Anatomy of an Object Lesson: Constructing Characters in Classroom Context
Barbara J. Pace, University of Florida
In canonical literary works women are often constructed as weak, bothersome, tempting, mothering, or constraining. Additionally, these representations are often cast against those of male characters who are portrayed as stronger and more rational and who are positioned at the center of the work. The perspectives of these central male characters usually dominate the text, and women characters are represented according to how they fulfill or restrain male needs and desires. In discussing this pattern, Fetterley (1977) observed that during the private, solitary moments of reading, women readers become co-opted "into participation" in male experiences and learn to identify against themselves.
In a literature classroom, however, there is an opportunity to challenge this outcome, for the act of reading is not concluded at the close of the individual's private reading of a text. Rather it evolves through post-reading activities, such as class discussion and the crafting of essays providing an opportunity for initial responses to be extended through conversation within an interpretive classroom community. As a literature teacher I count on these post-reading activities to help students unearth the assumptions embedded in literary texts. I encourage them to raise questions and to think critically about texts as they work toward deeper understandings.
Often, however, students do not challenge assumptions about gender roles. In fact, the opposite usually occurs: the classroom conversation cements rather than challenges gender-role stereotypes. When this happens, I wonder how students who have resisted negative messages during private readings have been influenced by public interpretation. I wonder if the classroom experience sends a message about community standards, if it pushes them to abandon their critical stance and to accept a more conventional, and often negative, representation of canonical literary women. I wonder if such experiences become object lessons, mechanisms for sustaining superficial images of women who are objectified and caught in limited roles.
To explore these issues, I spent a semester observing a writing-about-literature class at a large university. In this article, I share a small part of that work by presenting how communal meaning-making influenced two students' perceptions of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper." In doing so, I consider a three-part journey that these young women took as they read and constructed meaning about this short story. I begin by sharing their initial responses to the story as they were recorded in their reading response journals. Next I describe the nature of the discussion that that they observed as their class constructed meaning about the story. Finally, I explore their interpretive essays, to consider how the issues raised and the tone of the discussion were appropriated in the final essays written by these two students.
Private Responses in Reading Journals
Kavita and Jennifer participated in my study of a writing-about-literature class. Both students had been in advanced placement classes in high school, and both were grade conscious. Each had graduated from high school a few months earlier, but other aspects of their backgrounds were very different. Kavita had been born in Bombay, India, and she had come to the US at the beginning of her ninth--grade year of high school. Jennifer had lived in an urban area of Florida all of her life.
Students' first impressions of the story were recorded in their reading response journals, and the women had similar responses to "The Yellow Wallpaper." Both expressed sympathy for the narrator and for her predicament. Kavita concluded that the narrator "sees these images in the wallpaper [and] thus fights for her identity and for some . . . independence." She noted the husband treated the wife "like a child," and he kept her from fulfilling her role as wife and mother. Kavita initially found fault with the husband and with his treatment of his wife.
In Jennifer's initial reaction, she also reveals sympathy for the main character:
As I read this story, I felt so sorry for this poor woman. She's all alone everyday with nothing but her own thoughts (which seem scary enough) and the creepy yellow wallpaper. With each entry the paper becomes more descriptive and much more life-like. The paper seems to taunt her and make her more edgy than she already is.
Jennifer did not mention the husband nor see a relationship between the wife's "scary" thoughts and her marriage. Rather, she seemed to see the wallpaper itself as a part of the problem. However, she concluded her journal by noting that she was confused by this complex story and was unsure of how to make sense of it.
Communal Meaning-Making in Classroom Context
After students recorded their initial impressions of their private reading, they engaged in communal meaning-making by discussing the literature in their class. Before class, the instructor collected response journals, and, if possible, used ideas from the journals as part of her instruction. She embraced critical pedagogy and wanted to include student ideas and student voices in the classes. She wanted students to become critically aware and to consider issues of power and culture in their readings. Toward this end, she planned a series of readings to emphasize different perspectives and experiences than those she believed her students were likely to have encountered in a typical high-school English class.
The students started the semester by reading a series of short stories. "The Yellow Wallpaper" was the third story read. Earlier they had read Haslam's "Hawk's flight An American Fable," the story of a Native American who has been captured by US soldiers. The second story "And the Soul Shall Dance" (Yamauchi) tells of a Japanese woman who drinks sake, dances alone in the desert at night, and seems to live in an abusive relationship. During the discussion of these stones, students touched on cultural issues, such as power and stereotypes.
The discussion of "The Yellow Wallpaper" lasted for two days. On the first day of discussion, however, the instructor focused on writing thesis statements and fording textual details to support assertions. She pulled a few examples from the journals, including Kavita's statement that "He treats her like a child." However, this line of thinking did not engage students, and the class quickly moved on to the issue of the narrator/wife's sanity. By the second day, most students agreed that the narrator was insane and began to consider who was at fault. Bayla, another young woman from India, began to focus on the narrator by asserting that she "couldn't control herself." Paulo claimed that "the restraint that she is putting on herself is harming her."
As students focused on finding details in the text that could support their assertions, one noted that the wife "was subservient," and another identified an incident in which the she felt reproached by her husband's expression. To these male students, the wife's responses to her apparently rational husband seemed unreasonable. One student went so far as to suggest that the wife staged the illness so that she could gain the attention of her busy, professional husband. Another expressed doubt that the wife really wanted to get better.
Finally, C.K. introduced the idea of the historical context and the marriage. He suggested that the husband was "the law" and "the norm" and that the wife did not know "she could talk back" to him. Other students began to comment on the husband/wife relationship. When Kavita, only the second woman to speak, noted that "the husband treated her like a child," the comment was ignored.
During two days of discussion dominated by the assertive males, the adjectives used to describe the wife indicated that she was constructed in a negative way. She was described as "out of control," "weak," "manipulative," "subservient," "insane," and "crazy." The husband was described as "the norm," and his voice was equated with "the law." In a few instances where negatives were used to describe him, the descriptors were read directly from the text, not recalled from students' perspectives. While the text supports the conclusion that the wife is mentally ill, other attributes assigned to her character are difficult to justify. These students simply seemed to evaluate her more strictly than they did the husband.
Just as students seemed to ignore any role the husband might have had in the narrator's illness, they also overlooked cultural issues. In discussions of previous stories, these same assertive students had raised issues of culture and power. However, during their talk about "The Yellow Wallpaper," these issues seemed difficult to approach. Though C.K.'s comment was lodged in an historical reference, his line of thinking was not sustained. Furthermore, when the instructor tried to move the class toward a critique of social roles and "gender construction," she was unsuccessful. Her attempts to focus students on Kavita's observation that the husband treats the wife "like a child," also did not alter the path of the discussion.
Thus, after a discussion in which the wife was negatively constructed, the husband was not critiqued, and cultural issues were avoided, the "blame" for the wife's condition fell on the wife herself. Some students, however, did suggest that the culprit was actually the wallpaper. One student noted, "Who knew wallpaper could do that to a person?"
The Women Students Craft a Final Interpretation
In the final phase of studying this story, Kavita and Jennifer each wrote a formal essay on "The Yellow Wallpaper." After reading the story and listening to two days of class discussion, both women altered the initial perceptions expressed in their reading response journals. Both became engaged by the concept of marriage and what they saw as the failure of the marriage in the story. Both attributed this failure to the wife and how she was "blinded" by the husband and unable to see the flaws in their relationship. Neither, however, questioned the institution of marriage or made a cultural connection to the status of women in general. However, both young women discussed in interviews the limitations they saw in own lives because of their positions as women.
In her paper, Kavita considered the institution of marriage and delineated the roles of a wife as a caretaker of the house and children, a participant in the marital relationship, and a person who can "freely engage and converse with friends and the husband." Kavita's thesis turned on the idea that the narrator's insanity was fueled by her alienation from these roles and that this alienation was a justifiable treatment for her mental condition. She also suggested that "[A] wife's true self can be regarded as having an almost, if not exactly, equal status [italics added] in the relationship."
In writing her formal paper, Kavita also relied on a secondary source. Through supplementary reading, she found a critic who explained the husband's behavior as a rational response to his wife's mental illness, which originated from an unknown cause. Kavita told me in an interview that she agreed with these ideas, and they had helped her interpret the story: "I agree with the critic. And when I started writing my paper I found a lot of support [for it] from the [story]."
Though Kavita had lashed out at the husband in her initial response, she found an explanation for his behavior in the words of the critic and in the attitudes expressed by her classmates. Furthermore, she did not note the contradictions between the role of the wife--as a "rest and comfort "to the husband--and the role of a wife as an independent human being. By the time she wrote her formal essay, she, like the students who spoke during the class discussion, sees the narrator only as a wife:
Her thoughts comply with only what goes on in and around the house; she is blinded by her husband so the rest of the world is unseen by her. Her physical isolation is partly designed to remove her from the possibility of over-stimulating intellectual discussion.
Kavita adopted the idea that the wife was truly insane and that the husband's actions were an attempt to "relieve her symptoms." The methods he used were rooted in the social bias against mental illness rather than in any inequity that may exist between the roles of men and women. Jennifer's journal response was brief and she did not mention the husband or his treatment of the wife. However, in her formal paper his role was a key element. In fact, she appropriated Kavita's idea, "He treats her like a child" that had been written on the chalkboard during the initial discussion. As Jennifer focused on the husband-and-wife relationship, she revealed her ideas about marriage: "Marriage is a bond between two people signifying love, respect, and commitment. There's a sense of partnership and unity involved." Jennifer's explanation for the story became lodged in the fact that the marriage described did not reflect her ideas of marriage. In addition, she blamed the wife for being unaware of her own mistreatment:
[The wife] doesn't stop to ask herself why this man who supposedly cares for her so much would have any objections to her venting her thoughts on paper to ease her mind. Jane is blinded by the facade of a loving husband and brilliant physician instead of seeing a man wanting to treat his wife like a child.
Though Jennifer was willing to acknowledge the wife's fragile mental state in her reading journal, she does not do so in her formal paper. Rather, she sees Jane's inability to comprehend her flawed marriage as a sign of weakness, not of illness.
Even though these young women resisted a stereotypical construction of the narrator/wife during their private responses, they gravitated toward such a reading after the class discussion. Admittedly, it is difficult to determine how much their thinking was influenced by the tone and substance of the class discussion, by the demands of academic writing, or by the difficulty posed by the story itself. However, what is clear is that the narrator/wife shifted from a sympathetic character, a woman to whom they initially related, to a wife who was confined by a specific role and specific responsibilities.
Following in Fetterley's footsteps, Schweickart suggested that female identity with male characters is, in part, facilitated by the desire for that which is ideologically imposed. She suggested that a "male texts draws its power over the female reader" because of the "authentic desires" which arise from ideological beliefs and which are roused by the text (p. 43). Thus, the female reader identifies with a male character who is seeking both autonomy and perfection, those elements that most humans would willingly, perhaps even hungrily, seek.
In their initial responses to this story, the two young women viewed the narrator /wife as an autonomous being. They each felt an initial sympathy for her lack of freedom and for her confinement to a single room. Kavita saw the narrator as fighting for her identity and for independence. However, by the time she wrote a final essay that identity and that independence were framed only as a wifely identity and the freedom needed to carry out her role as a proper wife. Jennifer does not even consider the woman as a wife in her initial response. But as she makes her way to a final interpretation, it is the role of wife that emerges, a role not properly played out by the narrator.
The path these young women followed as they moved from response to interpretation supported rather than disrupted a stereotypical representation of the narrator/wife in "The Yellow Wallpaper." The final reading presented in their formal essays suggested that they had truncated their expectations for this character as they focused on her role and the possibilities for her life as a wife. This narrowing of possibilities provides a cautionary tale, one that raises questions about teaching literature about women. For example, how might we nurture fragile points of new growth and new ways of thinking in communities where difference is often not valued? How can we extend the experience of reading without truncating the responses of students who see texts in different ways? Seeking answers to these questions is part of the work of teaching literature and of introducing students to characters who can extend, rather than limit, their thinking.
Fetterley, Judith. (1977). "Introduction: On the Politics of Literature In Feminisms: An Anthology of Liter T gr and Criticism. R.R. Warhol and D. P. Herndl (Eds.). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 492-501.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. (1994). "The Yellow Wallpaper," p. 503-12. In James Hurt, (Ed.) (1994). Literature: A Contemporary Introduction. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Haslam, Gerald. `Hawks Flight: An American Fable," p. 322-24. In James Hurt, (Ed.) (1994). Literature: A Contemporary Introduction. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Yamauchi, Wakako. "And the Soul Shall Dance," p. 291-96. In James Hurt, (Ed.) (1994). Literature: A Contemporary Introduction. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Schweickart, Patrocinlo P. (1986). "Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading." Gender and Reading: Essays 9M Readers. Texts, and Contexts. In Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart (Eds.). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 31-62.
Reference Citation: Pace, Barbara J. (2001) "Anatomy of an Object Lesson: Constructing Characters in Classroom Context." WILLA, Volume 10, p.23-26.