What are a possible comparative thesis and comparative points for "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Bliss" by Katherine Mansfield in terms of a feminist approach and a formalist...

What are a possible comparative thesis and comparative points for "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Bliss" by Katherine Mansfield in terms of a feminist approach and a formalist approach?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Virginia Woolf often discussed how a woman writer seeks within herself "the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber," inevitably confronting her femininity and "something about the body, about the passions" making it impossible to separate "imagination" from gender and a sexually-positioned self in culture and history.

[example thesis:]Therefore, whether one analyzes Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" or Mansfield's "Bliss" in terms of the Formalist approach or the Feminist approach, there can be comparisons of motifs, a certain awareness of feminine subjectivity in the characterization of Gilman's narrator and in Mansfield's Bertha, and the interaction of passion with thought in both stories.

Motifs - Both Formalist and Feminist approaches to literary criticism identify the inherent features of the language of the narration. Certainly, both focus upon motifs as discourse, although Feminism often employs them further. 

  • In "Bliss" the pear tree as trope develops the motifs of Bertha ("birth-a") burgeoning passion for life and potential fruitfulness--she desires to hold her baby and spend more time with her. In "Yellow Wallpaper" the paper and its pattern give rise to the narrator's awareness of her psychological imprisonment and sexual repression.

Characterization - Both literary approaches must recognize "the dark places where the fish slumber" as Woolf expressed it.

  • Indeed, there is no denying the feminine issue in both narratives, but they the characters can be analyzed simply as personages on their own as individuals. For Bertha, whose passion is now awakening--"Her feeling of bliss came back again, and again she didn't know how to express it--what to do with it"--as she searches for the meaning of her feelings of tenderness "toward the whole world" and in the touch of Miss Fulton's "cool arm" with which she identifies, she finds herself involved in a surprising existential conflict. Likewise, Gilman's narrator is also engaged in an existential conflict as the suppression of her imagination and feelings are threatened. She undertakes a desperate escape from the femme covert laws which allow her husband John to prevent her from moving to a more aesthetically pleasing room for her recovery from post-partum depression; however, she succumbs to feelings of guilt:

He said we came here solely on my account; that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get....So we took the nursery at the top of the house.

Gilman's narrator suffers so from the ugliness of the room and its non-symmetry that tortures her artistic eye and soul until she complains of an odor coming from the yellow wallpaper. Eventually, the narrator is seduced by her own insanity in her entrapment and feels compelled to free herself from behind the bars of the hideous paper.

(Nevertheless, it is worth noting that while they both must recognize these "dark places," the Formalist approach will not view the characterization as an implement for developing the themes of repression and suppression that the Feminist approach takes. This, then, must be kept out of a comparative discussion.) 

Interaction of passion with thought - In both narratives there are psychological overtones to the interactions of characters. Bertha, who has hitherto not felt such "bliss," realizes at the end of her dinner party why she finds the pear tree significant:

For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband...she'd been in love with him, of course, in every other way, but just not in that way.

Just as she is finally able to experience passion, she is imprisoned in "Tomato Soup" as she sees her husband kiss Miss Fulton and promise to meet her. Similarly, but in an inverse manner, Gilman's narrator exerts thought control upon herself until she is finally overcome by her insanity and feels entrapped.

(But, while the Formalist treatment of these interactions necessitates the reduction of historical, biographical, and cultural context in the two stories and examines the interplay of characters within the confines of the narratives, the Feminist approach additionally examines the feminine subjectivity in the readings of these narratives, pointing to the patriarchal conditions as the cause of the injury to both women. This, too, must be kept out of a comparative discussion.)

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The Yellow Wallpaper

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