Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, Group 3

How would you compare the voice and the situation of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” to the voice and situation of an obsessed narrators from the Poe stories we read? How, if at all, does the explicit introduction of medical professionals affect your reading when compared to their absence in Poe?

6 thoughts on “Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, Group 3

  1. Haley Glover

    Unlike the narrators in Berenice and Ligeia, the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not given self-defining authority. While the narrator in Berenice has an understanding and confidence in defining his illness as “monomania,” our female narrator’s condition is only defined by male physicians. Without any clear diagnosis, the narrator only knows suffering. Suffering that keeps her subdued and unquestioning of her husband and the medical sciences. Unlike this narrator, Poe’s narrators enjoy some form of authority over their illnesses; both in defining it and realizing its power over their minds. In the presence of medical professionals, the female narrator’s authority is coopted and instead she is shrunken into the persona of a child. Seemingly a tool used by her husband, this infantilization rationalizes his control and totalitarian authority over her illness. The husband consistently reduces the narrator to a “little goose” and “little girl” and traps her in the nursery of the house. In this construction of the narrator’s childlike innocence and ignorance, medical health professionals, namely her husband, are given power over her body, mind, and conception of the world. In this way, the narrator’s authority is threatened and readers are left to question her power to rationalize her own illness and wellbeing. For example, when the narrator asks to leave, fearing her deteriorating health, her husband tells her, “But you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know” (Gilman 652). Poe allowed his narrators to understand their illnesses and know when they were under its control. However, Gilman leaves both readers and the narrator questioning of her sanity because there is no drawn divide between her rational moments and those controlled by her illness. Without the ability to gauge even her own health, the narrator comes to fear her husband above her illness and finds safety in its folds.

  2. William Koch

    I echo a lot of what has been said in that the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper garners significantly more sympathy than either of Poe’s narrators. A lot of this lies in the gender dynamics of the story. The narrator’s descent in Gilman’s story is not of her own making, but one of the “casual indifference” that Michael refers to in his post. No one in the story is willing to identify the narrator’s deteriorating mental health aloud. Instead, the restrict her to an isolated existence, patronize her beyond belief, and insist that she is regularly on the mend, getting better, or not sick at all. The objective reader recognizes that these are not the facts of the situation, but because they are the opinion of supposedly knowledgeable, scientific, and reasonable men, they are to be accepted as fact. The narrator’s inability as a 19th century woman to counter the medical opinions of male doctors is a trait that immediately wins sympathy from the reader.

    I think, too, the style of writing and the characterization of madness in the story is more sympathetic than Poe’s. In “Berenice” and “Ligeia,” we find two male narrators whose obsession lies in the physical or symbolic possession of women. Their position as upper class men allows them to indulge in this madness. The narrator in Gilman’s story is permitted no such indulgence. She is expected to sit and simply be, possessing no agency, authority, or even the ability to write and document her psychological state of being. The fact she does write in the epistolary, journalistic form to confront her madness and mistreatment is in and of itself admirable, and also presents a perhaps more accessible manner in which the reader can identify and sympathize with the struggles of the character.

  3. Joseph Levine

    I agree with Dan and Michael in their observations about Poe’s characters being men who enjoy autonomy during their descent into madness, while the narrator of Gilman’s story has her circumstances forced up on her. When both the narrator’s physician husband and brother assure of her “slight hysterical tendency–what is one to do?” (648). The sanity of Poe’s characters degenerate due to their inability to cope with the death of their loved ones, while Gilman’s narrator is forcibly imprisoned in a room while in a seemingly natural, if a bit anxious, mental condition. Furthermore, Poe’s characters have their grip on reality decline without contribution from others, while Gilman’s narrator is given a self-fulfilling prophecy of madness by her husband, who deprives her of free-will and projects her declining mental state onto her. This is furthered as well by the housekeeper Jennie, who rejects her pleas for normalcy and keeps her shuttered in her nursery. When reading Gilman’s story, I felt a claustrophobia and frustration as the narrator degenerated in her solitude, as her madness could have been prevented without her husbands suffocating prescriptions. With Poe’s characters, it seemed their mania felt inevitable, and in that way a bit more natural; as a result, I did not pity them as much as with Gilman’s narrator.

    I found it interesting how at the beginning of the story Gilman introduces the estate as being potentially “a haunted house” with “something queer about it”, including questions about why it had been “so long untenanted” (647). Thus, the reader is set up to believe that the house will have some kind of supernatural malevolent effect on its dwellers. Gilman reinforces this with the appearance of the apparitions that the narrator claims to see in the wallpaper and outside her window. To me, this seems to detract from the message Gilman sets to portray–that the woman’s madness is due to forced solitude and oppressive patriarchal treatment. Perhaps Gilman included allusions to the supernatural to mask her objective, so as to plausibly deflect blame from her actual intent of condemning the treatment of women’s mental health. Either way, Gilman does a great job throughout the story making the reader question whether the narrator truly is seeing images in the walls, whether it is a hallucination caused by madness, or perhaps a mixture of both.

  4. Alexandra Lawson

    Similar to Dan, I also had more sympathy for the voice of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I felt a much greater degree of helplessness in this work. The narrator outwardly describes her struggle in getting those around her to understand her sickness, stating “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer…” (649) and later “[I] cry most of the time. Of course I don’t when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone” (650). There is less of an interaction and attempt to depict the illness to the people around the narrator in Poe’s “Berenice” and “Ligeia.” For me, this interaction with people around the narrator and the narrator’s feelings on how her illness comes across to others, builds a relatability and as a result, sense of sympathy. As the story progresses, the narrator’s thoughts of John and Jenny stray away from rationality as she becomes entranced in the wallpaper and starts to fear those around her. The depiction of this shift in mindset, makes the narrator seem more real to me as compared to the narrators in Poe’s work. I think in being able to see and understand the narrator when she was slightly more sane, the reader is more prone to feel sympathetic for her as she breaches insanity. Further, I think that this explicit introduction of the medical professionals, and the fact that these professionals are described by the narrator adds to this juxtaposition. At least initially, the narrator appears able to recognize the limitations of her disorder and the way that those around her perceive it, even though she does not fully agree with these diagnoses. In knowing the background on treatment for this disorder, this explicit introduction makes me even more sympathetic, as like Dan suggested, this sort of treatment is likely to drive anyone insane.

  5. Dan Cielak

    While reading “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I felt a greater sympathy for the narrators plight and eventual demise into madness than I did for the narrators of Poe’s stories. The development of madness in Poe’s narrations is not as linear as it is with Stetson’s. In both “Berenice,” and “Ligeia,” it appears that both narrators already have some obsessive personalities that manifest themselves as the stories develop. And, neither of them are necessarily forced into their obsessions, rather, their obsessions unfold naturally. However, in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” there is no indication that the narrator arrives at the Summer home with a predisposed monomania. While she does suffer from “nervous depression,” her ascent into monomania is triggered by a lack of activity (648). She yearns for some sort of distraction, but under strict orders from her husband, “a physician of high standing,” she is not allowed to do anything cognitively taxing (648). Such a monotonous routine of doing nothing for months while being stuck in a room would clearly drive someone insane. A person’s thoughts need some sort of creative outlet. She begins to fixate on the nuances of the wallpaper in her room and builds a ridiculous story about the various patters she sees. Thus, her situation is somewhat more tragic as she starts off rather normal.
    The introduction of medical professionals in “The Yellow Wallpaper” adds a level of irony that oddly seems to be missing in Poe’s narrations. Unfortunately, as is often the case with dogmatic beliefs, the physician in this story sticks to his theories because he is overly confident. John repeatedly negates his wife’s concerns, suggestions, and feelings for the sake of preserving some sort of stronghold on the narrator. And, as I read this piece, I think that John subconsciously tries to preserve the narrator’s domesticity by disallowing her to work through her struggles and gain some autonomy. All this builds a level of irony that enhances the tragic nature of the narrator’s fate.

    1. Michael Frank

      As others seem to have mentioned, it is somewhat easier to sympathize with the narrator from The Yellow Wallpaper than with Poe’s characters. I think this is largely due to the narrators’ environments, as the way that others respond to “madness” is nearly as interesting as the affliction itself. Poe’s “mad” characters are quite often wealthy men who operate basically with complete autonomy, unimpeded in their episodes. The key effect this produces is loneliness, which is an important feeling to highlight in instances of mental health crises. While isolation in insanity is a powerful point to emphasis, it is a little hard to identify with the completely unobstructed characters in Poe’s story.

      Charlotte Perkins Gilman takes a different approach than Poe, highlighting casual indifference towards the narrator’s very real pain. Sequestered from any mental stimulation, the subtext of her role is clear. This patronization or more specifically, infantilization of the narrator is viscerally frustrating. Her husband’s reassurances do little to win our favor– “Bless her little heart!” Unraveling mental health can lead to many forms of social alienation, though Gilman’s is perhaps more personally devastating.

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