The Yellow Wallpaper: Criticism Methods and Perspectives
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a short story that was written by American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman and was published in 1892. The story is narrated through the journal entries of a woman who is confined to her bedroom in order to cure her “slight hysterical tendency.” Although this treatment was well intended by her physician husband, due to her isolation and lack of mental stimulation the woman’s mental state steadily deteriorates until the end of the story when she goes completely insane.
In order to better understand this story it is helpful to analyze it through the lenses of the seven schools of literary criticism which include, formalist, biographical, historical, reader-response, deconstructionist, psychological, and gender criticisms.
From a formalist perspective, one of the most important things to note about this short story is how it is composed from the entries in the narrator’s secret journal, which she keeps hidden from her husband. The result of this diary-like construction makes the story seem almost autobiographical even though the narrator is a fictional character.
Because of this, everything is relayed in a very personal way and gives an in depth view of the narrator and her feelings. The reader gets very little information about other characters and there is an intense focus on the narrator and the inner workings of her mind as her mental state steadily declines.
While formalists argue that there is one true meaning that can be derived from the formal qualities of the text, deconstructionists argue that as time passes, the meanings of words change and thus the meaning of the text also changes. One word whose meaning has changed since the writing of this piece is “nervous.” The author seems to use this word as meaning an affliction or illness. Back in the nineteenth century, the word nervous seems most frequently attributed to women as if it is an unavoidable characteristic of the female nature. Today these same connotations do not exist and therefore a deconstructionist would argue that the meaning of this text has changed.
In contrast with the deconstructionist style of criticism, which focuses on the text, biographical criticism focuses on the author of the piece and their experiences and motivations in order to understand a work of literature. The motivations behind the “The Yellow Wallpaper” become strikingly clear when the author’s background is revealed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote this piece in 1892, shortly after her own similar bout of mental illness. In her explanation of why she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” she explains that after being prescribed the rest cure, she “came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that [she] could see over.” She also explains that much of her reason for writing this short story was to try to save people from the fate she narrowly escaped and the same fate that the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” ultimately fell victim to.
Similar to the biographical method of criticism, gender criticism also focuses on the author’s background, specifically the aspects relating to his or her gender. The fact that Charlotte Perkins Gilman lived in the 19th century has a lot of impact on her writing. She lived in a time when society was primarily male dominated and women had few rights. Her experience with mental illness was also strongly affected by her gender. Similar to the narrator’s experiences, a male doctor prescribed Gilman the rest treatment, which ended up doing more harm than good. This was a time when women were stereotyped as fragile, weak, nervous, silly, and were generally not taken seriously. Doctors did not understand postpartum depression during this time period and believed that it was a “temporary nervous depression” or “a slight hysterical tendency” which they thought were simply characteristics of the female nature.
The historical method of criticism focuses on the historical context of the story. As the previous paragraph discusses, this short story was written in the 19th century when postpartum depression was not understood and women had few rights. This is the historical backdrop of Gilman’s life and writing of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman wrote this story at a time when the “rest cure” was a real medical treatment that was being applied to countless women, most of whom suffered from it. When this piece was first published many of Gilman’s contemporaries were shocked. One physician wrote that “such a story ought not to be written, it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.”
Similar to biographical and gender criticism, the psychological school of criticism focuses on the author, but also looks at the readers and the characters of the story. This method of criticism looks into psychology to unearth the meaning in the story. “The Yellow Wallpaper” would be full of interest for psychological critics. Both the narrator and the writer suffered from severe postpartum depression, which in the case of the narrator, progressed into full-blown madness.
The last of the schools of criticism is the reader-response criticism, which studies the readers because without the reader, a text has no meaning. Many modern readers, for example, probably feel sympathy for this narrator because they have a better understanding of the disease that she was suffering from. Readers who were alive when “The Yellow Wallpaper” was first published would have probably had a much different reaction to this story. From Gilman’s piece on why she wrote the story, it is clear that her story did was not well received by many people due to its shocking and disturbing nature.
I think that by far the most important school of literary criticism for interpreting “The Yellow Wallpaper” would be the biographical method of criticism. So much of the short story was influenced by Gilman’s own experiences with the rest cure and mental illness that it is almost essential to know about her background in order to understand this piece. Historical criticism and gender criticism are also very important but I think the biographical method encapsulates all of them because when trying to understand the author one must inevitably factor in the influences of their gender and the time in which they lived and wrote.
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