Eric Fitzgerald Critical Essay Keith Wilhite 10/22/12 Analysis: The Yellow Wallpaper In works of literature, authors tend to use various literary techniques to help the reader understand the work without an explicit explanation. In the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses setting to connect with the theme in order to give the reader an understanding of the narrator’s developing insanity along the common gender roles of the late 19th century.
The narrator records journal entries that document the decline of her mental state throughout her progressively slanted perception of reality. Her decline in mental health, which seemingly begins as relatively steady, eventually becomes broken in a way that is exemplified through her explanation of the physical setting. Setting is used as a basis of the plot because without its unique setting, the story would have less credibility of being plausible. Gilman provides a compatible setting and theme, which leads to a smooth plotline in the story.
The story takes place in a pleasant summerhouse that the narrator’s husband John has rented out for three months to give his wife time to relax and recover from her illness. This setting immediately tells the reader that the husband and wife live upper-middle class or upper class lives. John, “a physician of high standing”, clearly does very well for himself financially as he lives comfortably enough to rent out a luxurious summer home for the three months of summer (316).
Although the narrator refers to the rental rate of the home as cheap, it is still a luxury expense that not many families would so freely incur. This detail suggests that John makes a good amount of money and allows the reader to infer how this family lives. Because Gilman has provided this setting, the reader is able to assume these more descriptive aspects of the story. The narrator’s first entry in her diary seem sane when read superficially, however the way she views her living space seems all too optimistic.
She referred to her bedroom as a “nursery” and assumed that it was a “nursery first, then playroom, and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls” (317). Yet when she described the so called nursery, one can have serious doubts. She mentioned that the size of the bed was that of an adult’s, and was the only piece of furniture in the room. The reader can immediately question this detail because it does not make sense for there to be an adult’s bed in a room that was for young children, or a gymnasium.
The narrator later mentions that, for some reason, the bed is nailed to the floor and that there is significant damage to the legs of the bed. She explains, “scratched and gouged and splintered,” and “the plaster itself is dug out here and there” (319). The narrator blames these descriptions on violent children. The reader develops a further understanding of the narrator’s lack of sanity when the room in portrayed with a sense of her being locked inside. She discloses that the room has barred windows and a barrier taking away her access to the stairwell.
She seems to be unaware of these possibly intentional confines of the room, but the reader gains insight to the credible previous usage of the room. In actuality, it allows the reader to question her sanity throughout all of her writing. There is a chance that the asylum was deliberately chosen for the insane narrator and John led her to believe it was a nursery to circumvent disturbing her “slight hysterical tendency” (316). “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written in 1892 and takes place in about this same time period.
In this century, gender roles among men and women were distinct. The men worked and played a superior role in society, while the women stayed at home to cook, clean, and take care of the children provided they had any. In the story, John has the overall power in the house, while the narrator does as he says. The narrator showed her obedience when she immediately stopped writing when she noticed her husband was on his way to her room. She said, “There comes John, and I must put this away, – he hates to have me write a word” (317).
Beyond the relationship of physician to patient, John is demonstrating his empowerment as a husband in this late 19th century short story when he does not allow his wife to go visit her Cousin Henry and Julia,: “[…] he said I wasn’t able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; […]” (321). The husband-wife relationship between the two is further uncovered in the narrator’s fourth journal entry. She accidentally woke up her husband in the night when she got up from her bed to explore the activity in the wallpaper and goes on to say to John that it is “a good time to talk” (322).
Through their discussion, it is clear that John is talking down to his wife when he calls her “little girl” and cries out, “Bless her little hear! ” (322). Additionally, John seems as though he declines to acknowledge the fact that his wife’s condition is not improving as he continuously reinforces the idea that she is getting better. The relationship between the two is clearly dominated by John. His wife’s reliance on him and her lowliness are highlighted by John’s condescending conduct. Furthermore, John placed his wife in an upstairs bedroom, where she ended up spending all of her time away from the rest of the house.
Contrary to where the wife wanted her bedroom to be, she nonetheless endured the discomfort that the hideous yellow wallpaper brought to the room. After a detailed description of the wallpaper’s lack of attractiveness, the narrator stated, “I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long” (317). In this moment, John’s wife’s declaration of hate towards the yellow wallpaper in a way foreshadows her imminent insanity. Throughout the story, the narrator’s thoughts become increasingly involved with the wallpaper to the point where most readers would question her sanity.
Although she often mentions that she feels her health is improving, her writing becomes progressively obsessed with the wallpaper indicating her worsening mental state. Mentioning new “developments” in the wallpaper, she states, “There are always new shoots on the fungus, and new shades of yellow all over it. I cannot keep count of them, though I have tried conscientiously” (324). She also goes on to reference various other strange details of the paper such as its smell, its color, and that she believes there is a woman behind it making it move (325).
At this point in the story, it is clear that the narrator has lost her grip on reality as the setting ultimately contributes to the plot line of the short story. Additionally, the narrator’s distance from the central areas of the house symbolizes the distance between her mental state and reality. The rest of the family resides in the common place of the house where they carry out their days – a normal reality. The author portrays the narrator’s figurative separation from the regular, sane world by physically distancing her from everyone else in the house.
The narrator is also separated in terms of the social hierarchy of the house. The husband paid for the rent of the house and moves about freely in it while he requires his wife to remain in her room at all times, which also demonstrates his gender dominance in the late 19th century. Often times, the setting of a literary work can contribute much more to the reader than simply informing the time and place of the work. The reader can gain a better understanding of many different aspects of a work when the setting is critically analyzed.
The narrator’s decline in mental health begins as relatively stable to the reader but eventually becomes fragmented in a way that is exemplified through her clarification of her physical setting. Her weakening mental state can partially be blamed her already preexisting nervous tendency, but is certainly a result of her questionable “treatment” and her husband’s denial to his wife as an adult on a level social hierarchy. The setting in “The Yellow Wallpaper” plays a crucial role in being able to thoroughly understand the literary work.