Below is my detailed literary analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for my students and for me … and for you. I used to review and analyze every story that I studied in graduate school, and later, every story I taught. I’ve decided that I want to do that again to help me with my own teaching. My thoughts from 2003 on this story can be found on the blog here, but I thought it was worth updating. My teaching materials for this story – which are extensive – will be available at some time, too, hopefully in the near future.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” (originally the title appeared as “The Yellow Wall-paper”) was first published in 1892 and is based largely on the author’s own experiences. Like many women of her time, including Virginia Woolf (who address this in Mrs. Dalloway), Gilman (then Stetson) was subjected to the “rest cure” a treatment for (generally postpartum) depression. Pioneered by Silas Weir Mitchell – who is called out by name in Gilman’s story – it involved keeping the woman’s mind unstimulated by forbidding reading and writing (aka thinking), and prescribing bed rest that generally included no exercise or socializing. Added to this was a diet heavy in often raw meat, and high fat foods such as butter and milk; this was due to Mitchell’s belief that women’s depression was caused by a lack of “blood and fat,” which the rest cure was meant to remedy. The treatment was worse than the disease for many women, and Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” was considered an indictment of the treatment, and which directly contributed to its discontinuation. Gilman also explained this in her brief essay, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,” which you can read online here.
Unnamed Narrator: As tempted as everyone is to call her “Charlotte,” the narrator of the story has no name. She is taken to a house and subjected to the “rest cure,” which gradually drives her insane. She writes the story as a diary or series of letters over the period of her confinement. At the end of the story she has descended completely into madness.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson was originally published in 1959 before being being turned into two movies and (soon) a Netflix series. After terrorizing students for years with her short story, “The Lottery,” I became intrigued by this novel when a friend read it for a book club. A year later, I’m happy to say that I finished the novel, and in two readings nonetheless. The night I started it, I stopped reading it when I was about 80 pages in because I could tell something terrifying was about to happen, and I didn’t want to be up all night either reading it or worrying about ghosts.
The novel has a relatively small cast of characters: Dr. John Montague, a paranormal scientist; Eleanor Vance (Nell) a shy woman of 32 who has taken care of her mother for the last 11 years; Theodora (Theo) who seems to possess some sort of telepathic or psychic abilities; and Luke Sanderson who is the heir to the house, a charming rake, and whose aunt seems to want to get rid of him. If four people from diverse backgrounds staying overnight in a haunted mansion where terrible events took place seems trite, don’t blame Jackson: she invented these tropes. As much as I hate horror movies, I absolutely love terror in books, and Jackson’s novel is a slow, atmospheric build. Once events start happening you know that it’s already out of control, and many questions remain unanswered at the end of the novel.
The Question of Eleanor and Theodora
One of the main questions that I ended the novel with is about Eleanor and Theodora; are they in love? I talked about “lesbian disruptions” in my The Return of the Soldier writeup, but this is something more. Eleanor is the shy mousy girl in the story, she’s living with her sister, Carrie, and her brother-in-law three months after her mother, who she was forced to take care of, died. She hated her mother, and kind of slept through her mother’s demand for medicine, which may have been what killed her. Oops! At 32 years old we get the impression that she’s never had a boyfriend or relationship of any kind, and that she sees herself as essentially unwanted. She has a wild, immersive imagination that fills the beginning sections of the novel, and she covers up the banality of her own life with pieces of these early daydreams. It’s only at the end of the novel that she reveals that she truly has no place to go home to, and it’s crushing.
With a new school year about to start in Florida I have decided to post some writing that has languished in the draft bin for a bit. This post is from a year ago when I was seriously considering leaving my public school job (which I then did).
When you have around 150 students a year, that’s a lot of lives teachers impact, and the good are just as good as the bad are bad. In High School I had 23 different teachers, here are the ones that I remember and why.
Mr. K – I was in his regular History class and he only wanted to teach AP so we just did definitions from the textbook and read the chapter (silently!) while he sat at his desk. He also left a lot for no reason, so we went through his desk and found “paraphernalia,” which we never told anyone about.
Freshman English – Some guy who was a coach and kept saying “Your ass is grass and I’m a lawnmower” which, for some reason, upset me a lot. He made us do quizzes every day, but we graded with ourselves. I think he wanted us to cheat?
Ms. K – My Junior English (AP Language) teacher was obviously talented at one time, but by the time we came around she was completely burnt out on teaching and hated us. However, as much as she hated us, she hated our affectionate nicknames even more (sorry, Kern-dawg). Once my friend wrote a paper – not on the topic assigned mind you – but about how another student (an athlete) was paying someone else to do his papers. Ms. K just wrote “I know” on her paper and drew a frown face; my friend got an A.
Physics Teacher – She was so awesome and weird and I can’t remember her name. She looked perpetually disheveled with her coke bottle glasses and mop of dark hair thrown into a ponytail that she slept on. Then she came to a play at the school, on her motorcycle, wearing red lipstick, and was easily the prettiest teacher there. Refusing to put on makeup at 5 AM was something I would identify with once I taught High School. In class when she got bored she would get a chicken from the farm class and let it run around. I was terrible at Physics, but she would give me extra credit for my doodles. I got an F, but she still invited me to be in AP Physics (back when you had to apply) because she liked having me around.
I have the extremely odd habit of saving drafts in the most random places, and so, I just stumbled upon this Clarissa reading journal that I wrote way back in 2007. I have to published it because it’s just so odd (it was, it seem, an assignment for school that I took really seriously), it’s in the same epistolary style, and because I’m so amused that I wrote it an forgot about it again. It seems to function as a sort of diary of my Clarissa reading experience, and if you have ever read the novel, I’m sure you understand why such a step is necessary. I hope you enjoy.
Letter 1: Miss Pamela Coovert to Self at Future Date
4 September 2007
I’ve read through the Introduction to Clarissa and I can’t help but be a little worried, the Introduction is, theoretically, written by someone very fond of the book, but even their glowing terms can’t seem to mask what appears to be a staggering behemoth of a novel. I have unofficially assigned it tome status, which I like to give books more than 100 pages larger than a nice, round thousand. Apparently, every time Samuel Richardson went to edit it down he – in an act that makes it obvious that he was his own publisher – added to the book. Happily it seems that we are dealing with the first edition, which, it seems, is the smallest version. Also, the Introduction amusingly notes all of the far better known writers to slam the book (and Richardson in general) as time goes by, specifically, S. T. Coleridge. Still, Dr. Runge assures us that we are lucky to be among the few classes of graduate students who will ever get through the authentic version of this book; perhaps my pride would be more awakened at this thought were we reading James Joyce, at least then, at the end of the novel, I’d feel cool.