Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Raven" is one of literature's most well-known stories, depicting the slow deterioration of the protagonist's mental state at the hands of a talking raven. Mourning over the loss of his lady love, his depression grows more gradually into madness, as the persistent isolation and the repetition of the raven's call "Nevermore" distress him even further. There are many similarities to this story and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which a timid housewife is prescribed a rest cure by her physician husband, involving her sequestering herself away from the rest of the world. As this occurs, and she keeps herself in the bedroom of her summer vacation home, she begins to hallucinate as a result of both the abuses her husband perpetrates against her and the crippling inactivity to which she has been prescribed. Her increasing desire for freedom, as well as distrust and disappointment with her uncaring, unfeeling husband, leads her into complete madness. The protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” experiences tremendous psychotic episodes, tormented by figures not unlike the protagonist of "The Raven" sees. Both stories portray themes of madness and isolation, as their main characters succumb to the lack of human contact by envisioning animals and inanimate objects communicating with them.
The sense of isolation that the protagonists feel is not unlike Faucaultian Panopticism, according to Bak (1994). Foucault came up with the idea of the Panopticon, a circular structure that would provide maximum visibility and a completely lack of privacy, as well as the ability for covert observation without the patient or student knowing about it. In this theory, Bak claims that the narrator of the piece “supports Foucault’s contention that the individual is more ill-served by the surveillance of the Panopticon than by the unhealthy or unappealing environment of the prison or mental ward he or she would have typically encountered” (1994). Unlike placing her in a mental ward, the narrator (like Gilman) was placed in a panopticon-like environment, where she was being observed and noticed, rather than simply hidden away. Over time, much of this surveillance took place merely in the protagonist’s head, through the “two bulbous eyes” and the “faceless gaze” that she regularly sees in the yellow wallpaper (Gilman, p. 214). This merely leads to her madness and paranoia, and does not help her already agitated situation.
Isolation is also a big theme in "The Raven" - the narrator is by himself in his large house, attempting to read to get over his love, Lenore, dying. Instead of the girl's small room to which she is isolated, the madness in Poe's work comes from the primary character being trapped in this large house, with no one else to fill it. The absence of Lenore makes the home seem emptier, leading the narrator to bury himself in his books. With no one else to reassure him, the continual knocking at his chamber door begins at first to bother him, then agitate him (Hoffman, 1972). The house itself becomes its own Panopticon, though The Raven's narrator stays there for a different reason. Both characters are trapped in their respective locations; one is trapped physically by her husband 'for her own good,' another is emotionally trapped by grief. He cannot stand exiting the house and facing the rest of the world, not without Lenore.
The primary antagonist of the main character in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the husband himself, John. He is a doctor, and a 19th century one at that – at the time, mental illness was not very well known of or talked about, and therefore many of the remedies that were prescribed to those suffering from these maladies were anything but helpful. The concept of a ‘rest cure’ is particularly bizarre, as it implies that the outside world itself is what needs to be stopped, not the protagonist’s potential sadness (which may or may not be postpartum depression) (Parrishco, 2008).
Despite the wife's protests as to the effectiveness of (or desire for) the resting cure, John persists, stating that he knows what is best for her. “Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear, and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time” (Gilman, p. 3). This is one of his many relatively crackpot and holistic theories as to how the protagonist can get better again. However, all this serves to do is bring her further away from everything that still keeps her sane, like her art and painting.
The raven serves as the antagonist of "The Raven," continually haunting the narrator, reminding him of what he has lost. No matter how much he tries to escape it, the raven continually pursues him, and he it. Instead of doing what he could to heal himself and move on from Lenore's death, the narrator simply buries himself in his reading; the raven forces him to confront the anxiety he feels because of his loneliness. While the antagonist of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is merely a cruel man who does not understand the harm he is doing to his wife, the raven acts as the narrator's conscience, as well as his fears that he will never be happy again.
As the story goes on, the madness and despair get worse for both characters. The wife of "The Yellow Wallpaper" starts to hallucinate that the wallpaper is watching her, and she wishes to figure it out like a puzzle. All this is evidence of the hallucinations she is experiencing, as well as her further disconnect from reality as a result of the rest cure and her inattentive husband. Feeling separated from this cruel world by terrible circumstances, the protagonist begins to form her very own narrative about what she is seeing. Part of this narrative involves increasable creative leaps, including seeing a woman in the wallpaper – one who is trapped and in need of help. This reflects the protagonist’s own desire to be saved from her own boredom and restrictions. She even laments this potential problem, only to shoot it down with her husband’s own faulty logic: “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus – but Jon says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad” (Gilman, p. 3).
Eventually, the narrator of "The Raven" begins to pay more attention to the raven; he sits down in front of it and asks it questions. At first amused, an attempt to gain psychological distance between him and the raven, he begins to get more and more distraught. The raven answers every question with "Nevermore," something which continually distresses the narrator, as he asks questions about his future, about the possibility of being left alone or of joining Lenore in Heaven. While he recognizes that the raven will only give him this answer, he still asks these questions, so that he can punish himself. In the end, he manages to work himself into a state of incredible despair. It can be interpreted that the narrator did this on purpose; he wished to feel the pain of loss more sharply out of grief, and so he made the raven shoot down all of his hopes and dreams with "Nevermore" (Hoffman, p. 74). The moment in which he starts to feel the presence of angels is similar to the girl of "The Yellow Wallpaper" beginning to experience the walls and figures moving within the wallpaper - both are instances of the characters succumbing to their madness and obsession.
Perhaps the most gratifying (yet disturbing) moment for the protagonist in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is when she finally succumbs to her madness, falling victim to the patriarchal and homeopathic solution that her husband laid out for her. She writes, “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!” (p. 36). At this point, she fully believes she is the woman in the wallpaper who has freed herself from her own insecurities and manages to survive. However, she can never then regain that humanity, as the Panopticon experience has left her feeling higher than consciousness; she has gone off the deep end, and does not have the appropriate skills or support system (being an isolated woman in the 19th century) to thrive, much less survive. Just like the narrator of "The Raven," she collapses into her own version of reality; in their worlds, the girl frees herself from the wallpaper, while the man believes he will never be happy again without Lenore.
In conclusion, both "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "The Raven" deal with issues of isolation and madness, as the protagonists battle their own unique demons in order to attempt to exorcise them. The narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" merely wishes to get better, but she is confused by the isolation and deprivation of the rest cure - she then starts to imagine her own persecution and her desire to free the people in the wallpaper. The narrator of "The Raven," however, goes mad out of mourning and loss; he misses the woman that he loved, and therefore simply cannot go on without her. The raven appears (whether in reality or in his mind is not truly known) to remind him of the terrible facts he simply wishes to forget. Both characters are trapped in their own personal hells, deprived of the things they want most (their art and their lover, respectively); this causes them to hallucinate their own demons, which they must escape.
Bak, John S. “Escaping the Jaundiced Eye: Foucauldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins
Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31.1 (Winter 1994): 39-46.
Crewe, Jonathan. “Queering ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’? Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the P
olitics of Form.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 14 (Fall 1995): 273-293.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper'?” The Forerunner (Oct.
Haney-Peritz, Janice. “Monumental Feminism and Literature’s Ancestral House: Another Look
at ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Women’s Studies 12 (1986): 113-128.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University