Literary Analysis of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Short stories “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe portray people with mental illnesses. On the one hand, the stories touch upon the same topic and describe the state of mental disorder. On the other hand, the authors’ messages in the stories are different. While Edgar Allan Poe shows the consequences of the character’s insanity, Charlotte Perkins Gilman draws the readers’ attention to the reasons resulting in the eventual illness of the character. The form and the language of the short stories also differ much and contribute to the aim of the authors.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is a short story with very selected but informative language. Poe deliberately chooses simple phrases, which are often abruptly interrupted, to show nervous tension of the main character and his disability to think logically.
Ha! – would a madman have been so wise as this? And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously – oh, so cautiously – cautiously (for the hinges creaked) – I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye…for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye (Poe 3).
The style of the story creates impression of a full immersion into the inner world of the character, who is the narrator of the story. The readers trace his reflection, and for a moment, start thinking from his point of view. Edgar Allan Poe’s skill is in making the readers feel in the place of the main character. Short torn phrases, frequently used exclamations, and detailed description of the narrator’s feelings let the readers feel the full horror of the events, which is not realized by the main character, however.
The readers do not know any details of the characters’ lives. The author does not give names, age and description of the main characters. What the readers definitely know about the main character is that it is a man, living in the apartment with the owner of the dwelling. One knows neither the relations between them nor the life of the main character before the events in the story. The author does not tell the readers the reasons of the character’s madness, but makes the madness the only reason of the crime. Poe focuses readers’ attention on the absence of usual, rational causes of committing a crime. The narrator of the story does not have any thirst for money or personal antipathy to the killed man. Moreover, he even claims he loves him. “I loved the old man. He had never wronged me” (Poe 2). Thus, his crime becomes even more irrational. However, he is obsessed with the man’s eye, which seems threatening to him and pursuing him, and it makes the readers receive final evidence of the character’s insanity. While usually criminals insist on their innocence, the character of the story tries to prove his sanity and pays no attention to the fact of the crime. He emphasizes how he thought over all the details and planned his crime. “You fancy me mad…You should have seen how wisely I proceeded – with what caution – with what foresight – with what dissimulation I went to work” (Poe 2). However, for a sane person, it becomes clear that a crime, caused by the hatred of somebody’s eye is a pure sign of a mental disorder. Moreover, the character perceives the man’s eye separately from his personality, as it was another being. Peculiarity of a mental disorder is that obsessed people can never get rid of their obsession. Having eradicated the seeming cause of their anxiety, they acquire another one. It is proved by unravelling of the plot, as after the murder of the man and dismemberment of the body, the narrator starts hearing the beating of the dead man’s heart. He developes a new obsession, and it is a continuous process, as the source of the character’s instability is inside him. “It was a low, dull, quick sound – much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in a cotton….I foamed – I raved – I swore!” (Poe 6).
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“The Tell-Tale Heart” shows all the horror of mental disorder and makes the readers feel the accomplices of the crime. The ambiguity of the story is that, on the one hand, the readers see the cruel and cool-blooded crime but on the other hand, they cannot help avoiding sharing the main character’s feelings of obsession and horror.
In contrast to “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the main character of “The Yellow Wallpaper” knows about her mental instability from the very beginning. Though she does not acknowledge her mental disorder, she admits being depressed and nervous. Moreover, as Gilman develops the plot, the readers can see that the ultimate mental disorder could be avoided, but the environment and lack of proper attention contributed to aggravation of the woman’s health.
While in Poe’s short story, the readers find rather restrained language, “The Yellow Wallpaper” abounds in synonyms, adjectives, and detailed descriptions of the main character’s feelings and thoughts. “The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others” (Gilman 8). Due to such rich language, the readers notice all the nuances in the development of the story. As the woman’s illness progresses, one can notice how the wallpaper becomes the character of the story. As it gets alive in the mind of the woman, it draws the readers’ attention. Detailed description of the wallpaper helps to imagine it and to understand the feelings of the woman. Unlike “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the main aim of the story is to show development of the character’s madness and the conditions, which led her to such state.
The first person narration lets the readers know all the woman’s thoughts and penetrate into her inner world. The readers can see how she lacks sincere care and attention to her feelings and needs from her husband. Despite his seemingly professional treatment, the rest is not what she needs. Instead, she wants more communication and sharing of her feelings. However, she can find no one to understand her and has nothing to do than to escape into another reality, which becomes the reality of the wallpaper. The room where she stays most of her time becomes her jail and the object, which she simply disliked at first, eventually becomes her obsession.
The readers may notice as she keeps calling her child “a baby”, without any name. Her apathy to the world aggravates with the further attempts of her environment to persuade her in the futility of her fears and obsessions. Moreover, she perfectly understands the wrongness of her husband, “a physician of high standing”, concerning her state and the cure. “Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?” (Gilman 1). However, she cannot argue with him and, as a result, she withdraws into herself and her obsession becomes her reality.
Portraying development of the character’s madness, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wanted to highlight the loneliness of a married woman and to draw people’s attention to the problem . The role of women in the society narrowed to the role of a wife, who was not supposed to express herself in any kind of creative work, especially in writing. Thus, one can see that the main character is forbidden to write her journal. She does it secretly as it is the only way for her to keep the last signs of sanity. “…it does exhaust me a good deal – having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition” (Gilman 2). At first, she fully understands and analyzes her situation, but as long as she cannot do anything with it, she starts to look for an escape. The author of the story insists that women locked in their marriages should have their ways of development. Being treated by their husbands as mere housewives, women with rich inner world suffer from lack of expression. One may notice that the author never mentions the name of the woman, probably because it does not matter, as the image of a lonely married woman is a general portrait of all the women of that time. “But I must say what I feel and think in some way – it is such a relief!” (Gilman 2).
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In conclusion, analysis of the two short stories “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” shows that perception of the main characters mainly depends on the way of narration and the point of view expressed in narration. Being told in the first person singular, the stories depict the main characters, who suffer from mental disorder. However, Poe’s story shows the crime committed because of insanity while Gilman’s short story narrates the conditions of a woman’s life, which have led to her madness. Though due to peculiar use of language and setting, the stories differ a lot, the readers find themselves involved into the personal life stories of the main characters.