I would like to know what are the Late Victorian Features that you can see in "The Yellow Wallpaper."  In particular, discuss these ideas related to the women characters, the plot and the themes....

I would like to know what are the Late Victorian Features that you can see in "The Yellow Wallpaper."  In particular, discuss these ideas related to the women characters, the plot and the themes.  What are the differences between Victorian Literature and Late Victorian Literature. Why does this happen?

Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The difference between Victorian and Late Victorian literature seems to center on an idea that Mathew Arnold put forth in 1865.  Arnold wrote that "The Modern spirit is now awake."  With the publication and absorption of Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, it became evident that the theory of evolution and what would end up becoming Modernism was applicable to all aspects of consciousness. Darwin's ideas become part of the reason why this shift in thinking happens.  Arnold's words reflected some of the primary differences between Victorian literature and late Victorian literature.  The former focused on a sense of order and structure that was believed to be critical to human definition.  With the full immersion of social orders into Industrialization and the establishment of a middle class with aspirations of upward mobility, it became evident that Victorianism reflected a faith in order and a belief in conventional structure.  The strict code of social conduct and acceptance of what is becomes some of the basic ideas behind Victorianism.  Late Victorianism moved away from this, emphasizing how evolution and the undertones of Modernism "awoke" in the way human beings interacted with one another.  When Arnold speaks of a "spirit being awake," it is clear that the understanding of late Victorian elements sought to explore the true motivating force that exists beyond the veneer of social acceptance and the belief in structured order.

In this light, Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" explores elements of both Victorianism and Late Victorian thought.  On one hand, the narrator herself is introduced as an embodiment of Victorian thought. She does not even have a name, accepting her condition as the dutiful wife.  In the opening lines of the story, the narrator accepts the institution of marriage and her role within it. When John laughs at her ideas, she simply says that "one expects that in marriage."  There is a reverence and sense of understanding within the order that governs the way marriage constructs the relationships between husband and wife.  Another Victorian element is the faith in doctors.  The narrator is open about how her husband is a doctor and this cannot be questioned, in terms of his diagnosis of her as simply needing "rest" and that her troubles are a reflection of her "nerves."  The life that the narrator and her husband lead are ones where there is structured order, reflected in how they come to view where they live: "The most beautiful place! It is quite alone standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people."    When the narrator is told not to write and to only rest, she shows a hesitancy to defying her husband:  "There comes John, and I must put this away,--he hates to have me write a word."  Women are subservient to men, the structure of being in the world.  The narrator and her sister in law both defer to John, who is initially shown to represent the condition of structured order in the world.

In the story's development, one can see the story's late Victorian elements. Underlying this veneer of reason and order is the growing sense of insight and understanding that separates the narrator from the ordered world.  As the narrator becomes more fixated on the wallpaper, her faith in the ordered structure of the world becomes increasingly absent.  In this idea, Darwinian understanding of how organisms adapt and change to their environment, not in accordance to order or structure but to biological reality, emerges:

        I really have discovered something at last.
        Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out.  The front pattern does move--and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!  Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.  Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.

The ending where the narrator savagely destroys the wallpaper and dances over the fainted body of her husband is a condition where there is not a sense of control or order.  It is the uncomfortable condition of being in the world, of reality, and of life, itself.  The veneer of acceptable order has been thrown off by the end of the novel.  John, himself the structure of order, can do nothing but faint at what he sees.  The narrator, once the ideal wife, has become more real and reflective of a world where structure gives way to adaptation and response to one's environment.  It is here where the short story's pivot from Victorian to Late Victorian elements is most evident.

Read the study guide:
The Yellow Wallpaper

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question