Whenever I see wallpaper, I think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story, The Yellow Wallpaper. I must have been in high school when I first read about the nameless woman whose patronizing doctor-husband confines her to an attic nursery as a cure for her postpartum depression, even though she’s desperate for distraction and hates the oppressive paper, “one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.” There’s nothing for her to do but study the wallpaper and in its design she sees fungus, bloated faces, an endless parade of mushrooming forms, the bars of a cage and, as she slips into psychosis, she imagines women creeping around behind those bars and rattling them, trying to escape. The Yellow Wallpaper is stuck fast in my imagination and when I read it again after I’d had kids and my own bout of postpartum despair, I perceived a whole new dimension.
I still see her running manic circles around her room, scrambling and scratching for a way out. Sometimes, when I’m slipping into some old rabbit hole of a thought, standing on that worn spot on the floor in front of the sink washing a dish I’ve washed countless times before, I close my eyes and remember that woman creeping around and around in fast-forward, eyes swallowed in black and her left shoulder stained yellow from rubbing against the wall, and I step away from the sink.
Some stories are all about the setting. Some construct settings designed to evoke specific ideas. I’m thinking of Gatsby’s house on West Egg, the mental hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the remote cabin in Bennett Sim’s House-Sitting, Ruth’s place in Housekeeping, 124 Bluestone Road in Beloved, Tara, Hogwarts, Downton Abbey: these are wondrous sites, solid virtual structures built to house specific moods and without them, each plot would have flopped.
In fiction, the setting is built for the plot and characters settle into hollowed-out spots custom-designed to fit them. No matter how hard they rattle the cage, they will fulfill the life the writer has designed for them: that makes good writing. In life, setting is just as important for plot but the process of finding our place is serendipitous. I have lived many places: some fit like a cashmere sweater and others gave me a wedgie but in each place, I have felt the push-pull of spatial influence, the way a structure exerts an influence on the inhabitant and how function follows form
Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “every spirit makes its house, and we can give a shrewd guess from the house to the inhabitant,” and I would add that houses make spirits too. If a character grew up in Gatsby’s mansion, she certainly would look and think and act differently than if she were raised at Grey Gardens. Would she have a mean backhand, would her loafers match her belt, and, with one sniff, could she determine the denomination of a bill? Would she eat cat food from the can, wear a pantyhose sarong, and hang a lightbulb in a birdcage over a mattress on the floor? If the character was me, either of those settings might make me happy or miserable. Who knows what I’d be like but in any case, I would not be the person I now refer to as “me.”
I’d love to meet the characters formed by those settings, but I can’t be them. I’ve visited many places I would not choose to live, structures built in inhospitable places–on the sides of cliffs or on land so flat there’s not even a hill or a tree to break the monotony, in the blistering heat, in air conditioning, or in the cold acidic shadows of redwood trees, overlooking a noisy highway, in a crowded tract of identical houses, in a slum. It’s too late for me to have been born in Las Vegas or Dallas or Salt Lake City or even Paris. I don’t want to live there but I’d like to visit but after awhile, I feel a bit like the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper– warped by the wrongness of my surroundings, languishing a little until I can get back home, because as Eudora Welty said, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else…. Fiction depends for its life on place.”
I suppose one’s mother is always the first place one lived. In 1966 when my mother was pregnant with me, my parents lived in an apartment on Jones Street in San Francisco. She had her MFA by then and although the apartment had no room for a studio, she arranged to use an airless, windowless space in the basement to paint in, more like a closet than a room. I can almost smell the fumes from the oil paints when I imagine her standing there under a florescent bulb at the easel, holding a paintbrush in one hand and a cigarette in the other, her burgeoning midsection dabbling against the canvas. She quit smoking ten years ago but still, when I smell a cigarette, I remember her and the claustrophobic smoke that crept in my nostrils and clung to my hair. I remember nothing about our apartment on Jones Street and have only a vague impression of very steep streets, or more precisely, of being pushed up a nearly vertical incline in a stroller.
We soon moved to a more kid-friendly spot in the suburbs: 11 Lincoln Avenue in Mill Valley. Our little white colonial had bright red wall-to-wall shag carpeting and a cherry tree in the back yard. My toe-headed, wild-eyed brother was born and as soon as he could walk, he was running with scissors. My father built a fort in the back yard. I remember Kodachrome Easter hunts on the bright green lawn with all the boys dressed in pastel seersucker and the girls in eyelet dresses.
I wonder: if we had stayed at the Lincoln Avenue house, would my parents’ marriage have lasted? Could I have grown up to be a clean-cut girl in a pretty dress? Probably not, but still I wonder.
(…to be continued…)
Please, please tell me about where you live. What kind of setting shaped you?