Discrimination and Madness: Examining Motifs in the Short Stories of Faulkner and Gillman
"The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gillman and "A Rose for Emily," by William Faulkner, though remarkably different in style and voice, feature stories where women are the main characters. Both of these stories take the reader through a raucous trip through time and sanity leaving the reader constantly guessing. In the midst of these vivid journeys through the narrative, both short stories showcase their female protagonists in fictional worlds where various pertinent social issues fester in the background.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" tells a story written in the first person of a vivacious, imaginative woman who explains that she suffers from a temporary nervous depression colored by a bit of hysteria. Her husband, a doctor, who the narrator tells us is extremely practical, believes she is not sick and rents a colonial mansion for the summer so that she can rest and gain weight. The narrator remarks that the house seems a bit odd as if it were haunted and that she is staying in the nursery on the top floor, a room covered with yellow wallpaper that is torn off in places. Forbidden to do anything intellectual, the woman writes secretly in her journal. Via these journal entries, the reader can track her descent into madness. The woman becomes more and more obsessed with the yellow wallpaper, eventually concluding that she can see a woman creeping behind the main pattern. Eventually, on the final day in the colonial mansion she locks herself in her room, scaring her husband quite considerably. When he finally locates the key, something very ambiguous happens; he finds her creeping throughout the room, having mistaken herself in her madness for the woman behind the pattern in the wallpaper. Her husband ends up fainting and she claims to creep all over him.
"A Rose for Emily" has a collective third person narrator and tells the story in five parts of a woman who has been a member of the town of Jefferson, Mississippi her entire life, leading an enigmatic, eyebrow-raising life. The first part of the story tells us of her death and the fact that the entire town came to her funeral. This section explains how Colonel Sartoris remitted her taxes and that efforts to get her taxes back were unsuccessful, due to her stubbornness. Section two tells us how thirty years earlier, two years after her father died, and shortly after the townspeople believed her lover had deserted her, a strong, odd stench emanated from her household. Refusing to do anything about it, townspeople poured lime all around her property at night. This section also recounts how for days after her father died, Emily refused to admit that he was dead and the townspeople wondered about her sanity. Section three describes how in the summer after her father's death she had a suitor from the north named Homer Barron, who the townspeople consider to be beneath her station. Just as people speculate that Homer's not the marrying type and beneath her, Emily buys some rat poison, which everyone assumes is to use to kill herself. Section four talks about how Homer goes for a trip and returns, seen entering Emily's house, never to be seen again. Lastly section five describes Emily's funeral and the discovery made in a room of her house, where the funeral attendees find the skeleton of Homer Barron lying in the bed of a spare room with a mark and a hair on the adjoining pillow that indicates that Emily had lain next to him.
*4*A clear detail of characterization that the narrator relays for us in the short story "the Yellow Wallpaper" which reveals a social struggle of the time period occurs in the beginning of the story. The narrator explains how she finds the house haunted and how peculiar she finds it that it has been untenanted for all this time. She then goes on to explain that how her husband: "John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage" (Gilman, 1891). This clearly demonstrates the subjugation of women during this period and how husbands truly did consider their wives inferior and often used them as the subjects of mocking or condescension. One must take note that the narrator does not merely assert that her husband laughs at her, but that she anticipates such mocking. It implies that disrespect from husband to wife was not only common during the period, but so common that it was normal and expected. This indicates a great deal about the subjugation of women during this time in history, but also about the narrator as well. Her words imply that occupying a lower position in regards to her husband was quite normal. It is as if she were a child and he, her husband, the parent. This idea is furthered when the narrator explains she is "forbidden to 'work' until I am well again" (Gillman 1891). That statement demonstrates that her husband is allowing her and not allowing her to do things, just as a father would or wouldn't with his own child.
In the short story "A Rose for Emily," an incident of strong characterization occurs in the start of the short story in regards to a minor character, Colonel Sartoris. When the collective narrator introduces him, starting to explain how he remitted Emily's taxes upon the death of her father, the narrator explains that this Colonel, "…fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron" (Faulkner, 1930). This statement shows the ever present racism still alive in that part of the south, not to mention the sexism coupled with that. Such characterization shows that Colonel Sartoris, while a gentleman to a white southern lady, was a racist bigot to African-American woman, seeing them only as kitchen workers. Faulkner uses this detail to illuminate social struggles through its placement in the story. He tells the reader this information about Sartoris when he explains that this is the Colonel that granted a remittance of Emily's taxes. Thus the reader must grapple with two extremely dichotomous pieces of information that clearly demonstrate the historical period, riddled with problems. In one breath, Faulkner tells us about a character, Sartoris, who essentially breaks the law to do something nice for a white woman after her father dies and how this same character made sure that African-American women always knew their place when they were in public as women of and only the kitchen. This detail that Faulkner provides showcases the civil injustices of the period.
Thus, in a "The Yellow Wallpaper" we see characterization used as a tool to unveil that sexism present in the day and how the narrator dealt with it; in "A Rose for Emily" we see it as at times used to showcase the historically charged environment, riddled with both racism and sexism. Gillman's story goes a bit further, using those details to show how the sexism of the day was so extreme, women were fundamentally treated like children. This sexism exists on a similar vein in the short story, "A Rose for Emily." Stunned that she has a suitor, but doubtful that the suitor will truly commit to Emily, the townspeople interpret the purchase of rat poison as a means for Emily to kill herself. Naturally no one suspects that she would possibly be using it to kill her suitor. This reveals how society viewed women of the day, as meek and innocent. Emily, however, rises above this social struggle, essentially in her own madness, by killing her suitor and herself.
In the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," the setting, a top floor nursery in a colonial mansion at the end of the 19th century, filled with peeling and…