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The Yellow Wallpaper Literary Devices

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper' is the story of a woman's descent into madness, during which she begins to believe that there is another woman trapped inside her wallpaper. This lesson looks at the literary devices that Gilman used to craft her story.

Plot Overview

The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story about a woman who is sent away to 'rest' and recover from a nervous condition in an old home, where she slowly loses her mind from lack of stimulation and companionship. As she descends into madness, she begins to believe that she can see a woman trapped in the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom.

Finally, she breaks with sanity, and the end of the story suggests, although does not actually confirm, that she attempts suicide. This tale is particularly haunting for the effective use of literary devices that Charlotte Perkins Gilman brings to it, which are discussed below. Literary devices are techniques that a writer uses to make his or her story have a stronger impact on the reader; rather than simply list event after event until the conclusion of the narrative, writers uses devices such as changes in tone, symbolism, irony, etc., in order to make the story come alive.

Tone

The tone throughout The Yellow Wallpaper changes as the narrator's psychological condition worsens. At the beginning, in her description of the house and of her own state of health, she appears to be fairly lucid, if somewhat in denial of the effect that her husband has on her. However, as the book progresses and her mental state worsens significantly, the tone becomes more hurried and desperate, often in the style of short, disconnected sentences. For example, at the beginning of the story, the narrator expresses herself like this:

''Out of another (window) I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf belonging to the estate. There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house. I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors...''

Change in Tone

While the narrator expressed herself clearly at the beginning of the story, toward the end we see this sequences like the following:

''I quite enjoy the room, now it is bare again.

How those children did tear about here!

This bedstead is fairly gnawed!

But I must get to work.''

Those four lines are all written as separate thoughts, and although they are loosely connected, they are nothing like the coherent expressions we saw at the beginning of the story. At this point, even if we did not know that the narrator believes there is a woman living in her wallpaper, it would be clear from her style of expressing herself that she is not as reasonable and rational as she was before.

Unreliable Narrator

When it becomes clear that the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper is going crazy, we realize that we are dealing with an unreliable narrator. All this means is that the character who is telling us the story cannot be trusted; in this case, because she has gone mad. This situation requires more effort on the part of the reader: When we read her point of view, we now have to ask ourselves whether her account is believable, and why she has the perspective she has. Interpreting a different world through the eyes of an unreliable narrator is hard work, but it makes for an exciting story—we have to decide for ourselves what is true, what is untrue, and why the narrator might interpret things the way she does.

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