Between the Bed and the Bars: The Gothic as Gender Difference in Poe and Gilman by Maria Alberto
In addition to the categories of literature any student will recognize – texts and authors grouped by era, subject matter, or degree of canonicity – additional divisions are subtle and ingrained enough that they excite less comment than they should. For one example, the distinction between popular and “high” literature that characterizes the separation of the American Renaissance and American Gothic writers in modern classrooms is probably more familiar than the silent divisions that occur among American Gothic works and their contemporaneous works, audiences, and successors. This type of critically invisible division within an arbitrary literary category, however, cannot be discounted: thematic strife among similar authors or between popular authors and their audiences prompts a literary call-and-response effect that continues unabated and inadequately studied even now. While students may learn of the competition between Hawthorne’s self-defined romances and Poe’s favored grotesques, for example, few will trace Poe’s distinctly odd treatment of female characters to responses from his immediate literary successors. In a more modern arena, neither critics nor casual readers can have missed the popular appeal of the Twilight series, but very few will pause long enough to look past the obvious issues of the texts to recognize the mortal/immortal inversion appropriated from older stories such as Dracula.
Even a glance, though, should be enough to identify the gender of both author and character as one of the most prevalent facets to the two sides of this canonically-invisible, intra-category division. This hypothetical glance, though, might not reveal that the phenomenon is not new to American authorship. Though some sixty years separate the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 “Ligeia” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 “The Yellow Wallpaper,” both short stories reference the same literary tradition in their depictions of the opposite sex: Poe uses certain elements of the American Gothic tradition to preserve the image of an idealized female while Gilman uses these same elements to depict and comment upon a less-than-perfect male. Put differently, these two stories exemplify shared traditions being used for different purposes depending on both the sex of the authorial-voiced narrator and the actions of the opposite-sex deuteragonist. This difference of purpose first becomes apparent with the role each sex plays in the unfolding action of the two stories. The plot of Poe’s “Liegia,” for instance, depends upon its anonymous male narrator’s image of his former wife. Ligeia had been the sole focus of her unnamed husband’s world for so long that he is thrown into severe depression with her passing. After a few sad years spent as a widower, the narrator re-marries, wedding a young noblewoman who soon takes deathly ill in a manner similar to her predecessor. While sitting at his second wife’s deathbed, the narrator notices that she slips in and out of her fatal coma, and the final time she does so, he cries that his dead second wife has somehow become his beloved Ligeia (990-1101).
The narrative progression of Gilman’s “Wallpaper” is also dependent upon the opposite-sex character, in this case the narrator’s husband John. John is convinced that his wife, the narrator, is not ill, but instead suffers from mild hysterical tendencies, and so rents a house in the country, securing a quiet upstairs room for her despite her mild protests of other preferences. This stifled state leads the narrator to insanity as she begins to see a sympathetic female trapped behind the room’s yellow wallpaper and eventually tries to free her by ripping the paper away (1597-1609).
Even these brief summaries demonstrate how Poe’s “Ligeia” depicts the male character’s blanket responses to the female, while Gilman’s “Wallpaper” refutes and reverses this narrative some decades later. In both stories the opposite-sex character provides a background motive or explanation rather than entering and participating in the narrative as fully as the narrator. Poe’s Ligeia dies midway through the story but had existed mainly as an ethereal idealization of woman even before her death, while Gilman’s John is primarily the enforcer of the narrator’s rest cure, if not its actual catalyst. Despite their supporting roles, however, both Ligeia and John are depicted and examined through certain Gothic conventions. Where Poe’s male narrator uses a first-person narrative and ornate language popularized by the American Gothic to idolize a more compliant female and her suffering, Gilman’s female narrator uses these same conventions to expose the reality of suffering under a male character’s expectations of perfection.
Perhaps the most obvious of these shared conventions concerns the use of a first-person narrative. Robert Hume contends that Gothic literature always attempts a direct involvement with its readers, noting that “in Gothic writing the reader is held in suspense with the characters, and increasingly there is an effort to shock, alarm, and otherwise rouse him” (284). A first-person narrative is among the most effective ways of effecting this type of narrative control, as it limits readers’ perceptions of events and characters to those that the story’s main character perceives. Thus, if the character is judgmentally or mentally suspect, as David Punter argues of Poe’s protagonists, readers are presented with fanciful or suspect ideas as the story’s reality (183). The first-person narrative thus fulfills Hume’s suggested purpose of “[i]ntroducing a powerful emotional response in the reader (rather than a moral or intellectual one)” (284).
Poe’s “Ligeia” is told in the first person, thus limiting readers’ perceptions of Ligeia to the manner in which the story’s unnamed narrator himself perceives and judges her. Since Poe’s narrator romanticizes his deceased former wife, readers are shown only idealized images of the bygone female. Edmund Burke’s essay “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas Concerning The Sublime and Beautiful” characterizes this type of elegiac grief, the mourning of a “forsaken lover,” as the cessation of one pleasure but the beginning of another, describing grief as a way of finding “the sublime” through “pleasurable” pain (Part I, Sect. V). For Burke, therefore, it is understandable that grieving lovers indulge their grief:
That grief should be willingly endured, though far from a simply pleasing sensation, is not so difficult to be understood. It is the nature of grief to keep its object perpetually in its eye, to present it in its most pleasurable views, to repeat all the circumstances that attend it, even to the last minuteness; to go back to every particular enjoyment, to dwell upon each, and to find a thousand new perfections in all, that were not sufficiently understood before. (Part I, Sect. V)
Poe’s narrator’s first-person grief is thus used to idealize Ligeia. In his “Philosophy of Composition,” Poe presents a set of questions used to compose his famous “Raven” poem, a line of inquiry that can also be seen in relation to the female character in “Ligeia.”
—“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?”
From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—equally is beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” (“Philosophy of Composition”)
Readers are thus presented with aspects of Burke’s “thousand new perfections . . . not sufficiently understood before” and Poe’s “most poetical topic in the world” through the authorial narrator’s rhapsodies on Ligeia’s matchless face, form, and virtues. Such readers must be content with learning that this woman had been of “rare learning, [a] singular yet placid cast of beauty” (“Ligeia” 991) and possessed of a musical voice with “thrilling and enthralling eloquence” (991). Readers are dependent on such imprecise and –flowery language since all of this information comes from the grieving lover himself. As a female character, Ligeia herself offers dialogue consisting solely of laments about death and musings on how it can be subverted, as it is the only thing that can separate her from her husband (995-6). Consequently, even these brief glances of the woman as a person or character remain simply a part of the narrator’s idealization, since he reports no more of Ligeia’s own words than the deathbed conversations that are necessary to illustrate his own grief.
Poe also uses the first person to eliminate the necessity of a backstory, character history, or even specific location for his story, mysteries that further the narrator’s idealization of Ligeia. Burke contends that this fixed focus is also typical of the lover-as-speaker: “If you listen to the complaints of a forsaken lover, you observe that he insists largely on the pleasures which he enjoyed, or hoped to enjoy, and on the perfection of the object of his desires; it is the loss which is always uppermost in his mind” (Part I, Sect. VIII). Poe certainly adopts this convention, even opening the story with his narrator’s moan that “I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia” (990). By having his first-person narrator admit to the exhaustion of age and the self-imposed amnesia of suffering (990), Poe is saved from having to provide a backstory for Ligeia or explain how the two characters met, and this adds to the mystique of the idealized Ligeia by implying that her perfection was such that the male narrator discounts details such as their meeting as unimportant next to the fact that she existed at all. This connection is later made even more explicit when the narrator later suggests that “perhaps, I cannot now bring these points to mind” (990-1) because Ligeia’s many great qualities “made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive that they have been unnoticed and unknown” (“Ligeia” 991). Poe’s narrator himself admits that his late love has displaced all irrelevant data in his mind with the one truth of her female perfection.
While the narrative control exerted by Gilman’s first-person narrator also limits readers’ perceptions, “The Yellow Wallpaper” presents readers with a far more negative portrayal of its counterpart Since this narrator’s husband prescribes and then enforces the unhelpful “cure,” the narrator’s growing discontent translates into disillusionment about males and their knowledge, quite the opposite of Poe’s idealization. Her disillusionment is a direct contributor to the narrator’s ultimate descent into insanity, an occurrence that the story’s first-person narrative lets readers witness firsthand in a way that Ligeia’s death, reported secondhand in no great detail, cannot. Burke characterizes this type of audience involvement as potentially more powerful even than the lover’s grief that Poe uses:
[W]hatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror . . . is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling . . . Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasures. (Part I, Section VII)
Gilman’s protagonist first demonstrates Burke’s “torments” through an inkling of unease in her introduction of her husband John. Readers’ first glimpse of the only male character in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the narrator’s idea that “John is a physician, and perhaps . . . that is one reason I do not get well faster. You see he does not believe I am sick!” (1598). Here the first-person narration gives readers a first-hand glimpse into the type of control the story’s male character exerts, although at this point Gilman’s narrator is only slightly troubled by that control and still accepts it. For instance, she is still capable of declaring that “[i]f a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but . . . a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?” (“Wallpaper” 1598). Gilman’s use of the first person also lets readers see how the narrator’s acceptance of John’s ostensibly-superior knowledge extends even to blaming herself for any failed communications: “But he said I wasn’t able to go . . . and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished” (1603). Such imperfections are a stark contrast to Ligeia’s distress, which by contrast seems sanitized for dramatic effect.
Gilman’s use of the first person, however, is also effective in alerting readers to the gradual change in the narrator’s perceptions of her husband. This process begins when the narrator informs her diary about her latest discovery concerning the wallpaper: “I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman” (1605). Following this statement, readers witness the downward trajectory of the masculine image through the narrator’s increasingly self-aware first-person statements: “The fact is, I am getting a little afraid of John,” she declares (1605), from there progressing to complete disregard of her husband’s “cure” directives. Gilman reports that this first-person narrative even convinced a contemporary physician, who “wrote to say that it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen, and – begging my pardon – had I been there?” (“Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’”). Gilman contends, however, that the way her story was written “was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy” (“Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’”), thus acknowledging the power that her first-person narrative was intended to exert.
While slightly different in the manner it is used to engage readers, Gilman’s use of the first person is still comparable to Poe’s in the way that it obscures the need for a back-story. This forces readers to focus on the present, i.e. the story of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as it unfolds, rather than on the reasons behind it, such as the circumstances that caused the narrating female’s hysteria. For example, Gilman presents the story as the narrator’s clandestine journal entries (“Wallpaper” 1598), which offers a logical reason for the lack of an explanatory backstory. Since the author of the journal is already aware of her own life, and never plans for another soul to read this partial record of it (1598), there is no reason to recount her past. As a result, readers are forced to take on faith the account that Gilman’s narrator offers.
Another technique that both “Ligeia” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” exploit in their different depictions is ornate language. Elaborate language is one of the main stylistic techniques that Punter characterizes as hallmarks of the Gothic movement (9), contending that this type of language was used to relate to a popular audience (8-9). Such language is one of the ways through which Gothic literature was intended to entrance or ensnare rather than logically persuade (Punter 37), thus enforcing what Elaine Hartnell-Mottram terms the “the Gothic of the normal,” the phenomenon where “although in possession of alternative knowledge, the reader, too, is trapped ‘inside the box’” (45). Hartnell-Mottram explains that this “trapping” can be classified as a deliberately-manufactured psychological experience known as cognitive dissonance, which is defined as “negative motional states . . . created by a person having to encounter two contradictory ideas (cognitions) that relate to the same phenomenon at the same time” (45). The “contradictory cognitions” offered through Poe’s and Gilman’s stories encompass the readers’ realities as well as the stories’: the former is a place where dead women do not return to life through force of will and wallpaper cannot strangle the women trapped within it, while the latter is a place where such events do take place. Ornate language, used in conjunction with compelling first-person narrative, is often a means of confusing and consequently blurring the boundaries between the two “realities” so that readers can accept and experience the one while still clinging to the safety of the other.
While ornate language is evident in both Poe’s and Gilman’s short stories, each author also offers a slightly different take on the technique. Poe favors methods such as ornate diction, adjective-heavy descriptions, and particularly complex sentence structure, and he uses these characteristics to imbue his narrator with eloquent grief for the idealized female. Gilman, on the other hand, prefers the startling mixture of everyday vernacular and ornate diction, the use of embedded phrases and clauses as descriptions, and a fragmented sentence structure; she uses these techniques to convey her narrator’s maddening distraction and its source in the male. These techniques and their various components can be demonstrated through the syntactical breakdowns of sample sentences from the two stories.
For example, in the first paragraph of “Ligeia,” Poe’s narrator is torturing himself with memories of his past happiness and the hindsight knowledge that it must end. Compacting these sentiments into one sentence, the narrator says that “And, indeed, if ever that spirit which is entitled Romance — if ever she, the wan and the misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt, presided, as they tell, over marriages ill-omened, then most surely she presided over mine” (“Ligeia” 990). This sentence exemplifies all three of the ornate-language techniques that Poe uses throughout “Ligeia.” First, it shows Poe using several words that could have been replaced with their more common, less obscure synonyms: “entitled” might have been more recognizable as “named,” “wan” as “extremely pale,” “idolatrous” as “pagan,” and “ill-omened” as “doomed.” Poe, however, makes a conscious effort to use the more elaborate words, and as a result the narrator that he characterizes through this ornate speech style is far more eloquent upon the virtues of the female character. This eloquence is used in turn to expound upon the female’s ideal nature and being, or, as Poe explains it, “[when] men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of heart” (“Philosophy of Composition”).
This sample sentence also incorporates the second of Poe’s characteristic ornate-language techniques, the dependence upon adjectives. Each of its nouns has at least one highly specific and expressive adjective attached to it, as when the Egyptian goddess Ashtophet is described as both “wan” and “misty-winged.” The phrase “of idolatrous Egypt” is also used adjectivally, thus bringing the one noun, “Ashtophet,” to a count of three attached descriptions. Poe uses this descriptive technique as a linguistic mirror of the narrator’s view concerning Ligeia – her person is described in minor, superlative detail in order not to miss any detail that might help the narrator, and by extension his audience, make sense of how she was so ideal.
Finally, this sample sentence also exemplifies the third of Poe’s ornate-language techniques, complex sentence structure, especially well. Philologist Ronald Wardaugh defines a complex sentence as having one main independent clause and one or more dependent clauses (Wardaugh 119), and according to this definition, the different components of Poe’s sentence render it both stylistically and technically complex. Thirty-seven words in length, this one sentence manages to incorporate three independently-positioned introductory elements, one independent clause, two non-essential elements, and one dependent clause, as the following outline demonstrates:
Original sentence: “And, indeed, if ever that spirit which is entitled Romance — if ever she, the wan and the misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt, presided, as they tell, over marriages ill-omened, then most surely she presided over mine.” (“Ligeia” 990)
Complex (main) sentence: “If ever she presided over marriages ill-omened, then most surely she presided over mine.”
- Dependent clause: “if ever she presided over marriages ill-omened”
- Conjunctive adverb: “then”
- Independent clause: “most surely she presided over mine”
Introductory elements before main sentence:
- “if ever that spirit which is entitled Romance” (w/ embedded object noun clause [here underlined])
Non-essentials embedded within main sentence:
- Adjectival phrase: “the wan and misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt”
- Adverbial clause: “as they tell”
Poe uses this highly complex sentence structure, and comparable ones throughout the text, to mirror his narrator’s comparably mazy mindset. Dazed by the loss of his one true and perfect lover (“Ligeia” 990-1), the narrator can only express his loss of the ideal through a sentence structure that is as convoluted as his own thoughts as he struggles to make sense of this loss.
Thus these three very different aspects of Poe’s ornate language merge to create a very eloquent narrative voice that emphasizes the ideal in the story’s female character, Ligeia. By contrast to Poe’s almost overelaborate use of language, Gilman’s sparser techniques in “The Yellow Wallpaper” work to create an atmosphere of tense suppression in keeping with her less-than-idealized portrayal of the story’s male character. As Kate Ferguson Ellis contends, the central female characters in Gothic literature may be “restricted by an ideal of unconditional obedience [in] that they are powerless to rid the home of the always already-present danger of unchecked male power” (38). Though she begins by struggling with such a situation, Gilman’s narrator finally breaks out of it at least partially, and this struggle and fractional victory are reflected in Gilman’s choice of language. As a result, sentences that best exemplify Gilman’s contrast between everyday and ornate language, her use of descriptive phrases, and her conscious fragmentation of thought often occur at the beginning of her narrator’s self-realization.
Gilman’s first ornate-language tactic involves setting up contrast, whether this takes place within the sentences themselves or between paragraphs. With the first, Gilman places a few unusual multi-syllabic words alongside more typical everyday language; with the second, she sets a sentence of this mixed diction as its own paragraph amongst more “normal” paragraphs. For instance, Gilman’s narrator describes one of her latest perceptions of the wallpaper thus: “Looked at in one way, each breadth stands alone, the bloated curves and flourishes – a kind of ‘debased Romanesque’ with delirium tremens – go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity” (“Wallpaper” 1602). In addition to the technical architectural term and the French insert, this sentence comes as more of a surprise to readers because it constitutes its own paragraph, thus emphasizing its startlingly-ornate inclusions all the more. Gilman’s use of diction and sentential contrast is intended to jolt readers, and thus these textual alterations often herald a change in the narrator’s perception of her husband John. For instance, in providing a specific depiction of the wallpaper, this sample sentence also gives readers a clearer sense of how the paper’s very convolution is gradually drawing the narrator’s empathy towards itself, and consequently, her sympathy away from John.
Gilman’s second ornate-language technique, the use of multiple embedded phrases and/or clauses, is also used to clue readers into the narrator’s confusion as she struggles with the question of accepting her husband’s obviously flawed “cure,” and by extension, his “superior” knowledge and position. Gilman’s embedding technique is especially evident when her narrator begins to examine the paper more closely: “On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind. The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing” (“Wallpaper” 1604). The embedded phrases in these sample sentences serve as repetitions of main ideas, as when “a lack of sequence” is mirrored by “a defiance of law” and the clause “the color is hideous enough” is triply multiplied by the parallel phrases “unreliable enough” and “infuriating enough” (“Wallpaper” 1604). By embedding these non-essential elements, Gilman creates a sense of compoundedness that mirrors the narrator’s multiplying reasons to follow her own instinct rather than her husband’s “cure,” thus rendering her disillusionment more understandable to readers.
Finally, Gilman’s technique of creating deliberately fragmented, or incomplete, sentences is meant to give readers a literal demonstration of the narrator’s similarly-torn state of mind as she wrestles with typical definitions of restriction and “unconditional obedience” in the face of “unchecked male power” (Ellis 38). Towards the beginning of the story, for instance, Gilman’s narrator is torn by the conflict between wifely obedience and an instinctual idea that she understands her own health better than her husband, or any male, possibly could (“Wallpaper” 1598). While Gilman’s narrator is in this state she is conflicted enough to write a sentence such as “One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin” (“Wallpaper” 1599). Here the wallpaper’s pattern occupies the narrator’s mind so heavily that it can be committed to a sentence lacking both agent and action and thus rendered incomplete. Later in the story, though, similar fragmentation begins to refer to the story’s male character, the narrator’s husband John, specifically, as when she intones “But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief. But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief” (“Wallpaper” 1603) just after she has declared that “I’m getting really fond of [this] room in spite of the wall-paper. Perhaps because of the wall-paper” (“Wallpaper” 1602). This fragmentation shows the stress inherent in “[d]eparting from this model of female virtue” (Ellis 38), a departure that Ellis contends female characters must “transgress” in order to gain the freedom that should rightfully have been theirs in the first place (Ellis 38).
Ultimately, then, the comparison of Gothic elements such as first-person narrative and ornate language in the opposite-sex portrayals of Poe’s “Ligeia” and Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” yields both similarities and differences in these authors’ use of such techniques. Poe uses the first person as the voice of Burke’s “forsaken lover” (Part I, Sect. 5) and a complex type of ornate language as an ongoing narratorial eulogy, adapting both techniques to support his male protagonist’s idealization of his deceased female counterpart. Gilman, on the other hand, uses the first person in a manner more consonant with Burke’s “whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects” (Part I, Section VII), and a fragmented type of ornate language as a mirror for her narrator’s fragmenting worldview, thus adapting the two techniques to reinforce her female protagonist’s growing disillusionment with her controlling male counterpart. Both adaptations, though, also reflect Hume’s contention that Gothic writing comes from “a recognition of the insufficiency of reason or religious faith to explain and make comprehensible the complexities of life” (Hume 290) and that, unlike the semi-related Romantic tradition, the Gothic “has no such [high moral] answers and can only leave the ‘opposites’ contradictory and paradoxical. . . . [finding] only unresolvable moral and emotional ambiguity” (Hume 290).
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Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009. 1597-1609. Print.
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Hartnell-Mottram, Elaine. “Poe and the Gothic of the Normal: Thinking ‘Inside The Box.’” Gothic Studies 12.2 (2010): 42-52. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 Aug. 2012.
Hume, Robert D. “Gothic versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel.” PMLA 84.2 (1969): 282-290. JSTOR. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.
Punter, David. The Literature of Terror. 2nd ed. Essex: Longman Group Limited, 1996. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ligeia.” Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009. 990-1101. Print.
– – – “Philosophy of Composition.” Department of American Studies. University of Virginia, Sept. 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.
Wardaugh, Ronald. Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic Approach. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. Print.
Maria Alberto wrote this paper for an undergraduate American Literature course at Cleveland State University before graduating with honors and an English degree. This class marked the beginning of her formal interest in the history of both the British and American Gothic traditions, which she hopes to continue researching, along with Victorian cultural studies, for her Master’s degree.
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