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LIT 4386 British and American Literature
by Women

Class 14

Reading Assignment:

    Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1133)
    POST #6 Group B

    Class Objectives:

  • To analyze the themes of women's confinement and its impact on creativity
  • To explore the connections between marriage and madness

Notes and Discussion Questions:

1. Charlotte Perkins Gilman and "The Yellow Wallpaper"

The literature of the next several classes focuses on women after they enter that state of "adulthood" -- what happens at the conclusion of the romance. The post-script to Jane Eyre. One of the questions we will be looking at is the connection between marriage and madness in female experience. What about marriage leads to madness? Are they inevitably connected? What do marriage and madness have in common? What is specifically feminine about the experience as it is represented?

The work for today picks up on themes of confinement and silence; the suppression of women's communication that we have seen in more than one place. It is a more focused representation of the degeneration into madness.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is considered very autobiographical, although it is not point for point true to life.

When she was 25, she had a child, and the year after (1886) she was treated for "hysteria" by the nerve specialist, S. Weir Mitchell -- the same Rest Cure that Woolf had. Her instructions were to live a domestic life, not to touch pen to paper, or brush to paper for the rest of her life. The protagonist in the story is in a similar position.

Our standard questions:

What form is this?

What style?

Some of the other questions will become more apparent as we go through the discussion:

What is the setting?

Who are the main characters?

What happens?

One of the interesting aspects of this narrative is the use of the first person narrator. Generally speaking, when we read a first-person account of a story, we try to see from her point of view. However we receive conflicting messages from our narrator. What are the sources of contradiction in the opening lines on page 1133 - 1134?

What can we decipher about the narrator based on these contradictions?

What does it tell us about her feelings toward John?

What is John like? How does he respond to his wife's complaints?

John's care for his wife is difficult to judge. Take for instance her comment: "He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction" (1134) How can you read this? does he love her? Does he understand her? Is her hurting her with his attempt to help?

Clearly she does not appreciate his help "I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more" -- how can you explain these complex feelings?

How does the narrator describe her room? How does the narrator feel about the wallpaper? Why? Gradually the yellow wallpaper assumes a central position in the text -- what might it symbolize at this point?

Note the time element of the narrative: on page 1135 she writes: "There comes John, and I must put this away -- he hates me to write a word." The next section begins "We have been here two weeks, and I haven't felt like writing before, since that first day." The narrative is shaped like a diary where this "sick" woman records her thoughts about her room, about her husband, about her child and the deepening relationship between her and the wallpaper.

What might we infer about the narrator from the fact that this is like a diary? What does that tell us about the writing? Also, what might we infer about what is NOT included? For instance, what happens in the two weeks between the first entry and the second?

Read the passage following on page 1135 -- how has her attitude changed toward the room, toward John? What might it mean that she did not mention the baby before? How does the narrator feel toward the baby?

In this entry she discusses the desire to express herself and to tell stories, but she also reports that John discourages any giving into "fancy" or imagination -- it is too stimulating for her. And she acquiesces. Except that she writes when he is gone. Writing becomes a SUBVERSION of authority.

She returns to the issue of the wallpaper and its "impertinence" and "everlastingness" -- the shapes and emotions of the wall begin to taunt her "as if it knew what a vicious influence it had" (1136). How is the symbolism of the wallpaper changing?

Note the changes in the wallpaper: "The wallpaper, as I said before, is torn off in spots, and it sticketh closer than a brother -- they must have had perseverance as well as hatred." How would she know the difficulty of taking the wallpaper off the wall? Why does she attribute "perserverance as well as hatred" to the person who has taken the wallpaper off?

Examine her description of the rest of the room: "Then the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there, and this great heavy bed, which is all we found in the room, looks as if it had been through the wars." What has caused all this damage?

"Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. / It is always the same shape, only very numerous. / and it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don't like it a bit." (1138). What does this woman in the wallpaper symbolize? How is it like our narrator? Why does she see this in the wallpaper?

The speaker in this section begins to reveal her paranoia -- she has begun to watch the wallpaper "always" because it changes. And because she sees a woman behind bars in the paper. At the same time that she is becoming increasingly obsessed with the captive woman she has become afraid of John. Read page 1140: "The fact is .... find it out but myself." How does the narrator explain John and Jenny's attention to the paper? How might we explain it? What is happening to the narrator in the progress of the story?

Note the changes that take place by the fifth entry beginning on p. 1140. The narrator is excited because she waits for the night to come so that she can watch the woman shaking the bars. She has identified the woman trying to get out of the bars. What does this indicate about the psychological development of the speaker?

She has also identified and become used to a strange yellow odor. What might this suggest?

Note also the changes to the room, page 1141: "There is a very funny mark on this wall, low down, near the mopboard. A streak that runs round the room. It goes behind every piece of furniture, except the bed, a long, straight, even smooch, as if it had been rubbed over and over." What is this mark? What does this suggest about what the narrator does in the interval between her writing? What does this suggest about her ability to see herself clearly? How does this change the way we read the narrative?

Consider the last pages of the story -- from "so now she is gone... " on page 1143 through the end.

Who is Jane?

The protagonist exhibits a profound "degeneration" in reasonable thinking within the course of very few pages, however, she is triumphant, even jubilant, in the end. She says to her husband, "I've got out at last . . . in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!" (1161).

Consider the metaphoric and literal meanings of "escape." From what has the speaker escaped? How has she achieved this escape? Where does she go?

How does the speaker feel about her escape? How do we as readers feel about her escape? Why?

What happens when a woman is not allowed to create? Does this story suggest any relationship between marriage and madness?

How are the issues of confinement similar or different from those associated with Bertha Mason or alternatively to Linda Brent/Harriet Jacobs?