How does the syntax and diction of "The Yellow Wallpaper" depict the slowly deteriorating sanity of the narrator?
Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses both syntax and diction masterfully to show the protagonist's deteriorating mental state in the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper."
Syntax refers to the arrangement of words and phrases in order to produce well-constructed sentences.
"He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures. John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind—) perhaps it is one reason I do not get well faster."
Notice the sophisticated sentence structure or syntax. The narrator is speaking about her husband and gives a list of three qualities he has, using phrases and vocabulary that depict a fair amount of intelligence. In the second sentence, she interrupts her thoughts to intimate that she would not share these ideas with anyone. Her sentences in the beginning of the story are complex, and they give the reader the sense that she is educated and intelligent. Readers would have no concern about her mental state at this point in the story other than the fact that she divulges that she is sick with a "nervous condition."
If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?
This quote is also toward the beginning of the story. The narrator is still using complex sentences with appositives and sophisticated syntax. This makes her seem intelligent and fully in control of her mental faculties.
As the story goes on, we begin to see a change. The narrator is writing more simple sentences. The content of the sentences sounds more like the writing of a willful child than an educated adult woman:
I don't know why I should write this.
I don't want to.
I don't feel able.
Later, she becomes obsessed with the patterns in the wallpaper and thinks she sees a woman creeping around behind the pattern. It isn't just her sense of sight that is given over to the obsession of the creeping woman; the paper also has a smell that becomes a pervasive element in her psyche. In the quote below, she is describing the smell of the wallpaper. Notice the short, simple sentences. The vocabulary is simple. She has personified the smell. This all points to a deteriorating mental condition.
"It creeps all over the house. I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs. It gets into my hair."
Toward the end of the story, her vocabulary (diction) is very diminished. The author's word choice indicates a woman who is regressing. She is creeping, which means to move very slowly and close to the ground. Her words and actions cause her husband to faint because he realizes that she has lost her mind. The syntax is also very simple and very different from the syntax used in the beginning of the story.
I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. "I've got out at last," said I, "in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back."
As the narrator begins to deteriorate, so does her syntax. Her diction also reveals a troubled mind.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” tells the story of a woman who slowly begins to lose her mind because she had been confined to a room. Notice that a first person narrator is used. This allows us to make the journey with her, and makes the text more personal and the deterioration more pronounced.
First, let me review syntax and diction. Syntax is the way the sentences are structured. Does the authors use simple sentences, fragments, or complex sentences? How are these juxtaposed to create meaning?
Compare the sentence structure at the beginning and the end of the story. In the beginning of the story, the sentences contain long lists of clauses and playful punctuation.
John is a physician, and perhaps -- (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind) -- perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster. (p. 1)
The little aside in parenthesis is not mocking or insane. It is humorous more than anything. The repetition of perhaps and the use of the breaks also allows for pause.
Notice that the sentences are long and winding. They take a while to get to the point. Then look at some at the end.
I want to astonish him.
I've got a rope up here that even Jennie did not find. If that woman does get out, and tries to get away, I can tie her!
But I forgot I could not reach far without anything to stand on!
This bed will not move! (p. 9)
Wow! There are a lot of exclamation points here. The short, choppy sentences make the reader see fear and paranoia. This hardly seems like the slow flow of the sentences in the beginning of the narration.
Diction is an author’s word choice. Authors don’t just randomly choose words. Look for the words that stand out, and look for a comparison in diction from the beginning to the end of the story. Look at how she describes the house in the beginning of the story.
A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity -- but that would be asking too much of fate! (p. 1, emphasis added)
These words demonstrate joy and wonder, not pain. Consider, by contrast, her word choice at the end.
I don't like to look out of the windows even -- there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. (p. 10, bold emphasis added)
There is an emphasis on “look,” which is already in italics. Here the word “creep” is repeated. There are other disturbing words. The reader feels the narrator’s state of panic. She is never given a name! If she was given a name, she would be more humanized.