American Gothic literature of the late nineteenth century can generally be characterized by its interest in Psychology. Rather than incorporate the supernatural or science fiction, which is the foci in other Gothic works at the time, authors such as Edgar Allen Poe and Charlotte Perkins Gilman use this mental condition of their protagonist in order to achieve the expected Gothic reaction. Specifically, in Gilman’s “the Yellow Wallpaper”, the protagonist, a white, middle class housewife diagnosed with depression, sinks into insanity right before the readers eyes; her psychology unfolds and produces that horrific reaction appropriate for the American Gothic. This, however, in not the only product of Gilman’s work. Through literary style, unusual characterization, and a haunting (and knowledgeable) account of madness, Gilman makes her intended statement effectively: nineteenth century women were not only repressed, but practically driven to inhumanity by the men who overprotected and underestimated them. Both traditional Gothic elements and productive special position are laced throughout Gilman’s short story.
To first look at a piece of fiction, one must examine it’s technical aspects, that is, the literary style with which it is written. In the Gothic tradition, “the Yellow Wallpaper” is written using a unique narrative technique. The narrator is also the protagonist, whose actions and thoughts the reader learns about through her journal. This tool brings the narrator to life and gives the reader a sense of trust in the main character, Jane. In the beginning of the story, the narrator describes the setting, the other characters, and her feelings. Because she is in a position of weakness, the reader sympathasizes with her melancholy and shares her resentment for her physician husband, John, who “does not believe that she is sick!” (Gilman 249). Telling the story in first person also exemplifies Gilman’s feminist ideology: by giving the central of the story telling to the female protagonist, she joins other prolific Victorian writers. In the tradition of Charlotte Brante and Jane Auster, Gilman places a woman at the core of the story. Therby thumbing her nose at the majority that more often chase men as literal focal points.
Another literary choice that hinges the meaning to the story is Gilman’s diction; she weanes normalcy and lunacy together so well that they blend to produce a realistic account of insanity. When the reader meets Jane, she is personable and she feels sympathy towards her plight. Her husband seems the irrational one, as he cannot she her plainly stated need for “congenial work, with excitement and charge”(249). But, soon, the reader notices the harshness and violence of Jane’s thoughts that mix with calm, feminine words: “the floor is scratched and gonged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there, and this great heavy bedlooks as if it had been through the wars. But I don’t mind it a bit” (253). Another notable example is the use of the word creep’. At the finale, Jane sees creeping women out the window, she sees the woman in the wallpaper creeping, and finally, when Jane faints, “she had to creep over him every time!” (263). the repetition of the word to her adds swirling and incoherent thoughts, as well as links Jane to the woman whom she eventually becomes. Gilman certainly uses the word creepily.
By choosing the short story as her medium of expression, Gilman increases the Gothic effect: the reader is drawn in quickly, tossed about in the woman’s spiraling lunacy, and left hanging on a strange and (un) interpretable finale. Were this tale told in another style, it would be dsumpened by the inability to feature short and personal phrases that could only represent one’s thought patterns: “personally, I disagree with their ideasbut, what is one to do?” (249). Also, because “the Yellow Wallpaper” must be read as a social statement and not simply as a Gothic tale, “a significant part of Gilman’s strategy, then, in writing short fiction was to demonstrate viable alternatives to long-ingrained an oppressive social habits” (Knight 25). One may presume that critic Denise Knight speaks here about the novel form. Clearly, Gilman chooses to hit the reader hard and fast, sending her message in an abbreviated and yet, powerful package.
Another aspect of “the Yellow Wallpaper” that lends to it’s overall Gothic impression and feminist assertion is a characterization, that is, the regression of the main character’s personality. She begins as an obedient, but sad, housewife, and slowly devalues to a rebel (at least in her own mind) and finally, to a pseudo-animal. The reader meets a timid woman who gives hints of her repressed anger, although she follows her medical orders and allows herself to be treated as a child: “John laughs at me, of course, but expects that in marriageso I take phosphates or phosphates-whichever it is, and tonic, and journeys, and air and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to work’ until I am well again” (Gilman 249). In the second phase or regression, the woman becomes excited and hides her knowledge that another woman lives in the wallpaper: “life is very much more exciting now than it used to beI had no intention of telling him her improvement was because of the wall-paper” (258). This sneaky attitude is new to her, as she has not thus far, deceived John. Finally, the woman’s rationality totally fails, and she tears the wallpaper apart saying, “I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out the window would be an admirable excuse, but the bars are too strong to even try” (262). Jane rationalizes suicide, which is frightening enough, when she seems to be completely overtakes by another personality; she becomes the woman she sees behind the pattern in the wallpaper: “I’ve got out at lastin spite of you and Jane” (263).
Gilman’s extreme treatment of the three personalities in the character leaps over any furnished cliche; the three phases of Jane’s regression symbolize a mural for women. “the Yellow Wallpaper” strives not only to evoke sympathy for the woman of the nineteenth century who were coddled and at the same time, mistreated, but to show the “sort of triumph in the narrator’s understanding of her situation, andher heroism that resides in her perceptivity and in her resistance. To a significant degree that resistance takes the form of anger” (Hedges 228), and the character is indeed angry. It is noteworthy that her insanity manifests itself in a violent form. Gilman also shocks the reader when the insane Jane makes light of her outrageous behavior by taunting, “it is no use, young man, you can’t open the door!” (Gilman 262). The moral is clear: before this poor character realizes the detriment of her treatment’ by her doctor husband, it is too late. To forbid a woman to use her own mind and make her own decisions is to, fundamentally, destroy her sanity. To read the short story as one of success does not seem to take into account Jane’s dehumanization. According to Elaine Hedges, this is the “narrative of a woman’s efforts to free herself from the confining social and psychic structures of her world,” but unfortunately, her efforts are futile. (Hedges 223).
The decent into madness is a failure to outwit or win the male dominance in the woman’s (and in all women’s) nineteenth century environment. Jane’s transition to dementia should not be considered ” a creative act and a successful defiance,” as Gilman’s language clearly depicts her heroine as an animal: “I tried to hit it and push it until I was lame, and then I got so angry I bit off a little piece at one corner- but it hurt my mouth” (Hedges 223, Gilman 262). Her creeping also lends greatly to the animalistic imagery. The protagonist’s depravity is extreme: “the repugnant body to which the narrator is reduced becomes a figure for the repressions imposed on women” (Hedges 230). In it’s Gothic horror, however, “the Yellow Wallpaper” leaves one detail up for interpretation: because John faints when he encounters the crazed Jane, Gilman presents the reader with a no-win situation. Jane has lost her wits and her identity as a woman (and a person), but John has not maintained his traditional Victorian male control. The author’s moral expands here for all people, not only women: freedom is freedom, regardless of sex. Repression, in the end, affects just as harshly, the repressor.
Apart from it’s literary style, and characterization, the most effective element of Gilman’ short story is her unnervingly realistic account of madness. The portrayal of Jane’s insanity works well for three reasons: first, it conforms to the popular American Gothic tradition. Second, it is an easily recognizable metaphor for Victorian women, and third, “the Yellow Wallpaper” is largely autobiographical. Nineteenth century Gothic literature in the United States was interested in psychology, and Gilman’s story is an apt example of the psychological horror story. By placing the reader so close to the narrator, Gilman has both beginning to believe there is actually a women in the wallpaper, and Jane’s madness comes alive: “I think that woman gets out in the daytime! And I’ll tell you why-privately- I’ve seen her!” (Gilman 262). Insanity is an intriguing subject, and because it is not imaginary (like the supernatural or science fiction), it makes of a more horrific Gothic experience. Also, in this case, the insanity functions in two ways: “madness manifested as progressive incipient insanity and madness manifested as extreme and repressed anger at female bondage become dichotomous components of the protagonist’s condition” (Knight 16).
The tool of an extreme psychological condition only loosely masks the metaphor (and moral) of “the Yellow Wallpaper”. Reading this story easily incites independence and puts repression into harsh, yet understandable terms. Gilman once justified her reasoning behind writing “the Yellow Wallpaper” : ” It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate- so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered” (Gilman). Whether the short story was intended as a longer feminist ideal or as a catalyst for immediate action, “the Yellow Wallpaper” certainly opens one’s eyes to the dire circumstances under which it was conceived. Gilman’s success in literature is compled with a personal triumph: “But the best result is this- many years later I was that the great specialist that had treated Gilman had admitted to friends of his that he had since altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading “the Yellow Wallpaper” (Gilman).
The final reason why Gilman so effectively paints a portrait of the mentally disturbed Jane is because the story is based on a portion of the author’s life. During a bout of a post-partum depression, Gilman suffered as, “the treatment her doctor prescribed required Charlotte to love as domestic as possible, to have the baby with her at all times, and to never touch a pen, a paintbrush, or a pencil for the remainder of her life” (Knight 15). This is almost identical to Jane’s orders. “the Yellow Wallpaper” also serves as a platform through which Gilman voices her innate independence: “Charlotte was exceedingly wary of relinquishing her own identity and being forced into an obseqniores role. Again and againsheexpressed her fear of subjugation” (Knight 12). Although it is a simple interpretation of the story, the autobiographical component is important because it accurately records a woman’s suffering and Victorian treatment’, and because Gilman uses her own experience as a metaphor for the repression she felt, even outside of sickness.
“the Yellow Wallpaper”, although packed with legitimate feminist commentary, is an extremely effective Gothic tale: “like her contemporaries, Gilman wanted her literature to produce an effect upon the reader” (Knight 23). Through her choices in narrative style, form, and diction, a progressive (or regressive) character, and a true-to-life version of an insanity story, Gilman brings to the reader both effects of “the Yellow Wallpaper”: a strong reaction and a special moral: “this is story about a nineteenth century white, middle-class woman, but it addresses “woman’s “situation in so far as a group must contend with male power in medicine, marriage, and indeed most, if not all, of culture” (Hedges 231).
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