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The short stories “The Yellow Wallpaper” written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the “Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe, have equally illustrated insanity through a narrator’s perspective, however, the authors had different intentions when creating the story. This impacted how the audience perceives the characters developing while the story progresses. Although the authors have the same topic of how mental illnesses affect the life of an individual, each story allowed the readers to understand disorders from two different perspectives.
Between both stories, the first difference that can be seen is the use of “setting” in one of the stories, and on the contrary in the other story.
Within the story of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, readers are given an insight of the narrator’s mind and emotions, which helps them determine the setting of the story and evoke emotions of connectivity between the reader and the narrator. When the narrator said “You see, he does not believe I am sick! // And what can one do?” (Gilman 1), it allowed the readers to understand a fraction of what her life is like.
From the first sentence, the narrator explains how “he”, her husband John, does not believe what she says, and with that, it shows that men during that time felt more dominant and possibly felt as though they knew more than women, therefore what they say is considered irrelevant. On top of that, when the narrator asked “what can one do”, it seems like a hopeless question that she knows the answer to, as she repeatedly asked it to herself.
By hopeless, it would mean that she knows all too well that as a woman of a household, she could not do anything but to obey her husband, which in other words would signify that she is the voiceless one in a monogamous relationship. After having said that, she also mentions that “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter. . . what is one to do?”. (Gilman 1) From this statement, readers can see that she has repeated the question of what one is to do, and in this statement, she added details which show that she was talking about herself. Not only did the narrator allow the readers to see how hopeless she is from repeatedly saying “what is one to do”, but she revealed how it was society in general who would not believe a woman over a man, simply because men, specifically John in this context, had a “reputation” as a physicist and was the husband of the narrator. Furthermore, it could help the readers depict the time setting to be a long time ago, where women’s role in society was simply to wed and be a wife and mother of the child of a man.
In comparison to “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Gilman, the “Tell-Tale Heart” in terms of the setting would be very different. Because, in the story created by Gilman, she was able to introduce the character’s life such as her living conditions as well as her health, her family and how they treat her, and above all, she still showed the narrator’s sanity in the first few pages of the story. However, in Poe’s story, he had instantly introduced his main character, the narrator, to be horrific, insane and very impulsive. This is unlike “The Yellow Wallpaper” because the author had not given a name to the narrator, a family, nor a description of the character itself. In the first paragraph of the story, the narrator had already shown that he is somewhat mental because he showed his emotions when he said, “TRUE!—NERVOUS—VERY . . .The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them.” (Poe 1). Oddly, the narrator feels nervous over something and would right after that be in denial that he is mad. As seen in the quote, after being in denial, the narrator does not feel that it had taken away his sanity, as he feels that the “disease” made him better. From this itself, readers can understand how the narrator is not sane because he is illogical with thoughts on the “disease” and the author’s choice of words with simple phrases made it seem as though the narrator is hasty, which also shows the narrator being nervous and agitated as he didn’t realize that he is unable to think logically. Additionally, the only other character revealed to the readers aside from the narrator would be the old man when he said, “I loved the old man” (Poe 1). Even with this, readers are still not able to understand the character’s life nor who the “old man” is. Consequently, there is no background story about the character and there’s no way in knowing how nor why he became mad as the reader simply told the story in the perspective on the inner mind of the narrator.
Moreover, due to the different aims of the authors, the two stories are also different in terms of the way the insanity was portrayed throughout each story from start to finish. In the story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the author showed how their character was still sane and rational, but she was simply sick and needed time to rest from stressful situations. However, as mentioned in the second paragraph, the setting of the story had shown how women at that time were not considered as equals to men, therefore what they may think or feel is not as relevant as what a man says, especially if a man says something on the contrary to what the woman had said. The narrator knows that her husband and her family, specifically her brother who is also a physician, are wrong, because, “Personally, I disagree with their ideas. . . . But what is one to do?” (Gilman 1). She feels that in order to feel better, she should work hard, but not to the point that it tires her, therefore in a way it would be considered therapeutic instead of being confined in a room with strict schedules and meal plans. However, as she is merely a woman and a wife, she could not argue with her family, especially her husband. By not being able to speak her mind, she had to place her thoughts elsewhere, and the only place she was really allowed to be in was her room in the attic, where the yellow wallpaper is. Therefore, throughout the story, it shows how she slowly starts to observe the details of the wallpaper and would, later on, be obsessed.
As for “The Tell-Tale Heart”, it was already mentioned earlier how the author did not provide any descriptions regarding the two characters in the story, and simply focused on the mental illness of the narrator from the start to the end. Unlike Gilman’s story, the narrator of this story can be seen as mentally ill from the beginning and instead of accepting his sickness, he is in denial of what has happened and is happening to them. Much like the third paragraph, the narrator had revealed that he doesn’t realize that he truly is mentally ill because he feels that “I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?” (Poe 1). This is the statement which most helps the readers understand that the narrator is indeed mad, but is not aware of it. It is because, the only way that the narrator could have possibly heard things from heaven and hell is if he is dead, which hs clearly is not. Yet, because he thinks that he has heard “things” from those places, it would show that he is far from mad.
It has been previously mentioned that the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” understands that she is sick and unwell, yet she is sane enough to know that she is not mentally ill, nor is she mad. However, as the narrator is proven to live in an era where men were dominant, and women were simply to bear a child, live in a household, and take care of the family, the voice of the narrator was not heard in this story. The husband of the narrator and every other man in the society within the story have the advantage of being dominant as they are privileged enough to have an education, earn a job, and eventually, be the ones to make decisions for them and their families. She shows that she is one of the prisoners of a restricting society when she said that “Sometimes I think there are a great many . . . // And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so I think that is why it has so many heads.“ (Gilman 11). Although she was talking about the wallpaper in this statement, she seems to be connecting herself with the patterns on the wallpaper. On top of that, she also refers to women during that time as well, who are unable to be free from the control of men in society. It sounds as if it was something that only someone developing into a mad person would say, as they would not realize how insane and impossible that sounds. Before she had stated the quote above, she mentions that “I really have discovered something at last.” (Gilman 11). Therefore, due to her husband not allowing her to engage in “work”, she is confined in the room upstairs with nothing to secretly write about, but the wallpaper that surrounds her daily. By being in the room most of her days, she ends up observing the wallpaper and feels that she has discovered something about it, even though a sane person would say it is simply a yellow wallpaper with patterns. Other than that, readers are shown how mad she has become as she stated that “I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern . . . // It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!” (Gilman 14). Early on, she saw women behind the wallpaper and thought about how they felt, however, in the second last page of the story, she thought that she was one herself and that she was one of the lucky few to have come out of the wallpaper and walk around the room.
While Gilman was able to explore the slow process of the narrator becoming mad, Poe had not been able to do that for “Tell-Tale Heart” because he already introduced his character as a madman from the very beginning. The readers are able to see that the narrator’s personality is quite unmanageable through the use of short phrases and sudden interruptions made by the narrator himself, which also shows how jumpy and nervous he is. When the narrator first mentioned that he had an “idea”, he also mentioned that when the idea was planted in his mind, “it haunted me day and night” (Poe). This statement can draw the attention of the readers and they could be more curious. Furthermore, when the narrator revealed that it was related to the old man, he didn’t fail to mention that “He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire.”. This draws the readers in more, because if the narrator’s issue was not the wealth nor abuse from the old man, then readers would try to understand what could have possibly bothered him. Then, he continued to say that “I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! . . . // Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold . . . // I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.”. This gives the readers the impression of how mad he is because his motivation to kill the man is only because of his eye.
Just as important as the previous points, an obvious element of both stories are that they are in the first person. In Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the way she wrote in the first person was to have the narrator write her thoughts and emotions in her diary, while the rest are simply thoughts kept inside her mind. At the beginning of the story, readers can tell she was still sane, therefore her words were reliable. However, as the story progresses, and she slowly becomes a mad person, it signifies that the narrator is no longer reliable. When Gilman started using short phrases with more punctuation marks with her thoughts and actions, thus it signifies a change in the person as she acts more swiftly both in her head and in real life. She had also shown that she was no longer reliable when Jennie, John’s sister had “laughed and said she wouldn’t mind doing it herself. . . // But I am here, and no person touches this paper but me—not alive!” (Gilman 13). The fact that she said no one is allowed to touch the wallpaper but herself, or they would find themselves dead is a serious but overly exaggerate threat for something that has little to no value at all. However, it would only make sense had someone said that if they were mentally ill. Aside from that, in “Tell-Tale Heart”, Poe had also written in the first person, where the point of view is from a mad man, and his attempt to justify himself for his murderous crime. Although Poe had revealed to the readers about a mentally ill person being the narrator, he maintained this point of view throughout the entire story, therefore readers know that in a way, it is still reliable. It is somewhat reliable because, readers know that from the beginning, the story was from his perspective, including what he believed and was feeling. There was no other information included in the story that mentions other characters.
Above are the written few similarities and differences between the short stories by Charlotte Perkins and Edgar Allen Poe. They both clearly have different reasons to write their stories and their different messages. Hence, the author of the “Tell-Tale Heart” had shown the consequences of being mentally ill as the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper” highlighted the negative impacts of being confined and having the role of a woman attacked by beliefs of the society.
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