The First Person

The Yellow Wall-paper by Charlotte Perkins Stetson is a Gothic short story about a woman who is taken to a remote house by her husband. She is suffering from what seems like a mild mental illness, (a baby is mentioned so it is perhaps post-natal depression) at the beginning of the story the narrator is neurotic but still fairly clear-headed. The narrative describes her isolation and the deterioration of her mind. The room she is locked in is almost empty, and the only thing to stimulate her mind is the pattern on the wall-paper (hence the title).

I found the story very frightening, because it highlights how, in living memory we had such a appallingly small understanding of mental health. The narrator’s husband-physician is incredibly patronising towards her, even allowing for the fact that she is unwell and possibly a little younger than him. I sometimes get the impression that in the Victorian era you were either ‘mad’ or’ sane’. And once you were classified as ‘mad’ your family and doctors could do whatever they felt best with you. In actual fact the human mind is a very complex thing and there are all sorts of shades of grey between sanity and madness. I read some research a few years ago by Simon Baron-Cohen, into the nature of Autism. He suggests that different people’s minds process in different ways, and that the mental illness we call ‘Autism’, is a more extreme version of the ‘male’ or ‘systematising’ brain. As long as a person does no harm to them self or others why not just accept them for how they are?

There was an asylum near to where I grew up (back in the day when they still had asylums), where the patients were allowed to wander around the town, and walk along the seafront. None of them were dangerous, and they had enough presence of mind to navigate the small town. It was a pretty and safe neighbourhood, so I suspect the freedom and mental stimulation was very therapeutic for them. Even if the condition is incurable, surely it’s important to give these patients as much comfort and enjoyment as we can.

C P Stetson suggests in The Yellow Wall-paper that the boredom and isolation turn the mild mental illness into full-blown psychosis. The story is told in the first person, and uses the motif of the ‘unreliable narrator’. The story may have an autobiographical tilt, which makes it all the more chilling.

Bret Easton Ellis uses a similar device in American Psycho. (Please don’t read this if you’re squeamish, it’s good but really disturbing, the clue is in the title.) The story is told in the first person by the protagonist, initially he is neurotic and obsessive but able to hold down a job and function in society. He becomes increasingly unhinged throughout the novel. His deranged state of mind is brought about by his heavy use of prescription and non-prescription drugs. I like that his psychosis is somewhat self-induced in this way, unlike the heroine of The Yellow Wall-paper, who is essentially a prisoner. American Psycho and The Yellow Wall-paper are written in the present tense, this is fairly unusual in fiction, but it works really well.

Very often novels and short stories are narrated by some sort of observer, this can give a good all-round perspective on the events in the story, but it can be more exciting to be inside the mind of the character, even if we don’t entirely understand everything which is going on. This device is particularly pertinent for stories about the battle between madness and sanity.

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3 thoughts on “The First Person

  1. I just bought The Yellow Wallpaper. So need to read it now, your description makes it sound awesome. Love the style, that it’s written in first person too. It’s pretty short, so luckily I’ll manage it sometime soon – my reading is all over the place these days!

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