“The Yellow-Wallpaper,” Close Reading, and the Introductory Literature Classroom

via Ms. Magazine

“The Yellow-Wallpaper” would work well in all manners of classrooms from an American literature survey to American women writers course to a nineteenth-century American literature course. I have always thought of it as a text that fit in many courses based on the subjects and themes of the course—gender roles, agency, mental illness. However, I taught it in a more general introduction to literature course and found it to be a very enlightening text for the students in terms of the aims of a course designed to be much broader in nature. In my Introduction to Literature course, we read the short story early in the semester, and it became a touchstone for how we approached literature for the rest of the term. Gilman’s text can teach us how careful, close reading is necessary to approaching texts and how we as readers create meaning in works that we read. It also makes a defense for the creative outlets that literature provides, which can curtail the “Why are we doing this?” question of many beginning students.

Since “The Yellow-Wallpaper” is widely read, I am going to assume that most of you reading this right now have read it, but if you haven’t, here is a full-text version of it. It is superb, so I would certainly recommend it if you haven’t had a chance to read it before. I will also recommend reading Susan’s S. Lanser’s “‘The Yellow-Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America” for a comprehensive and complicated reading of the text.*

“The Yellow-Wallpaper” is of the length that it can be read in one sitting and could be covered in one class period. I would recommend covering it in two, however, to highlight the contrast between what is established about the narrator at the beginning of the story and what we know and think about her at the end. You can build a bit of suspense into your class by waiting until the second class period to discuss the ending. I also like to use the second class period to revisit aspects of the story, such as the narrator’s relationship to the wallpaper and her relationship to reality.

As we move through the story, the narrator illustrates her reading process. She is intent on reading the wallpaper as closely as she can. She starts her reading by observing the wallpaper in great detail and making note of all the elements she finds within it. Her description is vivid as she highlights the intricacies of the pattern and emphasizes the color and eventually even the smell of the wallpaper. She writes, for example, that the “color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.” She pays close attention and tries to observe the wallpaper from as many angles as she can, and she doesn’t settle for her first reading. She attempts to understand the wallpaper as much as possible and interrogates it with careful consideration, as she inspects it, rips it off, and tries to see it from all sides. What the narrator is doing is being a close reader of her wallpaper.

“The Yellow-Wallpaper” art installation by Marlene Angeja

We probably don’t want to get as into our texts as our narrator gets into her wallpaper, but the careful examination that she displays can help the class discuss the importance of thorough reading. It is not necessarily obvious that the narrator is reading the wallpaper, so in order to get my students to discuss her relationship to the wallpaper in terms of reading, I will have them make a list on the board of all of the things that the narrator does to the wallpaper—she observes it, she tears it, she smells it, etc. Then, I will ask her how she is approaching the paper. They will say that she is treating it like an object and studying it. If they don’t make the connection to explicitly to reading, I introduce the idea and ask what we can learn from the narrator as she reads the paper. One of the most important aspects of her reading that I want my students to note is that she continually stops to reassess the wallpaper. She never determines that she has a complete picture of it. Rather she is willing to consider and reconsider both the wallpaper and her stance on it. She does this by taking note of the pattern and trying to figure the pattern out. She approaches her text carefully and returns to it over and over again.

Nineteenth-century illustration from
Nineteenth-century illustration from “The Yellow-Wallpaper”

At this point, you might be thinking about whether the narrator should be upheld as a figure to model your approach to reading on. After all, isn’t she crazy? I try to disarm my students of the word “crazy,” as soon as it comes up, and it does come up here and in many other texts. Once someone or something is labelled crazy, students can shut down any conversation about it. They don’t have to engage with a character who is “crazy.” When crazy comes up, I introduce the term unreliable narrator. I define the term and write it on the board for the students to write in their notebooks. When the students understand the term, they are less likely to dismiss the narrator and more likely to be open to the text.

If the term “unreliable narrator” comes up towards the end of a discussion of “The Yellow-Wallpaper,” it can often be fruitful to go back through the text and see where the narrator was potentially filling us in on only part of the story. For example, she says that the paper is ripped very early on in the text without noting that she is probably the one who ripped it, and she notes that the bed has been gnawed on without saying that she is the one who chewed on it. This is a further lesson in close reading. If you find out something at the end of the text, you need to reevaluate the rest of your reading of the work. Texts are not linear, and you have to circle back to them in order to make meaning.

Highlighting the narrator’s unreliability can then be used as a transition into a discussion of her desire to have a creative outlet. In the beginning of the text, we are told that the narrator wants to write. She says that she has been kept from doing so by her husband and other family members. The narrator writes, “Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.” The narrator makes a case right off the bat for her need for not only intellectual activity but also intellectual activity in the form of a creative endeavor. Over the course of the text, it becomes clear that the lack of stimulation is adversely affecting the narrator. She needs to write in order to be a healthy version of herself.

For a general education audience who often wants to know why we are doing this (this being reading and studying literature) the answer is in the text. I asked my students if everyone needs to have a creative outlet in their lives. They answered with a resounding yes. We examine the creative acts of the narrator and also other creative outlets they might have in their own lives, from painting to working on cars. We discuss reading and studying of literature as a way to acknowledge, think about, and explore creativity. Reading allows us to connect with other people’s points of views and explore their art. Our narrator has left her journal for us, for we will take the time with her story and understand her perspective in a way that no one in her life would.

*I think many of her ideas about Gilman’s own views and the place of the “The Yellow-Wallpaper” in feminist theory would be very exciting to discuss in an upper-level undergrad or grad course. My students and I touch on ideas of race and class, but I would love to hear from anyone who has made similar issues a central theme of their classroom exploration of “The Yellow-Wallpaper.”


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