ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
"Creeping in the 'Mere': Catagenesis in Poe's 'Black Cat' and Gilman's 'Yellow Wallpaper'"
This essay puts into conversation the titular stories as a method of exploring the triangulation between women, contagion, and animality. In both stories we find a woman whose emergence from behind the wall challenges male authority and announces a crossing with animality—Poe’s narrator’s wife with the wailing cat on her head, Gilman’s narrator “creeping” on all fours. This appearance of animality and the upset of patriarchal law that it engenders are particularly relevant to the historical period and the cultural discourses that flourished between the publishing of these two works. Revolutions in natural history, particularly Darwinism, invested the animal with a fluid power that threatened the exceptionality of man and thus began to erode the confidence in any “natural” hierarchy. The ensuing anxiety dramatically influenced the rise of degeneration theory and empowered cultural diagnosticians who began to find signs of evolutionary regression everywhere in the larger social sphere but also in individual bodies, particularly in those bodies so closely associated with reproduction—women.
Within this context, the stories by Poe and Gilman propose for their women characters a contagious animality, an alternative form of movement and identity that is liberated from the fixed categories of logical diagnosis—what this essay reads as a form of live entombment. The textual echo of Gilman’s “mere ordinary people” and Poe’s “mere household events” signals an imprisoning immuno-logic (since the word “mere” has meanings of both “pure” and “boundary”) that is made contagious by a feral interspace and the emergence of catagenesis—a retrogressive evolution that becomes for these women a form of rebirth from the dead proscriptions of rationality.