A few years ago I was on a doctoral committee of a student who was exploring readers' responses to selected short stories written from a feminist perspective. During an early planning meeting, a male committee member questioned having Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" as a selection. As the student and I offered various reasons for including the work, he replied somewhat baffled, "When I studied that story in college, it was treated as a horror story, in much the way we talked about some of Poe's work. " Of course, he didn't veto the selection, but I am confident he remained unconvinced that the story is a tragic feminist tale, in fact quite realistic given the perception of and boundaries for women at the time. For what man can visualize being driven to such mental distraction by anything other than the horrors of war or imprisonment? Certainly not by the imprisonment of their daily lives.
As a student in English classes during the 1950s and 1960s, I know that I was as baffled by many literary "interpretations" offered by my professors as my colleague was by discovering a different way of reading "The Yellow Wallpaper." I was frequently amazed at the Freudian symbolism and analysis offered by my professors about literature with which I had interacted very differently. I struggled hard to learn "to respond" to literature that way, silencing my personal connections to the literature, which I had come to see as inferior, and consequently silencing my interpretive voice. I always felt uncomfortable though, always felt that my interpretations were a masquerade: that I was a fake and would be discovered. I can recall vividly the exhilaration when I began writing course papers from a feminist literary critical stance; I literally felt freed.
I keep these experiences in the forefront of my thinking because it's a reminder that, as a teacher educator, I must continue to help prospective English teachers see the importance of reading from multiple literary critical perspectives as well as to develop effective strategies for eliciting feminist "readings" of the literature found in most high school curriculums. For the most part secondary teachers still teach literature from a combination of formalism, New Criticism, and historical/biographical approaches and that literature for the most part has been written by white Western males. (Arthur Applebee's series of studies on teaching literature in high schools have found little broad-based change in curriculum in the last fifty years.) We cannot revolutionize the curriculum, obviously a near impossibility, but we can restructure our "reading" of the canon. And that's what I see as my work with student teachers and their work with their students and even their cooperating teachers. College English education programs should be instrumental in promoting approaches for multiple readings, and specifically feminist readings, in secondary classrooms.
Copyright 1997, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Kelly, Patricia P. (1997). "More Than One Perspective." WILLA, Volume VI, p. 5.