Comparison of Two Short Stories- “The Yellow Wall Paper” v. “Death by Landscape”
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“Death by Landscape” v. “The Yellow Wallpaper””She was tired a lot, as if she was living not one life but two: her own, and another, shadowy life that hovered around her and would not let itself be realized…” (391). For many, the “shadowy life” of mental illness hinders one’s ability to be happy and whole. Mental illness and delusion has been a fascinating but devastating topic throughout human existence, and as such, has provided much interesting literature, both fictional and factual. Two stories from two completely different time periods: “The Yellow Wallpaper,” 1898, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “Death by Landscape,” 1939, by Margaret Atwood both have deep roots in humans’ infatuation with mental illness. In both stories, while having different points of origin, the protagonist’s deteriorating mental health is the main theme- in both cases it leads them to become obsessed with specific visual stimuli, which then leads them to become dreadfully dethatched from reality.
Though mental illness is a main theme in both stories, the authors chose to cover the topic differently. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” there is no real cause associated with the narrator’s depression/delusional state, or at least none talked about in the short story- it is simply present at the beginning. In “Death by Landscape,” there is a much larger focus on where the main character Lois’s mental instability stems from; at summer camp her best friend, Lucy, mysteriously disappears when the two are off in the woods. On top of the shock from this loss, other girls at the camp and even a councilor imply that Lois purposely pushed Lucy off a cliff. The traumatic experience mixed with the alienation Lois feels undoubtedly leads to her mental illness. Paranoia haunts and torments Lois to the point where she imagines people in her adult life saying, “Could she have done it? She must have done it. For the rest of her life, she… caught people watching her in this way” (390). In any case, this sense of paranoia and feeling of separation from others shared by the main characters from both stories causes much greater problems down the line.
As the result of their mental illness, both protagonists become visually obsessed with a certain object- this key plot element offers the audience the opportunity to truly understand the illogical, delusional side of both persons without the author simply describing their instabilities. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as the title implies, the narrator becomes obsessed with a wall paper found in the bedroom of her new home. Over time, the narrator becomes increasingly occupied with examining its intricate design. She even says, “I lie here on this great immovable bed…and follow that pattern about by the hour,” in the journal she secretly keeps (82). She even begins to believe that the pattern moves at night, and begins to become nocturnal simply to inspect it after dark. After months of this restless examination, she comes to the point where she dislikes anyone else examining the paper- even her husband. When writing in her journal, she claims, “I have found out another funny thing [about the paper], but I shan’t tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much” (89). She acquires a sense of ownership over the paper, yet any outside observer can clearly see it is the paper that is “owning” her.
Similarly, in the story, “Death by Landscape” the protagonist Lois becomes obsessed not with the walls of her home, but with the paintings of landscapes that hang on them. She too avoids going out and interacting with others, only to sit in her living room and stare into her paintings. “The boys say she doesn’t get out enough. But she isn’t hungry, and moving, stirring from this place, is increasingly an effort” (390). This isolationist habit formed by both souls does not sit well in either of their minds, for after a period of seclusion they both end up going off the deep end.
Both stories essentially have the same climax- there comes a point when the audience finally realizes the true extent of insanity within the characters. Before this point unfolds, maybe the protagonists were perceived as just maybe being “a little off,” or “weird,” but afterwards, they are undoubtedly loonies in any reader’s mind. This point occurs in “The Yellow Wallpaper” when the narrator reaches the conclusion that the pattern has two depths: An empty depth on a farther plane in which a woman lives, and an intricate frontal plane with pattern used like the bars of a jail cell to keep this woman caged. She states her delusion in her journal; “I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, the dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman.
By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling, it keeps me quiet by the hour” (86). Obviously, wall paper is one dimensional, so it is quite impossible for it to move, much less for a woman to live inside of it. These ideas are taken one step further when the narrator actually begins to believe that she is the woman being trapped in the wall paper. Her paranoia leads her to believe her husband and maid want to trap her inside the wall paper- all leading up the final scene in which the narrator rips the paper off the wall and exclaims, “‘I’ve gotten out at last…in spite of [my husband] and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so [they] can’t put me back!'”(92).
While less dramatic than “The Yellow Wallpaper,” this point of madness occurs in “Death by Landscape” when the narrator reveals Lois’s true reason for starting into the paintings: “she looks into [the paintings]. Every one of them is a picture of Lucy. You can’t see her exactly, but she’s there, in behind the pink stone island or the one behind that. In the picture of the cliff she is hidden by the clutch of fallen rocks towards the bottom… Everyone has to be somewhere, and this is where Lucy is… In Lois’s apartment, in the holes that open inwards on the wall…” (392). Lois is logically unable to accept the reality that Lucy was never found.
Therefore, she creates the delusional concept of her being inside the paintings, like they are windows to another world. She even imagines that she hears Lucy calling every once in a while: “She was always listening for another voice, the voice of a person who should have been there but was not. An echo. While Rob was alive, while the boys were growing up, she could pretend she didn’t hear it, this empty space in the sound. But now there is nothing much left to distract her” (391). A logical person could clearly infer that Lucy, although a body was never found, died in those woods, but because of Lois’s emotional attachment and traumatic experiences in the aftermath of her disappearance, has circumnavigated reality to retain hope and disregard the grieving of loss.
The similarities between these two stories are undeniable. Both characters experience the obsessive, isolationist compulsions of depression and mental disorder, just as many people still do today roughly a century later. Although we continue to research cures and treatments for these ailments, people of the twenty-first century continue to suffer from the same plagues that infected the minds of people throughout the history of human existence. As the fascination with and distress caused by mental illness extends into the past, it is safe to assume it’s grip on literature will extend into the future as long as people still suffer.