Madness in Fiction: A Comparison
A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman are two stories that are often compared for study. The resemblance is obvious: both lead characters are noted for their apparent insanity. However, the women in these stories were not born mad. There are many factors that contributed to their madness, but there is one general cause behind it. The madness of the female characters in William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper was caused by male repression. This term paper aims to discuss how the characters in both stories were repressed and objectified by the men in their lives, rendering them insane in the process.
Emily Grierson is the lead character in Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily. The story, as told by a nameless narrator, follows her life as it is also followed by the Jefferson community (Faulkner). Emily is such a interesting character in town that all the details of her life are observed by the townspeople. The character is distinguished by her psychological condition, which is later revealed in the story as necrophilia. Necrophilia is defined as the “erotic attraction to corpses” (Ramsland).
Shortly after her father’s death, Emily had a relationship with a man named Homer Barron (Faulkner). He was a construction foreman, and had just recently arrived in town. Soon, he and Emily were spending time together. Suddenly, the townsfolk never saw him again; they simply believed the relationship was over. It was not until after Emily’s death that the people realized that Homer was in the house all along, only that he was already dead. The corpse had a “profound and fleshless grin,” and it was “once lain in the attitude of an embrace” (Faulkner). Emily was known to be sleeping with the corpse because of the “long strand of iron gray hair” in the pillow next to the body (Faulkner).
In Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator is also nameless. The narrator is also the protagonist. The narrator and her husband have rented a mansion while the former recuperates from “temporary nervous depression” (Gilman). Her husband prevents her from working and writing; he simply instructs her to rest. With nothing else to do, the narrator becomes fixated on the yellow wallpaper in the room where she stayed.
The psychological condition of the protagonist is revealed at the onset of the story, as it is already stated that she suffers from depression. However, the character’s madness really begins with the wallpaper. Slowly, the narrator sees a woman in the wallpaper; the woman appears to be struggling to get out of the wallpaper. As a result, the narrator peels off the wallpaper to free the imaginary woman (Gilman).
Emily and the narrator are obviously suffering from different psychological conditions. However, both characters have been made psychologically unstable by a similar source: the men in their lives. With Emily, it is her father who repressed her into madness. In the narrator’s case in The Yellow Wallpaper, it was her husband who was responsible.
Emily’s father had shaped Emily into what she had become. He was dominating. In the story, it was described that “her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and crutching a horsewhip” (Faulkner). The Griersons were a proud family; they elevated themselves in status that would appear superior to other people. In the story, the narrator states that “none of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily” (Faulkner). He held Emily in such status that he refused to entertain any of her suitors. As a result, Emily lived a sheltered life which prevented her from facing society and having relationships as normal people do (“Notes”).
In The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator is controlled by her husband John. He is a physician, and he was the one who diagnosed her illness (Gilman). He asks her to just stay in the room and not do anything else. She cannot act and decide on her own, as her husband “hardly lets me stir without special direction” (Gilman). She cannot choose what she wants because “John would not hear of it” (Gilman). Thus, she is rendered helpless and incapable by her spouse.
The cause for Emily’s necrophiliac tendencies was her inability to properly handle relationships. According to Ramsland, necrophilia is a condition which seeks to acquire a partner who is incapable to reject or resist (1). Most of her life was spent under the care of his overly possessive father who barred her from the world. When her father died, Emily firmly hesitated to bury his body. In the story, it was said that “with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her” (Faulkner).
When Homer came into her life, Emily finally experienced that which her father prevented her from having. However, her happiness was not meant to last. Homer “was not a marrying man” (Faulkner). Emily was threatened, as she could lose that which she wanted for so long. She cannot handle losing Homer. Therefore, she did not give Homer a chance to leave him. She killed him with arsenic, and slept with his corpse until she died. This way, Emily can keep a partner that would not leave her or resist her love.
Meanwhile, the cause of the narrator’s madness is her idleness. Gilman herself was diagnosed with a disorder that made her depressed (Wayne). The physician suggested a remedy that required being engaged in domestic affairs but discouraged any artistic endeavor. After a few months, she realized she was becoming insane (Wayne). In her story, the narrator became insane under the same conditions. Nonetheless, the wallpaper was not the cause; it was the husband’s repression that triggered it. The protagonist saw herself in the wallpaper she always stared at: she was a woman trapped at home, and she wanted to be free. Through the peeling of the wallpaper, the protagonist was able to free not the imaginary wallpaper woman, but herself.
Rather than being portrayed as human beings with innate rationality, both Emily and the protagonist was rendered as either objects or helpless beings. This also contributed to their psychological condition. Throughout Faulkner’s story, Emily was portrayed as an object; she was detached from society because of the family’s status and her father’s over protectiveness. Descriptions of her include “monument,” “a tradition, a duty and a care,” and “carven torso of an idol in a niche” (Faulkner). Only after her father died did she “become humanized” (Faulkner). At that point, it was too late; the path to her madness had already begun.
On the other hand, the protagonist in Gilman’s work was reduced to a helpless child by her husband. To begin with, John calls her demeaning names such as “little girl” and “blessed little goose” (Gilman). She is also treated as if she was incapacitated: “John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me” (Gilman). Lastly, John does not consider his wife as someone who can live for herself.
She must do things to make him happy, as the protagonist stated that her husband “said…that I must take care of myself for his sake” (Gilman). All these contribute to the narrator’s madness, as she is conditioned to be as helpless and as dependent as her husband makes her. In fact, the only time she was able to think for herself is when she discovered and decided that a woman exists in the wallpaper; this is when she said “And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern” (Gilman). Indeed, to perceive an inanimate object to be animated is insane, but it is the only way the protagonist can think for herself.
The psychological conditions of the women in A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman were caused by the treatment they received from the men in their lives. The madness, whether it is in the form of necrophilia or hallucinations, was merely a result of the repression and male domination that they experienced. It must be noted that the cause of the madness needs to be identified to clearly understand these characters. This is because without which, the characters in question would have never been insane in the first place.
Faulkner, William. A Rose for Emily. 9 May 2008 <http://www.ariyam.com/docs/lit/wf_rose.html>.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. 1899. 9 May 2008 <http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/wallpaper.html>.
“Notes: ‘A Rose for Emily’.” 9 May 2008 <http://ftp.ccccd.edu/mtolleson/2328online/2328notesrose.htm>.
Ramsland, Katherine. “Varieties of Necrophilia.” Crime Library. 2007. 9 May 2008 <http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/notorious/necrophiles/necro_4.html>.
Wayne, Teddy. “GradeSaver: The Yellow Wallpaper-Study Guide- About The Yellow Wallpaper.” GradeSaver. 2008. 9 May 2008 <http://www.gradesaver.com/classicnotes/titles/wallpaper/about.html>.