Insanity and Wallpaper: The Bertha Mason of American Literature




The debate concerning the categorization of a literary text as realism or naturalism never seems honest to end. Traditionally, "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman has been considered by literary scholars to be a realist text. However, when compared to Stephen Crane’s "The Open Boat" it becomes clear that due to the nature of the narrative’s extreme setting; the major crisis leading to the inevitable doom faced by the narrator, and the presence of an inner psychological battle that "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a Naturalist text. In the study of literature, one of the critical elements that will ultimately point toward a text being naturalism is the presence of an extreme setting. "The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane is an iconic naturalist text that sets the events of its narrative against the dramatic backdrop of the open sea, off the coast of Florida, with a single lifeboat. From this lifeboat, a diverse group of passengers wrestles with various questions that threaten to overpower them. Similarly, this idea of the extreme setting is seen in the short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in a slightly different way. In the opening lines of the text, the unnamed narrator tells the reader that “T is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer,” (1). Here it is brought to the reader’s attention that the situation presented within the text is an uncommon occurrence. As the narrator explicitly states the activity of John and herself staying at a vacation home during the summer is not something they usually do. In other words, this is an extremely unfamiliar setting for her to find herself apart. This can be understood through the diction she chooses to use when describing their arrival at the house. This woman uses words and phrases such as: “very rarely”, “seldom” and “ordinary people” to not only describe the situation itself but also to speak about herself and her spouse as an individual. The fact that the narrator refers to her husband and herself as “ordinary people” brings to light that they, as a couple, probably find themselves in a lower class in comparison to those who would traditionally rent out a summer home. Therefore, it is in this precise way that the text lends itself more to naturalism and realism. In the context of literary realism, characters are traditionally middle-class citizens; however, naturalism focuses more on the lower class. Here, the couple in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is at least presented to be lower in rank than those who traditionally spend their summers away. Therefore, if the text is read using this specific framework, then these individuals are for the duration of the narrative among the lower class of the society they live their lives. However, while at first the story of "The Yellow Wallpaper" seems innocent, as the narrative moves forward, it becomes clear that something is wrong. The narrator goes one to inform the reader of the following information regarding her husband’s profession as well as eye-opening things in terms of her mental health. “John is a physician, and perhaps - (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind - ) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster. You see, he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do,” (1). This information given by the narrator herself refers to another critical aspect of naturalistic literature the presence of an inner psychological battle. To go back and revisit Stephen Crane’s "The Open Boat", there exists an ample amount of evidence in favor of the archetypal: man versus self. Every one of the characters that find themselves stranded in the confines of the tiny lifeboat is playing a mind game with themselves. This can be seen at many different moments throughout the text such as this one. “[I]f I am going to be drowned, why in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous. The whole affair is absurd” (6). In the case of "The Open Boat", the psychological battle that is happening is more central to the concept of survival, rather than a question of sanity. Each individual found in the boat in their way is playing a game of endurance and perseverance. They have a choice to play the mind game or to fight against it and not allow the world to define the outcome. However, how each of them chooses to employ their fight or flight system isn’t solely based upon the physical response of stamina and endurance they have to their vast expanse of ocean. Instead, the war is primarily present in mind, the body can give out, but if they’re not careful, the brain can die a lot faster. This is seen rather well throughout Stephen Crane’s story as a whole, as each member in the boat has to make the conscious decision to fight for their lives both physically and mentally, even though the fight proves to be more of a mental challenge. However, in "The Yellow Wallpaper", the presence of an inner psychological battle is manifested as severe insanity. The narrator claims that her husband, John, does not think her sick at all, even though she continued throughout the text that she is. She insists upon it so much that John prescribed bed rest as a remedy. This bed rest is ultimately the Catholics for her eventual doom. It is done to her confinement to her room that she comes to believe that there is a woman trapped behind the yellow wallpaper. Those who read the text as a realist would say that the combination of her confinement, the yellow wallpaper, and sickness is a motif for the social inequality found between the men and women of the time. However, perhaps the narrator of the narrative is entirely insane. Maybe, John is in the right when he says that she is not sick and, the simple act of her repeatedly claiming so, is confirming that she is mentally insane. Therefore this is why she does not “get well faster,” because she is physically incapable of doing such a thing. Therefore, this is what leads to the character’s inevitable doom, which is the final nail in the coffin when it comes to classifying "The Yellow Wallpaper" as naturalism rather than realism. In terms of Stephen Crane, "The Open Boat" is a naturalist in nature because everything is left up to fate, and nothing can change the result because everything has already been predetermined. However, in terms of "The Yellow Wallpaper", the narrator is doomed to her fate as her mental insanity gradually grows and becomes more evident. She even goes as far as to try and peel away the ugly yellow wallpaper to free the woman behind the wallpaper, also though there is no woman there. In the end, her madness escalates so much that peeling away wallpaper consumes every fiber of her being, and the human that once resided inside her gives away to a beast. She becomes more animal, then she is human, as seen most prominently in the concluding lines of the narrative.

“I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. I’ve got out at last,” said I, despite you and Jane? And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back! “Now, why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall so that I had to creep over him every time,” (9)

The women in the narrative have given away to her insanity, and the woman who she once was- Jane is no more. What has left in her place resembles more of a wild animal than anything else in the world? Therefore, her husband John, in reality, is not at blame at all, instead of reading The Yellow Wallpaper through the literary lense of naturalism, fate merely is running its course in life. Through comparing this traditionally realist text to Stephen Crane’s "The Open Boat" it is seen that due to the nature of the narrative’s extreme setting; the major crisis leading to the inevitable doom faced by the narrator; the presence of an inner psychological battle that "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a Naturalist text. She has, without a doubt, slowly and methodically become the Bertha Mason of great American Literature.

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