female body -- the sum of its parts? In short story, novel, and poetic depictions of Gillman, Brooks, and Piercy despised flower, called a yellow weed by most observers. A trapped and voiceless bodily entity, like a ghost, perhaps behind a surface of peeling yellow wallpaper. A plastic doll with yellow hair with pneumatic dimensions and candied cherry lips. These three contrasting images all have been used to characterize the female body throughout popular media discourse. All of these fetish-like depictions have also been used as well to characterize the female body throughout literary history, from the 19th century to the present. Yet when these images are used and selectively deployed by women, in the prose of the female authors Gwendolyn Brooks, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Marge Piercy respectively, they have taken on additional ironic resonance and power, saying more about how culture has limited female social and psychological development, rather than what such images say about what women intrinsically are as physical beings. These metaphorical images can be used, thusly to highlight the refusal of the larger culture to see 'the woman' as she truly is, as a physical entity. "The woman" becomes a fetish object, rather than a suffering, joyful, or fleshy and beautiful being because of the misogyny of culture and society.
The most famous image cited above, of course, is that of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's protagonist in the short story entitled "The Yellow Wallpaper." Like all of the representations noted above, through the literary process of metaphor, the part (the yellow paper) stands for the whole (the female body in the cultural context of society, papered over with oppressive notions.) At the end of the tale, the protagonist, driven mad by the 'rest cure' imposed upon her by her husband and male doctors, crawls through her sickroom, peeling the titular paper from the walls, attempting to free her doppelganger from behind the walls.
It is important to remember, given the fame of this final story and its final, resonant image, that the woman begins the tale, although physically debilitated, still mentally strong enough to desire to read. The protagonist has just had a baby and may thus be experiencing postpartum depression, a condition not heard of or commonly talked about during the era the story was written. However, she is still a mother and a mind at the beginning of the tale -- thus the cure is worse than the disease, stripping her of her defenses and her personal, human, and familial assets as she strips the wallpaper. She is capable at the beginning of "The Yellow Wallpaper" of experiencing joy, of loving reading and life and the feeling of her child in her arms before it is whisked away by a nurse. She ends her story incapable of understanding her surroundings, reduced to being merely a body, a body incapable even of effective and efficacious actions in the world, of escaping the home through the door rather than fantasy.
The misunderstanding of culture, of the female body is exemplified in the peeling and exfoliating nature of the yellow wallpaper. However, by the end of the story, there is nothing left behind the pretty surface, because the heroine has become so battered by the sexism and intellect-denying character of her 'rest cure.' Male doctors and the protagonist's husband do not only wield this oppression, however. Even female nurses enforce patriarchic standards, focusing only on the surface, namely the appearance of the woman's supposedly weak body, rather than what lies beneath. Such a totemic focus on the female body as a fetish-like object of health and sexuality, however, results in its destruction by the owner through peeling, and the discovery that nothing lies within.
Gwendolyn Brook's heroine begins her tale not a young woman but as a precocious and delightful child. Maud Martha Brown begins Brook's eponymous novel Maud Martha as only seven years old but full of wonder and capricious delight in the world, as Gilman's protagonist at the beginning of "The Yellow Wallpaper" still has a wonderful mind even though her body has been weakened by modern medicine and the ancient and draining effects of childbirth. Like Gilman's protagonist Maud likes books and the images of freedom as exemplified for the child by "west sky" and the "candy" and "buttons" that represent sensory excitement of the tongue and flesh that Gilman's young woman is denied as part of her 'rest cure.'
But unlike the pampered and overly cosseted young white mother of "The Yellow Wallpaper," Maud Martha lives in dark surroundings of the tenements. Also, she is distracted by something that over the course of the story comes to stand in for the way that women's bodies are perceived by society. What the heroine of Brook's novel loves most, notes the author, are dandelions, the "yellow jewels for everyday studding the patched green dress of her back yard." In the everyday texture of her city existence, the young girl finds passion and joy in the persistent and determined sights of these flowers in gardens and amongst other weeds, just as Gilman's woman found escape in the textures of the yellow wallpaper.
Likewise, Maud Martha seems to identify with these flowers, as Gilman's protagonist identified with 'the woman' behind the wallpaper, trapped by the peeling surface of confining domesticity. Maud Martha's sense of identification and feelings of inferiority are also quite physical, as was Gilman's regarding her physical weakness. However, although Maud is strong in body, she feels weak because she is not beautiful. Maud's nine-year-old sister, named Helen (like Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman of the world), is known for being beautiful. The dandelions, Maud Martha tells herself, although they are weeds and common are also beautiful, even if this is not acknowledged by society.
Thus, the pretty dandelions beloved by Maud Martha with "only ordinary allurements" are also flowers of uncommon radiance, just as wall paper with its different metaphoric resonance is beautiful, yet confining in the fact that it papers over or covers up the eyes and breath of the woman behind. The bodies of the protagonists have strengths they are not aware of, to liberate and to live, but because of the metaphorical capacity of society, the protagonist's understandings of their own bodies and by extension their own senses of self-worth are limited.
Brook's novel-length text is longer, and covers a longer period of time than Gilman's text. Over the course of the novel Maud Martha, Maud Martha grows up, gets married, and gives birth to a daughter. Yet in Brook's descriptions of this unlovely woman, whose marriage and childbirth is described as a surprise, like the woman behind the wallpaper, eventually becomes embittered. Maud Martha's heart is littered with "scraps of baffled hate in her, hate with no eyes, no smile," because of Maud's mistreatment by the world and by men and women. This is because of the arbitrary nature of what society calls unlovely, where a dandelion is a weed and a daffodil is a flower.
Because of Brook's widespread fame as an African-American poet, her protagonist's lack of socially acceptable physical loveliness might first be only construed, as it is partly, as Blackness and society's inability to find beautiful in what is Black. However, the pulchritude of Maud Martha's sister Helen in contrast to her sister shows that this is not only partly the case, although Helen's beauty is more closely exemplifying of the 'white' ideal and characteristics of beauty, and thus has a corresponding racial resonance as well, despite Helen's racial identity and identification as African-American and Maud Martha's sister. But the beauty of Helen as all that is lovely and female as well as racially coded shows that the pure image of beauty for the African-American Brooks is also riddled with conflict.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman bridles at the fact that the female body, despite its ability to give birth to both books and babies, is treated as fragile. Gwendolyn Brooks is also angry that the body of Maud is used against her in a way to make this protagonist bitter, as joy is pulled from the woman's heart like dandelions from gardens, despite their resilience. The unique beauty and sparseness of Brook's prose regarding Maud's life, like: "spring landscape: detail," "death of grandmother," "first beau," "low yellow," "everybody will be surprised" show how beautiful potential exists within even the 'low' yellow skin of Maud. Maud Martha's life shows how learning how to gut a chicken, and the delights of steam heat in an apartment on a cold day can be beautiful, even though society denies this. Society's treatment of dandelions parallels its treatment of Maud Martha, just like its treatment of the wallpaper parallels the unwinding life of Gilman's tale. The protagonists, treated as inferior bodies that are the sum of their part, are forced into the destinies of old wallpaper and weeds, rather than as full human beings, despite their great potential.
That a poem, written during the height of the second…