Seminar Paper, 2004
10 Pages, Grade: 2,7
2. An Analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”
3. Queerness in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) has often been subject of feminist discourse but very seldom of queer discourse. In order to prove the importance of a queer reading, we analyse language and style of this text in order to present an interpretation beyond the feminist one which seems to be the most obvious. A close reading of the first 39 paragraphs will be given to make clear that “The Yellow Wallpaper” definitely offers enough textual material to read the text through a queer reader’s gaze. While there has been speculation on the topics to attempt to argue that Gilman herself was queer, a close analytical reading of the text only will prove this idea and will speak for itself.
Before we have a closer look at the stylistic devices relevant for our interpretation, we need to give a short definition of the term “queer” and how it is used in our context. Crewe states that the adjective “queer” was used by Gilman in a period of great cultural change. The actual meaning at the time was “peculiar” or “strange”, but it slowly shifted to a euphemism associated with homosexuality (1995: 279). Furthermore, Crewe explains that the term connotes “certain consciousness of repression” which might lead “to ‘queer’ self-recognition on the part of the reader” (1995: 287). With the help of a queer analysis, the reader herself might be able to recognize the queerness of the text and the queerness of any kind in herself.
We are using the term “queer” on several levels: firstly, to define same-sex desire; secondly, to describe a situation which varies from the norm, or male-defined, status quo; thirdly, to express queerness in characters; and fourthly, to describe the reader’s and the writer’s awareness that there is something strange, different, abnormal, peculiar, or awkward in the prevalent society, or, as Adrienne Rich states, about the “regime of compulsory heterosexuality” (Crewe 1995: 279).
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is enormously rich with stylistic elements. This is obvious in the layout, the text form and the text type. Gilman’s text is a short story, written in prose, consisting of 83 lines which are divided into 39 paragraphs and is structured like a journal, written in an informal, impressionistic style. Interior monologue of a dramatized female I-narrator is used. Because we are dealing with a 1st person narrator, the given point of view is limited and unreliable. Some critics call this short story a ‘factional text’, a piece of fiction in which the writer takes a true-life story and mingles it with fiction (Porter 1992: 30).
For a queer reading though, we do not need to be interested in Gilman’s personal life, namely in her own sexual affairs with women.
Nevertheless, we must pay attention to both layers of narration we are dealing with. One is the layer of the actual author, Gilman; the second layer is the short story itself, written by an imaginative, unnamed I-narrator who writes down her internal conflicts (rather than her external conflicts) in an autobiographical style. In the narration, the I-narrator writes down her ideas for herself only (“I would not say it to a living soul”), but on a higher level, Gilman certainly knows she has readers and wants them to read and think about her piece of fiction.
We are influenced by a panoramic mode of presentation with which the narrator tells us something about herself and her surrounding. The protagonist appears as an antihero (this is only in the part we are looking at). In the beginning, she totally lacks of traditional heroic characteristics and is rather a flat than a well-round character. The antagonists mentioned are John and the I-narrator’s brother. The diary entry takes place in summer (time setting) in an ancestral hall which stands three miles back from a village (place setting). Tone and atmosphere are cool, rational, but depressing.
Many issues are described in detail: John’s attitudes, the I-narrator’s longings, wishes, and depressions, her surrounding (garden and house, and wallpaper). Striking as well is the use of anaphora. Three sentences start with the personal pronoun “I”, twice supported by the use of “Personally” at the beginning of a sentence. Also “John”, a rather ordinary name (ordinary in the sense of common, representing the everyman), is mentioned twice at the beginning of a sentence. Another anaphora, combined with the deixis of place, is to be found in the description of the surrounding. Further figures of speech are enumerations, especially used to emphasize the daily routine she goes through (“So I take phosphates or phosphites […], and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise”). We also find polysyndeton, when the I- narrator describes her husband: “and he scoffs openly […] of things not to be felt and seen and put down into figures”. By equating actions, this stylistic device is used to express John’s rationality and make his ideas seem to be well considered and rational. Another figure of speech is the antithesis. We understand this as a figure to express fundamentally contrasting ideas such as: “That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid, but I don’t care” or “But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself”. Contrasting ideas about the house occur as well: “a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity”. A very striking antithesis is about John’s profession: “John is a physician and perhaps […] that is one reason I do not get well faster.” Assonances, repetition of the same or similar vowel sounds, occur very often; a few important ones are: “and am absolutely forbidden”, “it is […] mere people”, “there is something queer about it”, “get well faster”, “whichever it is”, “write for a while in spite”, “standing well back”, “take pains”, “paint and paper”, “head of my bed”. We also find alliteration, another figure of speech which can be described as a stylistic device which plays upon the same letter or consonant. Some examples are: “a hereditary estate, […] a haunted house […] height of”, “phosphates or phosphites”, “society and stimulus”, “paint and paper […] in great patches”, “curves […] commit suicide”, “repellent, almost revolting”, “sickly sulphur”.
At the level of sentence structure, we find many parallelisms, for example in the description of the house or the area, or when John is described (“but John says”, “but John would not”; “he said”, “He is”, “he takes”). There are also parallel sentence structures when the I-narrator writes about herself (directly or indirectly): “And what can one do?”, “And what is one to do?”. Parallelism in sentences where the meaning of “it” changes is striking as . Two of them are: “it is dull enough to confuse”, “it is dull yet”. Other figures of thought are exclamatio, accumulations, and heuristic (rather than rhetorical) questions.
Tropes always change or substitute the original semantic meaning of words and belong to the category of rhetorical figures. “The Yellow Wallpaper” offers an amount of personifications in order to describe both the paper the I-narrator is writing on (“dead paper”) and the wallpaper (its “patterns committing every artistic sin”, “the lame uncertain curves […] suddenly commit suicide”, “destroy themselves”). Depending on the focus of the discourse, namely, whether we deal with a feminist reading or a queer reading, we also find symbols which are important for a queer reading: John’s profession as a physician is a symbol of men’s power or heterosexual compulsory; the wallpaper is a symbol of the I-narrator’s sexual desire and her wish to deal with her own queerness. Further symbols are the color yellow which will be described in more detail later. We mostly find an indirect representation of speech and thought, expressing great distance between the writer and her surrounding and emphasises the idea of her being different than the rest of her surroundings. Various kinds of intensifying adverbs, attitudinal adverbs, tautologies, and correctio in this text help to emphasize special statements she is giving in her text.
We could go on with enumerating and explaining stylistic devices in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. It offers a great deal of figures and tropes, helping to make this piece of literature special. The interpretation will show how we can use them for a queer reading.
We have here a beginning of a stylistic analysis of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and shown that it offers enough textual material for a queer reading. The further we read the story, the more proof we find; but even the opening part we are looking at is rich of “queerness”. We have already defined the term “queer” in the introductory part. Though Freud stated that it is “impossible for a reader to divorce their sexuality from a reading of any text” (Anderson 1998: 2), it does not matter how we as readers define ourselves, either as a gay or lesbian reader, as a reader who crosses the borders of social habits, or as someone who plainly recognizes “abnormality” of any kind in a text. The full extent of the queerness falls beyond the scope of this essay, but we will pick up some important issues by working throughout this piece of literature chronologically and only deviate from this schemata if qu(e)er-references are inevitable.
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