Analysis of characters in the yellow wallpaper
1. Plot the course of the narrator's descent into madness. Are there any significant turning points?
From the very beginning of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ the narrator’s isolation in her psychotic state is evident. ‘…people like John and I’. We know the name of the narrator's husband (John), but not her own. She is nearly anonymous; her identity is John's wife. ‘And what can one do?’ Gilman uses this noun to describe how the narrator disguises her autonomy and conveys the narrator’s helplessness and perceived inability to change her uncomfortable situation; the repetition of ‘one’ creates a haunting echo of anonymity and demonstrates a sense of conventional acquiescence.
Gilman uses exclamation marks to reveal the woman's psychotic, agitated, mental state. Along with questioning features of her surroundings, the woman also makes many exclamatory remarks. This questioning and exclaiming indicate the wide swings in her mental state. ‘but that would be asking too much of fate!’, ‘…I am sick!’
As the novel progresses, however, Gilman uses many linguistic and syntactic features to convey the changes in the narrator’s attitude. The use of first person reveals a dramatic change in the narrator’s identity and self –awareness at the point when the dominant text of her actions compromises her sanity and dooms her to madness. The increased use of ‘I’ demonstrates a positive change in self-presentation precisely at the point when her actions dramatically compromise her sanity and condemn her to madness.
Other examples, particularly in the final paragraphs, affirm the narrator’s newly imagined self: ‘What is the matter?’ he cried…so that I had to creep over him every time’ John’s name seems conspicuously absent from these paragraphs. Repeatedly, the narrator substitues the nominative case for John’s name, for instance ‘he cried’ and ‘he did’. This effect works to distance the reader and the narrator from John and his authority, to which she once readily adhered, ‘that man’ and close of ‘They Yellow wallpaper’ which leaves the narrator creeping flamboyantly in the daylight as she desires.
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2. Does the narrator's creeping at the end of the story signal regression or rebirth?
The ambiguous ending of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ simultaneously invites interpretations of liberation, defeat, and dubious victory. For instance, Gilman’s linguistic fusion that occurs between the narrator and the woman trapped behind the bars of the wallpaper; the narrator (‘I’) and the narrator’s double (‘she’) seem to fuse together (‘we’) and becoming one with her double allows the narrator to gain power and freedom. The narrator presents herself as ‘I’ on numerous occassions in the final section displaying her growing sense of self, power, and confidence at the point which she has uncoded the text of the yellow wallpaper and liberated its muted side. In addition, an exclamation point at the end of both the last and the penultimate paragraphs gives emphasis to her final sentences, in which she moves into the subject place initially reserved for John.
However, the narrator acts in a way that suggests cogent madness, in contrast with the timidity and fear that punctuate her previous actions. The women creep out of the wallpaper and she has fought the best she could against creeping. In her perceptivity and in her resistance lie her heroism. But at the end of the story as she creeps on the floor, she has been defeated. But in the mad-sane way she has been the situation of women for what it is. She has wanted to strangle the woman behind the paper; tie her with a rope. For that woman, the tragic product of her society, is of course the narrator’s self. By rejecting that woman she might free the other, imprisoned woman within herself. But the only available rejection is suicidal, and hence she descends into madness. Madness is her only freedom, as, crawling around the room, she screams at her husband that she has finally ‘got out’ outside the wallpaper and has become the physical manifestation of her imprisonment.
What is the significance of the rope in the final entry?
‘I’ve got a rope up here..I can tie her’ The rope may be seen as a symbol for an umbilical cord, suggesting the narrator’s regressal and highlighting the theme of infantilization. However, one may also argue that it suggests re-birth and a new beginning for the woman, free from the constraints she previously faced.
Discuss the character John. Is he a well-intentioned and loving husband or a suffocating patriarch/villain?
We are first introduced to John in the sentence ‘…people like John and I’. We know the name of the narrator's husband, but not her own. She is nearly anonymous; her identity is John's wife. This power imbalance extends to other areas of their relationship. John dominates her in an ultimately patronizing manner. His strong, practical, and stereotypically masculine nature is skeptical of her seemingly weak, "feminine" disorder, as neurasthenia and other mental illnesses were often categorized, and he, not she, diagnoses her problem and prescribes the cure. When he tells her to exercise self-control over her irritation with him, the effect is ironic; he controls nearly everything about her and even makes her feel ungrateful for not valuing his help enough.
The narrator's imagination is altogether problematic for John, who would prohibit his wife from further fancifulness: John ‘says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try’
Gilman linguistically exhibits the patriarchal domination of women, for instance with John’s patronizing language ‘little girl’ as he scolds her for getting out of bed at night, and implies her nervous depression is a child’s ploy for attention: ‘Bless her little heart!’…’she shall be as sick as she pleases’ John’s language appears indicative of the way man Victorian men saw women as infantile ‘Gooseys’ to help them build an opposing case for masculine rationality and Gilman intensifies the notion of infantilization. The term ‘blessed little goose’ may well have been meant as a term of endearment, however the epithet ‘little’, which recurs when John calls the narrator his ‘little girl’ makes the narrator seem child-like and diminutive in accordance with contemporary feminine ideals. These terms not only render a woman endearingly brainless but deny her sexuality and responsibility.
By placing his wife in the bedroom and reading stories to her before bed, John constructs a perverse re-enactment of the narrator's entry into the symbolic order, where the narrator's identity is fragmented and limited by discourse. Gilman’s narrator explains ‘John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures". One may argue, however, and suggest that, while John is symbolically returning the narrator to a pre-linguistic site, he does not necessarily do so in order to re-enact her initiation into the language of male privilege.
By fixing the narrator in the bedroom and objectifying every aspect of her femininity and sexuality it is almost as if John forms a relationship with his feminine self. John can accept that he, in some way, resembles the narrator. Theoretically, John could look to his wife and see that, apart from the difference that traditionally separates female from male, John is somehow like her. John's mastery of architecture is a metaphor for the mastery of his wife--his meaning is reflected in the bedroom, the region of his power where the narrator resides. John, notably, takes every precaution to prevent himself from forming any relationship with the feminine that does not assert his dominance and authority.
7. Discuss the character of John's sister, Jennie.
‘She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper’ Jennie embodies society’s construction of domestic femininity and embraces her domestic role absolutely. Gilman uses Jennie to portray the conventional Victorian woman providing a stark contrast with the narrator. She buys into the traditional male medical model that the writing makes the narrator mad.