of the text and ethics as well. How should the ethical content of a story be brought to the fore without distortion or deterioration? What I have tried to do here is not so much decipher “The Yellow Wallpaper” by using the theories of Derrida and Nietzsche but instead let the story speak in a way that can resonate with the possibly ethical aspects of the epistemology that Nietzsche offers us. The story does not need deciphering. It instead allows us to decipher a philosophy which is perhaps more cryptic. I believe that in this case, the story allows us to see the possible ethical content, inherent in the story itself, of what seems at the surface to be a discussion of epistemology with no real connection to ethics at first glance. The question is, in the end, not so much “what can Nietzsche teach us about Gilman?”. It is instead a matter of seeing what Gilman can show us about Nietzsche. The short story helps us to unravel the possible applications of Nietzsche’s enigmatic epistemological claim about truth and allows us to ask the question of the ethical implications of Nietzsche’s association of truth and woman.

Near the end of Spurs Derrida leaves the reader with a rather unsettling question, “What if Nietzsche himself meant to say nothing, or at least not much of anything, or anything whatever? Then again, what if Nietzsche was only pretending to say something?” (S, 125 – 126). Would this even contradict Nietzsche? Nietzsche recognizes that “truth” itself is illusive by nature. In a sense he is able to choose the masks he wears. By saying “yes” to untruth Nietzsche opens up the possibilities for an a-rational theory of truth, or a theory of truth that reaches beyond the rational. Because he does not try to pin down exactly what constitutes a complete idea or the universal Truth that illuminates the good, Nietzsche is able to recognize some form of life itself and not just rational theories that surround life. Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” provides an embodied example of the consequences of refusing to recognize untruth or the possibility of unstable, ineffable “essences”. Jane, as individual women, is lost behind the social construction of the concept woman. By connecting Truth (capital ‘t’) to woman and associating plurality with individual women Nietzsche is able to avoid essentializing both individual women and truths. In this way Nietzsche’s philosophy truly points toward the future. ❉

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1978. (S)
Derrida, Jacques. The Post Card. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1987. (P)
Gallop, Jane. ‘Women’ in Spurs and Nineties Feminism’. Dialectics, 25.2 (Summer, 1995): 126-134. (W)
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston/New York, 1998. 40 – 59. (Y)
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Vintage Books: New York, 1989. (B)
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. Barnes and Noble: New York, 2008. (T)