What's a good critical approach to "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

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One angle to take in an assignment asking you to evaluate "The Yellow Wallpaper" is to approach it through a lens of feminist criticism. In such an essay, you might wish to consider the emotional, societal, and psychological oppression of the narrator.

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"The Yellow Wallpaper" lends itself to many different analyses, and so it can have more than one critical approach. One significant critical approach is the Psychoanalytic, which would examine how the unnamed narrator's mental instability leads to her eventual fate. It is heavily implied that any existing mental conditions in the narrator are exacerbated by forced seclusion, and she enters an imaginary world because she can no longer accept the real world.

"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!"
(Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper," csi.cuny.edu)

Her movement from being "herself" to the "other" that escapes from behind the yellow wallpaper is not explicitly included in the text, but is implied by a transition: her need to remove the wallpaper and help the "creeping woman" escape becomes her desire to "creep" around the room without constraint. The implication is that she felt herself trapped not physically but mentally; her husband believed that creative stimulation would make her more ill, but in fact the removal of stimulation caused her to create a mental world instead of accepting the real world. The "other" that she seems to inhabit at the end could be a manifestation of the Id, the unconscious part of the mind that desires to shake off the Ego and Superego; if her Id escaped its mental confines, it could easily cause her Ego to believe that it too had escaped, even though she ties herself to the room, thus wilfully confining herself even more.

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How could I apply literary criticism to "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

There are so many angles you could take to approach an assignment which asks you to investigate some angle of literary criticism in "The Yellow Wallpaper." At its core, literary criticism is simply a means for evaluating or interpreting the piece of literature. Since each reader brings different personal experiences to the reading experience, that interpretation will vary from reader to reader.

One way that you could approach this topic is by examining the story through a feminist lens. This means that the story is in some ways an examination of the way the narrator is oppressed emotionally, societally, and psychologically. In fact, you could build a thesis that looks at those three topics specifically. Such a question might look like this:

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is an examination of the narrator's emotional, societal, and psychological oppression, which reflects the values of the author's historical context.

(Indeed, it is worth noting that the story is widely believed to be greatly based on the author's own experience, which could be another angle you could take in interpreting this piece of literature.)

For each of those three categories in your thesis, you could then look for evidence to support the claim in your story. Here are some examples:

Emotional oppression: Although the narrator tells her husband how she feels, she is dismissed. He tells her that "there is really nothing the
matter with [her] but temporary nervous depression." He then continues with his own plans of "treatment" for her.

Societal oppression: The narrator longs for company and socialization, even watching out her window for the people who walk outside. Yet she is kept in isolation as part of her "cure."

Psychological oppression: The narrator's isolation, coupled with the way the men in her life fail to listen to her needs, eventually creates a psychotic break. She writes,

I don't know why I should write this.
I don't want to.
I don't feel able.
And I know John would think it absurd. But I must say what I feel and think in some way—it is such a relief!

The narrator begins withdrawing completely into herself because she is not allowed to voice her real concerns. Thus, she begins to imagine an alternate world inside her room and struggles to free the woman trapped in her wallpaper. The woman in the paper can be seen as the woman trapped within herself.

As you look through these examples, I think you'll be able to find more of your own. Good luck!

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How can I critically analyze "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

The first thing one needs to know about creating a critical analysis is the particular aspects a critical analysis examines and details.

The purpose of a critical analysis is where a reader interprets a text in regards to both its direct message and its underlying message. Basically, a critical analysis is based upon the literary theory of Reader-Response.

One good place to start any critical analysis is the title of the text. Here, you would be examining the title "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (based upon your question posed). By examining the title, one can make assumptions about what is going to happen in the story, the implications made by the author according to the title, and the importance of the image of the object or idea presented in the title.

Next, one should begin the first reading of the text. Be sure to look up any words with which you are not familiar. Skipping over an unfamiliar word can be detrimental to any text and the understanding of the text.

Next, you will need to ask certain questions of the text and your understanding of it. Important questions to ask of a text are:

1. What is the setting? Does it add to the text? Is it important?

2. Who are the main characters? Who are they in regards to characteristics? Do they change over the course of the text? If so, what causes the change?

3. What are the conflicts presented in the text? Are the conflicts internal, external, or both? What comes from the conflict resolution? What happens as a result of there being no conflict resolution?

4. What is the point-of-view? Who is the narrator? Does the narrator's voice illustrate the story properly? Could a different narration be needed?

After posing the questions, reread the text. Look for the answers to the questions posed and analyze the text through these specific filters/lenses.

After, you need to be able to do the following:

1. Summarize the author's intent.

2. State the theme of the text.

3. Justify symbolism or imagery per your interpretation.

In the end, if you find (for example) that the yellow wallpaper symbolizes the physical and mental prison the speaker feels she is in, your job is to support your findings with textual evidence from the text. Be careful not to retell the story--this is not the purpose of a critical analysis. Instead, you are looking to prove and justify your reading of the text and your understanding of themes, symbols, and meaning.

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How would one start a literary analysis of "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

Before you start a literary analysis, a good first step is to determine what you think the author is trying to say in the piece. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” what is the message Gilman wants to give her readers? What is she saying about women, men, and their relationship with each other?

When you have your central idea, the next step is to determine how the Gilman accomplishes this. What elements does she use to arrive at her conclusion? How does the main character’s madness develop? What effect does this have on her relationship with her husband? What does this mean for Gilman’s views on the relationships between men and women?

Finally, what happens at the end of the story? Is there any symbolism you can identify here? What is the symbolism of things like the yellow wallpaper and the room in which the main character ends up spending all her time?

In this way, you can use elements like symbolism, character development, and social commentary as a starting point for your discussion of this story.


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