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The human psyche is a very complex, intricate thing. Why does one person act one way, while another acts completely differently? I have read three stories that have given me insight on this subject. They are "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "A Worn Path" by Eudora Welty, and Mulatto by Langston Hughes. In each of these stories, the main character exhibits a peculiar personality trait, but each stems from a different experience.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" is a story of a married woman, Jane, who suffers from a debilitating nervous condition. This story is based on a cure for the disease, called the "rest cure." Dr. S. Weir Mitchell developed this treatment which required confining the patient to a hotel, hospital, or a residence that was isolated from much human contact, such as the one described in the story. The patient was to have complete bed rest, a drastic change in diet, and sometimes even electric shock therapy. Charlotte Perkins Gilman had experienced this treatment in her own life, so she had first-hand knowledge of what she was writing about in this story (Gilman 491).
The setting of this story is a room in a house in which Jane lives for a summer with her husband John, who is a physician. The room is large, almost the size of the entire floor. She is on medication, "phosphates or phosphites-- whichever it is," for her condition, and she has been forbidden to work (Gilman 491). Unfortunately, she was also not allowed to write, which was a deprivation of the only outlet she had. Therefore, on most days, she spent her time in that room with nothing to do except look at the four walls. In the beginning of the story we can sense that maybe she is a little crazy. She describes the house as if it is a castle. Then she says that "there is something strange about the house-- I can feel it" (Gilman 492). Next, we learn of the intriguing yellow wallpaper.
The wallpaper, at first, is her nemesis. She begs John to repaper the room; it scares her. "The paper looks to her as if it knew what a vicious influence it had" (Gilman 494). In her perception, the paper has eyes and exerts some sort of power over her.
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"Shades of Madness and Insanity in Yellow Wallpaper, A Worn Path, and Mulatto." 123HelpMe.com. 19 Nov 2019
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One night, she has an interesting revelation: The front pattern of the paper moves, and that is because the woman behind the pattern shakes it! (Gilman 499) She sees a woman behind the bar-like pattern in the paper. She can see her creeping about in the garden by day, and shaking the paper pattern, trying to get out by night. Eventually, the imprisoned woman escapes, and the story keeps twisting and turning until we realize that Jane believes that she herself is the woman who came out from behind the paper. As the conclusion of the story, the situation is certainly unexpected and quite peculiar. What could possibly have caused her to behave that way?
There are two possible causes of Jane's bizarre behavior. One reason could have been her nervous condition, which was mentioned at the outset. She had a very real ailment that was recognized by physicians, such as S. Weir Mitchell (Gilman 491). Especially in the 1800s, when this short story was written, little was known about the human mind. Different psychological problems can cause people to become delusional and insane. Therefore, it is conceivable that her condition could have caused her absurd behavior.
Another cause could be her environment. She lived in a room that was a prison, with bars on the windows and a nailed-down bedstead (MacPike 287). She was treated like a child by her physician husband who confined her to a room that had been a nursery (MacPike 287). She had virtually no human contact, certainly none on an intellectual level, and had nothing with which to occupy her mind except her friend, the woman behind the yellow wallpaper. More than likely, it is a combination of these two reasons, her psychological condition and her environment, that cause her to go insane.
In Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," we read of another woman, Phoenix Jackson, who also suffers from delusions. However, hers are of a different nature than the woman's in "The Yellow Wallpaper." The body of the story is a description of her trek down a worn, or repeatedly traveled, path through the woods. At the end, when she reaches her destination, through dialog between herself and a nurse, the reason for Phoenix' expedition is given. When she got into "the big building," evidently a medical facility, the nurse gave her soothing medicine for her grandson who had swallowed lye (Welty 117). Phoenix' objective in traveling was to pick up medicine for her grandson.
However, the nurse asks Phoenix an intriguing question, and Phoenix' reply is no less fascinating. The nurse acknowledges that Phoenix' grandson did, in fact, swallow lye, but asks, "When was it--January--two, three years ago?" Phoenix responds with, "No missy, he not dead, he just the same." This leads us to believe that perhaps Phoenix' grandson really is dead. Both an attendant and the nurse mention briefly that the case is "a charity case" (Welty 116). This implies that they know that Phoenix' grandson is dead, but she just keeps coming into town to get the medicine for him, so they humor her and give her the medicine.
Again, this is interesting behavior. A conceivable reason for her delusion could be the effect that his death had on her. Perhaps he had been entrusted to her care at the time that he swallowed lye, and she feels so guilty about it that she has blocked out the horrific truth that he is dead. Death is such a traumatic thing to deal with, especially when someone you love dies, that the effects can be disastrous. That could explain why Phoenix did not stop making the trip into town to get the medicine for her grandson, even after he had died.
The setting of a third story, Mulatto, by Langston Hughes, is a plantation in Georgia during the time of intense prejudice between blacks and whites. Cora Lewis, the main character, is a black woman who has been living on the plantation for most of her life. Colonel Tom Norwood is the white man who owns the plantation. Tom's wife died early on, so Cora became his mistress and mothered five children of his.
The children were all mulatto, a mixture of black and white. Robert, one of their sons, was a light-colored boy with features similar to his father's, so he could have passed for white. He was not proud of his Negro heritage, and tried to act like a white man. That behavior was not allowed during that time, so he found himself involved in a lot of trouble for that reason. The climax of the play was when Robert came through the front door of the house, which was forbidden to him. This caused a confrontation between him and his father to the point where Robert actually killed his father with his bare hands. Since the townspeople found out about the murder and barbarically chased Robert with the intent to kill him, Robert took his own life.
Cora watched these ghastly events transpire. She tried so hard to prevent these inevitable deaths. "But you--Robert, be awful, awful careful!" she says to warn him of the Colonel's reaction when Robert tries to act like a white man (Hughes 1451). She also tried to talk reason into Colonel Tom so he would treat Robert more like his son. Unfortunately, her efforts were to no avail, and she had to watch first her "owner," lover, and father of her children be killed by their son, and then she had to hear her son commit suicide by shooting himself. It was a double dose of tragedy for her.
At the end of the play, Cora is left in the room alone with the recently murdered Colonel Tom while the mob goes to try to kill Robert. She finds herself talking to Tom. "Colonel Tom, you hear me? Our boy out there runnin'. . . Why don't you get up and stop 'em? He's your boy. . . I calls you to help me now and you just lays there" (Hughes 1456). She is imagining that Colonel Tom is still alive and she is having a conversation with him. Twice later on in the play, she does the same thing. She relates events that had happened a long time ago, when she first met Tom. She tells him how much she resents him for how he took advantage of her and how he treated their children.
That she is talking to a dead person as if he were alive shows that she is suffering from the shock of watching someone so important to her die right in front of her eyes. It is an extremely traumatic thing to have to deal with, especially since she knew that either the mob would catch up with her son, or else he would end up taking his own life. For Cora to accept the fact that Colonel Tom is dead and stop talking to him would be far too much to digest in one night. She imagines that he is still alive and converses with him because she cannot handle the trauma of his death.
These three stories helped me to see that people, however crazy they may seem to be, usually have a reason for acting the way they do. My grandfather had schizophrenia, and he was delusional, similar to the way Jane was in "The Yellow Wallpaper." These stories helped me to better understand what could have made him act the way he did. These stories have also made me more understanding and patient with people who have certain behavior problems. Jane, Phoenix and Cora all had something in common: they were delusional, and some people would label them "nuts." However, if you really take some time to try to understand why someone is behaving the way he is, you become a more rounded person. Some people are helpless victims of illness or environment, and we have no right to fault them for that.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "The Yellow Wallpaper." Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 4th ed. Eds. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1995. 491-502.
Hughes, Langston. Mulatto. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 4th ed. Eds. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1995. 1439-63.
MacPike, Loralee. "Environment as Psychopathological Symbolism in 'The Yellow Wallpaper.'" American Literary Realism VIII (Summer, 1975). 286-8.
Welty, Eudora. "A Worn Path." Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 4th ed. Eds. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1995. 112-8.