What comparisons can be made between the stories "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Yellow Wallpaper"? For example, the narrators are insane.

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hgarey71 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Charlotte Perkins Gilman authored the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" in 1892. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" was published fifty years earlier, in 1843. Although quite different, the stories have a striking amount of similarities.

Both short stories contain elements of Gothic literature. In Gothic literature, the protagonist is often cut off from others, either by their own devices or due to circumstances they can't control. Gilman's protagonist is cut off from the world due to the wishes of her physician husband, who thinks this isolation will cure her. Poe's protagonist is cut off from the world due to his madness, which he denies. Poe's protagonist is relating the story of what happened in the past, while Gilman's protagonist is experiencing things in the present. Gilman's setting, which includes a formerly grand ancestral home, is quintessentially Gothic, as is Poe's use of the secret hiding place for the body of the old man. Each story contains word choice which sets the atmosphere of horror and suspense.

In both stories, the narrators admit to suffering from a nervous condition. From Poe's short story: 

"True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story."

In Gilman's story, the protagonist describes her condition as follows: 

"I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition."

Each narrator fixates on something. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator fixates on the patterns in the wallpaper in her room. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator fixates on the old man's eye. It is left to the reader to infer exactly why the old man's clouded eye vexes Poe's protagonist. It's only slightly more clear in "The Yellow Wallpaper" why the narrator fixates on the wallpaper. All activities the protagonist might enjoy have been denied her by a husband who treats her as a child. She is left with only the yellow wallpaper in the room she doesn't want to be in. She fixates on the wallpaper, trying to find a pattern. Instead, she sees a creeping woman imprisoned by the paper.

Each narrator's fixation symbolizes something. In Poe's story, the old man's eye symbolizes the narrator's conscience. It's always watching him and knows even the deeds he commits in secret—deeds no one else could've known. In Gilman's story, the yellow wallpaper symbolizes a prison for the creeping woman who is trapped behind its undecipherable pattern.

Each narrator has good things to say about the person who vexes them. In Poe's story, the old man is kind to him. In Gilman's story, the narrator's husband, who can also be called her captor, is described as kind and loving. Poe's protagonist says it is not the old man who vexed him, just his "Evil Eye." He describes his kindness toward the old man, which readers can infer is reciprocated. Gilman's protagonist says this of her husband: "He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction."

Each story allows the reader a glimpse inside the mind of a person who is mentally ill. We see the irrationality of their thoughts and behavior from their perspective.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Tell-tale Heart” have in common gothic elements, unreliable narrators and portraits of mental illness.

Both stories are very gothic.  Gothic elements include things that make the story dark or spooky.  In this case, the madness adds to the gothic nature of the stories.  So does the setting.  The yellow wallpaper and the house both seem spooky.  They make the reader uneasy.  Mentions of the vulture eye and the woman trapped in the wall are gothic and disturbing.

Each story has an unreliable narrator.  An unreliable narrator is one who cannot accurately describe the events of the story due to madness or youth.  In this case, madness prevents either narrator from describing what is happening in a realistic way.  Instead, all of their observations are colored by their madness and we don’t know what do believe.  Notice that neither narrator has a name.  This adds to the uneasiness and distance.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Tell-tale Heart” do both involve narrators who suffer from mental illness.  In each case, the narrators themselves don’t seem to realize it and arguably neither does anyone they interact with, until it is too late.  The old man clearly does not see any risk in the narrator in “The Tell-tale Heart,” and the narrator’s husband in “The Yellow Wallpaper” does not seem to realize how far she’s gone until he sees her crawling the walls and faints.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both stories are told in the first person, through the eyes of a mentally ill narrator who is unaware of the extent of his or her illness—though aware that others think he or she is ill. Both stories focus on describing interior or psychological states rather than objective reality, giving the reader a glimpse of what the world might look like to a person who is mentally ill. 

In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator becomes fixated on the eye of the old man he cares for and with what he believes is the sound of his beating heart. He feels he has to shut the man's eye and stop his heartbeat no matter what, so he murders him. Likewise, the narrator in Gilman's story is fixated on the yellow wallpaper in her room. She believes it looks like eyes staring at her in places and that a woman crawls in the pattern. She tries to tear all the paper off the wall. 

In both stories, the narrators create narratives to explain their situations that appear quite reasonable to them but reveal to the reader the depth of their irrationality. 

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The Yellow Wallpaper

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