Dec 23, 2009

Starting points for Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"

 Some preliminary notes for study, analysis, and discussion of this great American short story.

Narrator: wife, suffering from hysteria (a nervous disorder)
John: her husband, a physician, practical minded, dismissive of irrationality and emotion
Her brother: (mentioned in passing), also a physician
Mary – a nanny or maidservant
Baby – unnamed, not cared for by the mother
Cousin Henry and Julia – relations to narrator, who wishes to visit with them (request denied by John).
Jennie: John's sister?
Mother, Nellie and the children – relations who visit briefly during the summer stay.
The woman / women behind the wallpaper! more on that later....

A rented summer house on an old estate three miles from a village sitting on a bay shore with its own private wharf. They are renting the house for three months. Why? So the wife can recuperate

Most of the story's setting takes place in one room inside the house, once a nursery, now converted to their bedroom, bars on the windows and yellow paper on the walls.

The room and wallpaper are discussed in quite a lot of detail, which gives us a clue as to the importance of setting in this story.

From the way it is described, do you think the house is haunted?

The story was published in 1892. There is no date given inside the story. we can assume it is contemporaneous with the late 19th century. It's America (4th of July is mentioned). We do know that it is summer and the story spans a three month time frame.

The family arrives at the summer house.
The narrator (wife) describes the house, the room, the wallpaper.
Suffering form nervous depression, she spends much of her time in the room, thinking and writing (or trying to write).
John refuses her request to repaper the room or move to a different room.
She continues thinking about the wallpaper and begins to feel a presence skulking behind it.
The 4th of July passes and a visit with relations is over. She feels tired out from it.
Jennie assumes total care of her.
She cries and is alone much of the time.
She attempts to follow the patterns in the wallpaper, to make sense out of them or follow them to a conclusion.
She wants to visit Cousin Henry and Julia, but John refuses.
She tries to talk with John and asks to leave, but again he refuses.
She becomes convinced that there is a woman behind the wallpaper.
John forces her to lie down after every meal.
She is getting consumed by her fixation on the wallpaper and begins to smell an odor in the house – "a yellow smell."
She sees the woman creeping outside the windows.
She loses trust in John and Jennie – increasing paranoia?
On the last day of the vacation, she pulls the paper off the walls, locks the door, throws the key out the window and creeps along the floor of the room.
John comes home, pounds on the door, pleads her to open up. He finds the key and comes in. Shocked by what he sees, he faints.

Narrative technique
Who narrates? The woman, speaking as "I". This is called first person narration. We see everytyhing from her perspective, through her eyes. Is first person always reliable? not always.

The story is told via entries in a journal or diary. Gaps signify gaps in time. Through this method of telling, we get to hear her talking to herself, externalizing her inner thoughts.

Trapped in this room by well meaning but imperious husband, she is struggling to cure herself, fighting through emotional, irrational, hysteria. The story is a portrait of mental illness.

What about the imagery? What does Gilman's narrator spend most of her time describing or thinking about? The wallpaper. To grasp the story in its fullness, we need to analyze carefully how the wallpaper is described and considered. By doing that, you can construct a map of the woman's psychic responses and emotional state.  Does the paper signify something(s) outside itself? is it symbolic?

A symbol is something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else (not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or by some accidental or conventional relation); esp. a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial or abstract, as a being, idea, quality, or condition; a representative or typical figure, sign, or token; †occas. a type (of some quality).

Discussion questions

Who is the woman behind the wallpaper? who are these women creeping outside? Are they symbolic?

What do you make of the ending? why all this creeping?

Quick takes on Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"

In beginning to understand this story, I'd like to follow a two-pronged reading approach. The first prong of attack is to read the story for a basic understanding of its characters, plot, setting, and time frame. After you have the basic gist of what is happening, you move to the second prong: exploring how the story is told, why the story is written the way it is written, and how the story's elements relate to themes, ideas, emotions, history, and other disciplines.

Who? Characters central and peripheral to the story
Mrs. Louise Mallard : a wife, young, "with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength" she also has "heart trouble". We will come back to Mrs. Mallard, for she is the central character in the story.

Mr. Brently Mallard: husband of Louise. What do we know about him? not much….

Josephine: Louise's sister. what is her role in the story? she breaks the news of Brently's death to Mrs. Mallard.

Richards: Brently's friend. He is the first to learn the news of Brently's death, and rushes to the Mallard home to tell them.

Doctors: arrive at the end of the story.

Where does the story take place? 
We do not know. it is near a railroad, it is in some sort of town with an open square. setting is relatively unimportant to this story.

The exact year is not known. We can use the publication date as evidence (1891). We also see mention of a telegram and railroads, which fits with the late 19th century. So it's safe to assume that the story takes place contemporaneous to when it was written.

Although we do not know the year with absolute certainty, we do know what season it is – spring. See paragraph 5. Does the spring season have any formal importance in the story? Yes – it affects Mrs. Mallard's mood. 

Also note, that the story's timeframe takes place in the space of one hour.

What happens? 
News comes of a railroad disaster.
Brently Mallard has been listed as one of those killed.
Richards rushes to the Mallard home to deliver the news.
Josephine, the sister, actually tells Louise (with great care to avoid heart trouble).
We watch Louise's reactions to the news – both her outward expression of shock and grief and her inner thoughts and feelings.
First she weeps, then she removes herself to her room, where she sits in an armchair facing an open window. Her sobs give way to intelligent reflection.
She begins to feel unexpectedly "free", an almost joyous feeling. She welcomes the future and feels liberated by the tragedy.
Louise's sister begs her to open the door. Louise finally does open the door.
She descends the stairs.
Suddenly (our surprise twist), Brently (who has not died in fact) comes through the front door.
Louise, on seeing him, she dies.
The doctors come and declare her dead of heart disease "of joy that kills."

How is the story told? Who tells it?
It's a third person narrator, whose perspective is limited (or is limited in the way the action is unfolded for the reader). The perspective is kept primarily oriented towards Louise – her conscious thoughts.

How told? Actions are revealed in their order of occurrence as they are witnessed by the characters. (As reader, you only see what the characters see). We have no foreknowledge that Brently survived the railroad disaster.

What's the effect of this method of story telling? Well for one, we instantly sympathize with Louise. We have no reason to believe the news of her husband's death is false.

First we pity her, then we feel with her, then we watch her complicated reaction to the news, and as we watch that, we gather more details about her marriage and how Louise saw herself existing in that marriage. She perceives herself as being subjugated.

The narrator of the story also provides a double-edged surprise twist at the end. Husband is not dead, and his arrival home causes the death of the wife.

All her freedom, the life she thinks she has, is snatched away. twists of fate and shocks such as this are not always what they appear to be.

In light of the ending, we can reread certain passages to find double meanings. For instance, look at paragraphs 9 and 10. What is it that is approaching her? Freedom?  Brently? Something else?

Discussion Questions:

Is Louise a sympathetic character? did your sympathy change for her while reading the story?

Do you disapprove of Louise's response to the news? Is Louise a sympathetic character? did your sympathy change for her while reading the story?

Are her feelings justifiable? Should feelings be justifiable?

What kind of marriage do you imagine these two have? 

What is approaching her in the bedroom as she stares out the window and why is she so afraid of it? In light of the ending, we can reread certain passages to find double meanings. for instance, look at paragraphs 9 and 10. what is it that is approaching her? freedom or Brently or something else?

Does Louise experience an epiphany?

In a marriage, which is more important, love or independence? (Is indpendence is a prerequisite to true love?)

How old is Mrs. Mallard? How does Chopin make  her seem older than she really is?

Consider the setting (springtime) how might this relate to what Louise is going through at the time? Does the spring season have any formal importance in the story? Yes – it affects Mrs. Mallard's mood. How so? 

Also note, that the story's timeframe takes place in the space of one hour. Also important. Why? Because this rupture in her life has opened a window of opportunity that didn't exist before. What opens up for the brief space of one hour? The whole rest of her life!

Did the ending surprise you? shock you? outrage you? Do you think Kate Chopin is punishing her character via the surprise ending? Why would an author do that?

On re-reading, what evidence can you find that prepares you for the ending? Did Chopin merely "trick us", or are there clues that can be reinterpreted as hints to the eventual outcome?  cf. paras. 2, 9, 10.

In one sense, the story is about expectations, assumptions, and reactions. Do you always react to news as expected, or in the conventional way? Louise does not. This makes her an interesting, complex character worthy of study. It gives her character dimension, depth. We assume that wives should grieve their husbands when they die suddenly like this. As outsiders looking in, we do not expect that news of someone's death can in any way bring about feelings of liberation and joy. If we were to put ourselves in her shoes, we may not expect to react in the same way. In fact, does Louise expect to react that way herself? Is she not surprised by the onset of her liberated feelings? And yet she does feel that, and people do react in unpredictable ways, not only in fictional stories.

The story is also about the situation of married women in late 19th century America. Remember, this was the Victorian period. Women did not have the freedom they have today in this country. They were repressed – sexually, socially, at the mercy of their husbands' power. This led to feelings of suffocation, subjugation, being prone to the imposition of private will (cf. paragraph 12).

Brantly's death has awakened in Louise an awareness of "the possession of self assertion, which she recognized as the strongest impulse of her being." For a few minutes, a few moments, Louise is able to feel this sense of free will, then it is snatched away by the very news that should bring her joy from the depths of sorrow — a fine example of literary irony. 

(1)A figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.

(2)A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things. 

Don't stop thinking about the woods

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost's deceptively straightforward poem is a vignette about a man who takes a quiet, dramatic pause in the snow-filled woods of New England on a dark winter's night and turns it into a meditation on the tempting allure of "giving up" to nature and to death. It's about the  longing for beauty, peace, solitude, isolation, the escape into oblivion versus the responsibilities and trappings of society. An excellent close reading of this poem can be found in Terry Eagleton's How to Read a Poem [link]

Dec 21, 2009

Quick take on "The Road Not Taken"

Robert Frost is a deceptively simple poet. In this poem, the speaker, out for a walk, comes to a fork in the road. Which way should he take? It's a poem about decision, life choice. Choosing one's "way" in life. On the surface it's a minor event in a life, but taken metaphorically (which the speaker urges us to do), the event assumes symbolic proportions. Why has his choice of the road less travelled "made all the difference"? Has it made all the difference?

We can deconstruct a latent cultural assumption, one I'll call the Sinatra function ("I did it my way"), loaded with the ideology of American rugged individualism, of the self-made man, of the man who dares to be different, to strike out for gold. The poem's speaker projects forward to some distant day, when looking back on his uncharted, bumpy path of progress, he can say with a sigh of satisfaction, 'ah yes, it was all worth it in the end.' Taking the less travelled road made all the difference in my life. One can almost cue the Apple logo and the grammatically faulty tag line: "Think Different."

But Robert Frost was no sunshine superman. His is not a poetry of boundless optimism. His life and his work is peppered with depression and doubts. To ignore this tenor in his work when reading the poem is ill-advised. The poem is fraught with ambiguity. What kind of "sigh" is that in the last stanza? One of relief, of regret, or a little of both? Or is Robert Frost undercutting the whole idea of making such projections? How is one to know where the road of life leads? How long and how hard? In fact, we can push back against the poem's closing rhetorical flourish: will it have made a difference? Will it really? Is life that contingent? Are life choices always a zero sum game? What if none of it matters? What if this is a poem about the way in which people fabricate meaning and assign significance to even the most mundane of choices? Perhaps these are necessary illusions, the costumes we dress our lives in to make them relevant and meaningful. Remember, each road is more or less the same. Maybe it is how we think of them in retrospect that makes all the difference.

I see at least three interpretive options here: (1) the Sinatra function, also known as the Sigh of Satisfaction, (2) the Sigh of Regret (why on earth did I choose the wrong road), and (3) the vertigo function: an existential onslaught of decision and indecision, which must be repressed in order to assume either position (1) or (2). Maybe this decision is critical to my fate; maybe it's commonplace and meaningless, but I will invest it with meaning anyway.

Quote from William H. Pritchard “On the Road Not Taken”

“Yet Frost had written Untermeyer two years previously that "I'll bet not half a dozen people can tell you who was hit and where he was hit in my Road Not Taken," and he characterized himself in that poem particularly as "fooling my way along." He also said that it was really about his friend Edward Thomas, who when they walked together always castigated himself for not having taken another path than the one they took. When Frost sent "The Road Not Taken" to Thomas he was disappointed that Thomas failed to understand it as a poem about himself, but Thomas in return insisted to Frost that "I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing without showing them and advising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on." And though this sort of advice went exactly contrary to Frost's notion of how poetry should work, he did on occasion warn his audiences and other readers that it was a tricky poem. Yet it became a popular poem for very different reasons than what Thomas referred to as "the fun of the thing." It was taken to be an inspiring poem rather, a courageous credo stated by the farmer-poet of New Hampshire. In fact, it is an especially notable instance in Frost's work of a poem which sounds noble and is really mischievous. One of his notebooks contains the following four-line thought:

    Nothing ever so sincere
    That unless it's out of sheer
    Mischief and a little queer
    It wont prove a bore to hear.

The mischievous aspect of "The Road Not Taken" is what makes it something un-boring, for there is little in its language or form which signals an interesting poem. But that mischief also makes it something other than a "sincere" poem, in the way so many readers have taken Frost to be sincere. Its fun is outside the formulae it seems almost but not quite to formulate.”