For my final project, I was originally interested in investigating new ways that publishers are “doing things with novels,” in particular, how they are trying to attract consumers of social media to narratives themselves as well as to the act of social reading. The New York Public Library, for example, launched in August a new series of InstaNovels—classics that have been repackaged for an Instagram audience. Their first offering, a two-part Alice in Wonderland series, was fun and light with some innovative creative design and a little interactivity, albeit somewhat forced. On October 3rd, NYPL launched another InstaNovel, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” an 1892 short story that I hadn’t read. (I am truly embarrassed to say I hadn’t read it, given its status as a feminist classic and my enjoyment of Gilman’s novella Herland). So, I opened up Instagram and read it.
Gilman’s story is impressive—tight, short, unnerving. In it, a woman suffering from mental unease is brought by her husband to what seems a tranquil, private country retreat to recover. Far from curative, the place, particularly the bedroom with its visually disturbing wall covering, exacerbates the illness (or at least symbolizes the subjugation and social captivity that drives her closer to madness). Further, and particularly relevant to our DH720 studies, material text plays something of a character itself in the book: the narration is a first-person account relayed through journal entries (which the narrator calls “dead paper”) that the protagonist has been asked not to write to spare her mental health, and the wall-paper’s patterns at moments in the story become imposing, shifting lines behind which a spectral woman seems trapped.
It is a tale clearly born out of the era that brought America Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. But it is also shockingly relevant in the era of #metoo and the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, with thoughts such as, “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?”
The InstaNovel of the story is highly disappointing, with a low-effort attempt at rendering the titular menace as section dividers and with virtually no interactivity. Yet, the story practically proposes its own interactivity: why not have the paper begin to creep over the words, requiring the reader to mimic the protagonist’s actions of trying to scratch and peer behind it, to liberate what is trapped there? Further, why not have the digital paper alter itself in some way, as the wall-paper does throughout the story?
Doing a little digging, I learned that the publication history of Gilman’s piece has been wallpapered over itself, with agenda-laden scholarship and significant misprinting and misattribution of the text over time. One particularly intriguing article comes from Julie Dock et al, in 1996, entitled “‘But One Expects That’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and the Shifting Light of Scholarship”—an article Dock followed up with a published book on the matter two years later. The original publication of Gilman’s story in the January issue of the New England Magazine is available online, so deviations from it are easy to spot. Other intriguing resources available during some of that publication history include a defense of the story by Gilman both in the Forerunner in 1913 in response to over a decade of negative reception by the medical establishment (whose methods are portrayed in the story as harmful) and in her 1935 autobiography.
This digging convinced me that “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is uniquely ripe for a digitized environment that could offer layers of both scholarship and simulation. For my final project, I’d like to research the story’s early reception and publication history and create an annotated and interactive version of the text. One that explores that history in a way parallel to the protagonist’s experience—perhaps where lines move within a fixed, barred space. For that, I’ll also need to do a little reading into simulations that mimic the psychological atmosphere of literary spaces, such as a recent VR game on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” (also made into an InstaNovel, by the way).