The main objective of this lesson is to allow students to draw their own conclusions about the narrator's state of mind in Gilman's short story. In small groups of three or four, students will discuss the examples listed during the during-reading activity and attempt to make a diagnosis of the narrator's illness. Students should also suggest other possible treatments for the narrator.
After reading and discussing the story in class, student can use the internet to research psychological disorders to assist in this activity. Several useful web sites are listed on Attachment two, Web site Resource Page. In the final ten to twenty minutes of class, groups should present their findings orally for the class.
The Narrator and Female Voice: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's essay
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper," Catherine Golden, ed. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on "The Yellow Wallpaper", NY: Feminist Press, 1991.
Why I Wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper"
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
As it appeared in The Forerunner, October, 1913
Many and many a reader has asked that. When the story first came out, in the New England Magazine about 1891, a Boston physician made protest in The Transcript. Such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.
Another physician, in Kansas I think, wrote to say that it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen, and –– begging my pardon –– had I been there?
Now the story of the story is this:
For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia –– and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to "live as domestic life as far as possible," to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, or pencil again" as long as I lived. This was in 1887.
I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.
Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and went to work again –– work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite –– ultimately recovering some measure of power.
Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote, "The Yellow Wallpaper," with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.
The little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate –– so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.
But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading "The Yellow Wallpaper."
It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from begin driven crazy, and it worked.
Mini-Lesson: Writing a Response
Students will respond to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's essay, "Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper'" (provided on previous page) in a short first-draft essay written in the first person point of view. This assignment gives students the opportunity to understand the author's purpose for writing the story in addition to providing students evidence of Gilman's efforts to educate other women during her time. The students will be assessed for completing a personal response to the author's purpose. One 90 minute class period or two 45 minute classes will be needed for this assignment. This works best as an "initial response," therefore, editing and revising are not included as a part of the assignment.
Mini–Lesson: Connect to Today
Students will write a final-draft essay that makes a connection between the struggles of the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" and those of women in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Students will be asked to brainstorm how they view a woman's struggle with the demands and expectations of marriage and a woman's work and independence today. Students might be asked to interview a teacher, family friend, parent or extended family member to complete this assignment.
Students will be assessed for following essay form and for making at least three connections between the struggles of nineteenth century women and present day issues. The task assessment provided in attachment three can be modified to fit this assignment. This lesson should be expanded to include proofreading and editing workshops in class. A final, formal draft should result after several days of writing instruction.
Gothic Genre: Defining Gothic
The gothic novel dominated English literature during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. Often, architectural ruins, monasteries, forlorn characters, elements of the supernatural and overall feelings of melancholy and madness prevailed in gothic works. It seems likely that the gothic novel was a reaction to the increased disillusionment in Enlightenment thinking The gothic genre's bizarre images and obsessions with death, evil and mystery reflect a reaction to the age of reason, order and politics of nineteenth century England as well.
A story of terror and suspense, gothic has also been defined as, " . . . a popular woman's romance dealing with endangered heroines."11 A more comprehensive definition can be found in A Glossary of Literary Terms. It states, " . . . the best of them opened up to fiction the realm of the irrational and of the perverse impulses and the nightmarish terrors that lie beneath the orderly surface of the civilized mind . . ."
The gothic genre proves to be a favorite of high school students. Most students become fascinated with examinations of horror, the supernatural, psychology and the mind. Gothic works naturally generate psychological responses from readers, therefore motivating students to search for deeper meanings and a variety of analysis.
Gothic Genre: The Female Gothic
Ellen Moers is known for establishing the term "female gothic" as an element of literary analysis. According to Moers, female gothic refers to writings where " . . . fantasy predominates over reality, the strange over the commonplace, and the supernatural over the natural, with one definite auctorial intent: to scare".12 Gilman's story, "The Yellow Wallpaper" has been called gothic because of its focus on madness and its horrifying conclusion. Some critics even chose to compare Gilman's story to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, because of its remarkable depiction of the deterioration of the human mind. In addition, Gilman's narrator's madness is focused on the wallpaper, serving a similar function to Poe's famous black cat or tell-tale heart.
Almost 100 years before Gilman's story was published, Ann Radcliffe established a standard for a gothic novel written by a woman writer. Radcliffe's novel's central figure is a young woman who was a persecuted victim and courageous heroine. Applying this definition to "The Yellow Wallpaper," it is clear to see why the story has been called gothic. Further complicating the analysis of Gilman's story as a gothic tale is Moers' discussion of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. A novel about creation, birth and its traumatic aftermath, Shelley established fear, guilt, depression, and anxiety as commonplace reactions to birth. In real life, Gilman's own nervous condition followed the birth of her daughter, Katherine, and paralleled the narrator's madness which revolves around the yellow wallpaper of an old nursery. Unlike many some gothic tales, Gilman's story is not simply about a haunted environment or an estranged woman. The story connects both setting and character with a chilling effect.
Lesson III: Realism vs. Gothic Horror
In groups of three or four, ask students to brainstorm what happens when we try to apply a real diagnosis to a work of fiction. While Gilman's story is based on real events, it is still a short story. Groups should then prepare at least three statements to make that prove "The Yellow Wallpaper" is an example of realism. Then, they should prepare at least three statements to prove that "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a gothic horror story. Students may use Gilman's essay "Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper'" as a resource here as well. This assignment can be presented orally or written. Allot one 45 minute class or half of a 90 minute class period.
Lesson IV: Culminating Class Discussion – Class Debates
In an in-class debate, students will be divided into four groups. Each student will be asked to make one solid point to defend the group's argument. The debates may or may not be settled, but will provide students with a forum for drawing some conclusions about the story. Students will be assessed for taking an active part in the debate. Debate topics are "How Responsible is John?" and "Is the Narrator Triumphant or is she Defeated?" A class debate handout is provided in attachment four. Regardless of length of class periods, allow at least two days for this assignment – a preparation day and a presentation day.
Gothic Genre: The Theme of Madness
The narrator in Gilman's story is one of many patients in American literature (and film) who ". . . searches desperately for understanding but, following accepted medical advice or that of loved ones, lose their mind."13 At the same time, one can analyze Gilman's story as one of a practical husband and an imaginative wife. If the narrator's creativity is defined as feminine, or weak, and society values the useful while rejecting anything else as nonsense – what happens to the imagination? It goes mad. When Gilman's narrator give in to her madness, her obsession over the wallpaper becomes the only part of her life that she can control.
The 1944 film Gaslight, is a great companion to "The Yellow Wallpaper" in relation to the theme of madness. Starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotton, the film won Bergman her first academy award. Its heroine is on the verge of a complete mental breakdown when she realizes that her dashing husband has been trying to drive her insane in order to locate her family jewels, which are hidden in their London home. While most students dread watching old, black and white films, this film is so full of suspense and mystery it is highly recommended.
The following speech is in given by the heroine, Paula, in the final moments of the film. Here, she finally confronts her husband as he begs for her help and forgiveness,
Have you gone mad, my husband? Or is it I who am mad? Yes, of course, that's it. I am mad. I'm always losing things and forgetting them, and I must find them . . . . If I were not mad I could have helped you. Whatever you have done, I could have pitied and protected you. Because I am mad I hate you. Because I am mad, I have betrayed you. Because I am mad I am rejoicing in my heart, without a shred of pity, without a shred of regret, watching you go with glory in my heart.14
The dramatic scene concluded with this speech works as a visual element for students in connecting the madness theme from "The Yellow Wallpaper" to another work.
Lesson V: Audio-visual Connection – Gaslight
Provide students with a copy of the heroine, Paula's final speech in the film. Ask them to work in pairs to write such a speech for Gilman's narrator. If the narrator was only "on the verge" of madness, and she was able to "snap out of it" in a sense, what would she say to her husband? Students should write their responses in the format of a dramatic monologue and be prepared to perform a dramatic reading in class. Regardless of length of class periods, allow at least two days for this assignment – a preparation day and a presentation day.
Lesson VI: Creative Writing
Ask students to write a short story using madness as a theme. Students should model their main character after the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper," focusing their hero/heroine's madness on one thing. Have students share stories aloud or create illustrations or video clips for their story. This assignment can be given as an out-of-class writing assignment.