The Use of Symbolism in Yellow Wallpaper and Life in the Iron Mills

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An unreliable narrator creates multiple surprises in a story. As a reader, we tend to trust the words of the narrator but their word, at times, can be contradictory. They seem to tell lies within the story and which then shows a sense of rejection to their own evidence (or not provide evidence at all). We view unreliable narrators in stories with irony, in narrators with mental illness, and in clear statements that shows the narrator is motivated by self-interest. This type of narrator misinforms the reader causing distrust as they read along further into the story.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman expressed the method of an unreliable narrator in The Yellow Paper. In this story, the narrator provides misinformation about herself and other characters in the story. The narrator shows her unreliability right from the beginning of the story. She provides illustrated words about her home to be a “haunted house,” which makes the readers believe that she does not enjoy this house and views it in horror. However, later in the story she describes the home as “the most beautiful place.” This is very contradictory to her previous statement that her house resembled a haunted house. This lets the reader know that she lied. However, it’s hard to know when the lie occurred. Does she truly view the house in horror or does she view this house as her beautiful home? She then goes back to negatively describing the home and stated the color of walls to be “repellent.” These minor details are important to the reader's illustrative mind. How can we properly trust the narrator when her statements are contradictory? How does she truly view the home?

Gilman is obviously suffering from postpartum depression. She describes this as “temporary nervous depression.” Since she is in a state of mental illness, it's difficult to view her as a reliable narrator. She demonstrates her lack of reliability when we see her insane accusations the wallpaper has consciousness! She states “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!” This shows as if she were having hallucinations as she envisions wallpaper to have awareness of the “harm” it’s causing her.

One of the most obvious ways we see that Gilman is an unreliable narrator is by her explanation of her relationship with her husband, John. Her views on John leaves the reader with an eyebrow raised and many questions. It’s hard for the reader to understand her views on her husband. She describes John as “loving and caring,” but doesn’t have any evidence to support this. On the contrary, she describes his acts towards her that leaves the reader to believe he is anything but “loving and caring.”

We also see Edgar Allen Poe use this method of unreliable narrator in William Wilson. Wilson has a doppelganger that has the same age, looks, birthday and school experience. This is when the reader becomes suspicious of how reliable this narrator might be. He tries to convince the reader that it is all a coincidence, but It’s hard to trust the narrators’ statement that it's all a coincidence. How could someone look exactly like you, have the same name, age, birthday, school history and there not be a connection?

Wilson points out that others do not see similarities between himself and his doppelganger, which hints to the reader that there probably isn’t another William Wilson. This may all be in his head and he’s imagining it. This narrator is persistent that all his claims are true which leaves us all suspicious.This creates the reader view the narrator is unreliable because he shows the self-interest that “my doppleganger is bad and I am good.” We see this as he describes the “other” William as dark and fearful.

It’s obvious that the narrator has an inner conflict with himself. Wilson proves that he doesn’t really understand what is going on either. He deprives his doppleganger to have “true superiority” but then goes on as says that they have “equality.” The narrator makes it very difficult for the reader to view him as reliable and trustworthy when he constantly contradicts himself and makes outrageous claims.

These Minor details in a story are extremely important because as you read a story, you create pictures in your head. When the narrator contradicts their previous statements, it messes up the illustrations created in the reader's head. The story suddenly feels confusing. Thankfully, we do gain a sense of what it's like inside the mind of a person who is suffering from a type of mental illness in both stories. However, since these narrators have contradictory statements and creates distrust, it proves that they are unreliable narrators.

Regionalist and local colorist illustrate their story through words. They do this in a way in which the reader can mentally paint a picture of an entire community or area. The descriptive details they use become an essential part of the story as they create a setting in which the story will be told. Different authors have different ways of doing this. Most authors do this by describing a sense of feeling or descriptive sight. We explore these differences with the work of Jewett and as they both take different approaches in achieving regionalism and local color.

Sarah Orne Jewett uses local color in her story The Foreigner. Jewett does this by describing the setting at Dunnet Landing. She allows the readers to imagine the weather conditions at the time the story is taking place. Jewett uses words such as “dark depths,” “cold” and “rain” in order to capture the gravity of the weather and storm. We view the problem of the community with this weather as Mrs.Todd expresses the danger it causes families. The fear of “sea-going” disasters worries the community and it's a huge issue for them as it threatens their town because they have family members who were sailors. The men are hard-working as they take on the sea in dangerous conditions. This seemed to be a norm in Dunnet Landing.

The community of Dunning Landing titled Mrs. Tolland as “a stranger” Jewett constantly has to describe the national and the racial background of Mrs. Tolland. This captures the threat of homogeneity of this small community. They did not “enjoy” her differences. Since this story takes place in Jamaica and Mrs. Tolland was French-born, there were visible physical differences. We can assume that they all had a dark/black complexion and Tollard was white. This tells a lot about the culture in this community. Since everyone had such comparable similarities, Mrs. Tolland stuck out like a sore thumb. They were not used to seeing and communicating with someone of her race or national background, which made it difficult for them to accept her in their society. Therealso was also a religious conflict. Mrs. Toland's views were different from everyone else. This tells us that the culture in Dunnet Landing was very strong on their beliefs. Mrs. Todd stated that Mrs. Tolland spoke broken English, which told us they spoke fluent English for them to know her English was “broken.”

All of this tells us that heterogeneous was not common in this small community. Mrs. Tollands differences told us the story of the people in Dunnet Landing. Since her differences were so vivid, it proves that homogeneous was something they were used to and part of their culture. Jewett uses the character of Mrs.Tolland to show what the community was like.

Rebecca Harding Davis can also be identified as a Regionalist with her story Life in the Iron mills or The Korl Woman. Davis also uses descriptive words in the setting of the story. However, she doesn’t use a character’s differences to tell the about the places and people. Davis takes on a different approach as we follow the life of individuals from that community.

This story takes place in an iron mill, she describes the river to be thick and muddy. She uses this as a symbolism of the environment in the mills. This gives a sense that the environment is very humid and dirty and the negative impact this gave mill-workers. Those in the working class have to deal with these disgusting conditions. She also states that the river is tired, also symbolizing the mill-workers exhaustion and lack of energy. This provides the reader mental illustrations of what its physically like to be inside the mills and an industrialized city.

We learn a bit more about social class in this society when we are introduced to Kirby. He inherited wealth as an example of how those that are part of the higher class treat/view the working class in this time. This introduced into capitalism the story. Davis also uses “a crowd of drunken Irishmen are puffing Lynchburg tobacco in their pipes” which narrows down who exactly are the people of higher class; the white men. The use of “Lynchburg tobacco” and “pipes” lets us know that this story takes place in the 1800s and shows their wealth since they can afford it.

Davis use of symbolism allows the reader to understand the type of work culture mill-worker endured. She also uses characters to represent capitalism in society. Jewett took a different approach and uses the differences of a character to tell the story of an entire community. I believe that Jewett is more insightful and descriptive in her approach. Both of these authors allow the readers to inherit mental illitations in order to capture the culture and problems of these areas.  

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