The Yellow Wallpaper
This piece was a literary analysis of the first two pages of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, published in 1892.
This piece of fiction from The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman contains aspects of the mystery and horror genre. Narrated in first person, the writing style allows the audience into the most intimate areas of the persona’s mind. Deliberately using language which is disjointed and jumbled, Gilman paints a picture of someone who is trapped within an old house and a one sided marriage. As the passage progresses, the menacing nature of the house is brought to the forefront of the story, particularly seen in the persona’s reaction to the yellow wallpaper.
The passage starts with an informal and a conversational tone, it is clear that the persona either sees the audience as non-threatening or is unaware of their presence. The abundance of rhetorical question implies that the persona is in conversation with the audience; “Else, why should it be let so cheaply?” and “… Why have [it] stood so long untenanted?” The diction used in this passage is deliberately casual, with no words added which might challenge the reading capabilities of the average person. Bubbly quotes like “The most beautiful place!… It makes me think of English places that you read about…” builds the relationship between the audience and the housewife as they are hearing the innermost personal thoughts of the housewife and thus empathise with her.
The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
– Jeremy Bentham
The conversational tone is reflected in the general sentence structure of the piece. The constant thought interruptions from the hyphens and short sentences break the glossy flow of logic and delivery which is to be expected from most fiction. Instead Gilman’s breaking of the traditional paragraph structure mimics the bumpy rhythm of a face to face conversation. This unusual structure is a visual metaphor alluding to the confused state of the mind of the persona; as sentences seem to be sporadic thoughts instead of contributing to a linear narrative plot progression.
This unexpected transition from the innocent recordings of an annoyed housewife to a tale much darker in tone is accentuated in the disarming and personable nature of Gilman’s writing at the beginning. Humour especially is used to endear her to the audience, “So I take phosphates or phosphites – whichever it is…” her clumsiness allows the audiences to relate to her situation of powerlessness. Likewise the persona is able to subtly chip away at the authority of the husband through the repetition of exaggerated ‘resignations to his advice’; “Personally, I believe that work… would do me good. But what is one to do?” These small moments of sarcasm are used to defang John, but also paints him as a stiff and joyless individual. During a moment where she is convinced this house has a “ghostliness” to it, “[John] said [what] I felt was a draught, and shut the window.” The humourous tone in addition to the light hearted subject matter of relocating to a new holiday house portrays the persona as someone who is preserving against small inconveniences. This changes in the final sentences of the passage, the morbid and sickly descriptions of the room heralds the unexpected emergence of the Gothic in a domestic environment.
Apart from using humour in order to convey the persona’s dissatisfaction with her husband, Gilman uses the hyphen to represent her two sided thoughts about him. On one hand, John is her husband and social expectations combined with John’s delicate care for her is appreciated; on the other hand being stuck in the top floor of this building evokes comparisons to Rapunzel. Out of a total of fourteen hyphens in Gilman’s passage, eight of them are used when discussing the topic of John and his dominating influence in her life. By intertwining John’s name with a physical break in writing, the persona conveys how ‘disruptive’ his presence is, but also hints at the possibility that she is suppressing a secondary opinion of her husband. Similarly John is mentioned in a lot of short sentence; “John is practical in the extreme.” And “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes.” These short sentences echo a tone of finality as if John’s character can simply be summed up by a single word or adjective.
Throughout the passage, John is portrayed as the stark contrast of his wife, whereas she likes to indulge in fascinations of the mind, John is (cruelly) scientific and “scoffs openly at any talk of [such] things.” Gilmore’s linguistic choices reflecst the division between the couple; John and his wife are never spoken about as a single unit. The closest the audience gets to this is in the word “marriage” to describe their relationship (it appears once). Yet this word lacks the warmth that “family” or “lovers” carry, it’s simply used to signify their type of relationship and not the feelings attached with it. There are also no inclusive pronouns in this passage, instead the audience is constantly reminded that John and “I” are two different parties with two separate outlooks on life, “John laughs at me…” and “John says the very worst thing I can do is…”
This passage from The Yellow Wallpaper is very personal as the story is not filtered through the lens of an omnipresent narrator. Instead the audience is receiving her thoughts directly; thus firmly placing us on her ‘side’ regardless of her biases. It is only near the end of the passage, when this jumbled mess of thoughts is combined with the darker descriptions of the wallpaper that elements of horror and mental instability steep out from what seemed to be an ordinary tale of family tension.
Whilst the very start of the passage foreshadows the mysterious and Gothic nature of this house; “There is something strange about the house – I can feel it.” And “… I would say a haunted house…” The final lines of this passage are drastically different and really dispel away the tone of innocence from her previous ‘trivial’ ramblings. There is a very noticeable contrast between the room the persona wants with “… roses all over the window…” compared to the wallpaper which is “… repellent, almost revolting.” The words chosen to describe the room depict it as almost a living flesh wound on the building; “… a smoulder unclean yellow [wallpaper]…” and “It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.” This sense of the room being alive is also reflected in the personification of the ‘artistically sinful’ wallpaper that “… suddenly commit suicide.” The connotations of the words “sin” and “suicide” convey that the room is not just uncomfortable to look at but that there is something inherently evil or malicious about its nature.
The literary techniques used in this passage from The Yellow Wallpaper are effectively in accomplishing the goals it sets out to meet. The use of first person, simple and familiar diction combined with the plight of a mistreated wife charms the audience into allying themselves with the persona. However, only near the end of this passage, do the audience start to peer behind the veil of banter and good faith. The combination of imagery and personification presents the room as an animate object with its own frightening agency causes the audience to suspect the terror hidden within this building, but also the possible seeds of mental instability within the persona.