Gothic literature is often defined by a combination of romanticism and the macabre; conflating the feelings of darkness, isolation and ostentatiousness are part and parcel of what makes that genre so compelling. Female Gothic stories focus those elements particularly on the plight of women, who suffered through an especially systemic submission and oppression during the 18th and 19th centuries. Women in Female Gothic stories are often isolated, set apart from other people, and constantly have their desires, needs and fears downplayed or dismissed by their male counterparts. This leads to a tremendous level of anxiety and tension within them, as a direct result of the unfortunate circumstances in which they find themselves. In the case of the titular character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (during the “madwoman in an attic” scene in Chapter 26), as well as the unnamed narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Female Gothic elements abound through the various physical, emotional and psychological prisons the characters are placed in.
The loss of identity is another element shared in both these stories, particularly as a result of the treatment of the female gender. In Jane Eyre, women are treated as a means to an end – primarily of marriage, but also of prestige. Women’s primary goal is to find the love of a man, and Mr. Rochester is the subject of a lot of this desire in the book. In Chapter 26, Rochester reveals the presence of Bertha, the first wife he took, who went insane and has been locked up in the attic for ages. The reveal of Bertha demonstrates the endgame of Victorian society as dictated by Gothic literature – a stifling society whose processes and machinations leave you to turn from human to animal:
“In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face” (Bronte 178).
Bertha presents herself as an omen of what Jane is to become if she marries Rochester, or otherwise succumbs to the patriarchal nature of Victorian society – Chapter 26 sees her look in a mirror, only to realize it looked “so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger” (Bronte 175). Already the process of dehumanization has started for Jane, as marriage is the ultimate status a woman can achieve in this society.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the world of women is even more simply dismissed. The narrator, being a woman with what presumably would be postpartum depression, is locked up for a rest cure – a common Victorian medical method that was usually applied to women under the assumption that women needed a respite for their delicate sensibilities. Gilman herself wrote, in “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” that she “suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia – and beyond” (Gilman, 1913). This led her to experience a rest cure, and thus wrote this short story to relay its horrors to her readers.
The husbands and love interests of these women benefit from the privilege that their worlds give them. In Jane Eyre, Rochester’s desire to hide away Bertha as a result of her instability echoes the desire for women’s emotions and feelings to be invisible; he even feels it acceptable to court and marry Jane without ever telling her or anyone else. In the film version, Ciaran Hinds plays Rochester with a fierce protectiveness and coldness, lending itself to a reading of him as a selfish and guilty person; his Rochester understands the unfairness of his actions, but society does not make him change it at all.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the husband is clearly shown to be a dispassionate bore who simply wants to hide away his wife so he does not have to deal with her. He uses medicine as a mask to hide his contempt for his wife, claiming that he knows what is best: “Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear, and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time” (Gilman 3). He dismisses her complaints, and asks not to “talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (Gilman 9).This rest cure leads her to start losing her identity and agency, which culminates in the narrator successfully attacking her husband, exclaiming, “I’ve got out at lastin spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman 36). At this point, she no longer can differentiate between herself and the woman in the wallpaper, just as Jane sees much of herself and her future with Rochester in the mad Bertha. Both of these figures are the end result of the oppressive and stifling nature of Victorian marriage, criticizing the practice as patriarchal and unhealthy.
The supernatural and macabre is one particularly unifying element of Gothic literature, which is found in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Jane Eyre alike. This is represented by the presence of Bertha in Jane Eyre, the beast-like woman who attempts to attack Rochester as soon as she is revealed, and in the madness and psychosis of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In many ways, both Bertha and the narrator (and Jane to an extent) are very much alike – hidden away by husbands who do not understand nor care to understand them, these figures end up becoming insane because of their confinement. Their worldview and presence lends a grotesque element to the atmosphere of these stories, which in Female Gothic literature extends to the warped world that men have forced them into.
Both madwomen in these stories try to escape; Rochester exclaims that Bertha’s murder attempt is “the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know” (Bronte 179). The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” suffers the same fate, being trapped by herself in a tiny room, to the point where she starts to see things in the wallpaper – the light changing makes her wallpaper look like bars, which is another significant symbol for her feeling of imprisonment and isolation. While these creepy elements of the works are not overtly supernatural, they are uncanny enough to unsettle the reader, a perfect way to express the anxieties of Victorian women in the face of such repressive circumstances.
The central elements of Gothic literature are present in abundance in Chapter 26 of Jane Eyre and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” solidifying their opposition to female submission and subjugation in the Victorian era. Women in these works are given little agency, left to be scared by ghost stories, their own imagination, and the impending psychosis of isolation. Both the unnamed narrator of Gilman’s story and the “madwoman in the attic” are let down by society, hidden away until they become completely insane, due to a fundamental misunderstanding and distrust of the female condition. The contribution of foreboding environments and isolation lead to a loss of identity (which is akin to the overall female experience during this time), and is something that Bronte and Gilman express through their literature.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Smith, Elder and Company, 1847. Print.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The yellow wallpaper. 1st ed. New York: Feminist Press, 1973.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper'?” The Forerunner (Oct.
Young, Robert (dir.). Jane Eyre. Perf. Ciaran Hinds, Samantha Morton. 1997.