In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the protagonist suffers from what many readers quickly identify as madness. She experiences hallucinations while shut up in the attic of her summer home. She sees patterns in the wallpaper of her room that others do not, and sometimes catches a glimpse of a figure, “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design” (Gilman). Perhaps most interesting—and perhaps unrelated to these symptoms of madness—she experiences her wallpaper’s yellow color synesthetically in terms of smell. She describes it as “Such a peculiar odor, too…The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell” (Gilman).This leads me to my research question: what role does synesthesia play in the story?
Last semester, I read “The Yellow Wallpaper” for the first time in an American literature survey class. We studied the text and the protagonist with a primary focus on the feminist issues they raised. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is widely discussed in terms of hysteria, an antiquated and sometimes misogynistic term for a disorder which falls under a spectrum of conditions now known as “conversion disorders.” However, research that thoroughly analyzes the story through the lens of synesthesia has not yet been published. With the help of modern scientific research, I think that an examination of the protagonist’s synesthesia could reveal nuances that have been overlooked in the past.
Specifically, I plan to examine the way Gilman uses synesthesia in “The Yellow Wallpaper” to illustrate conflict by both literal and figurative means. The way the protagonist’s husband responds with disbelief to her claims about the behavior and qualities of the wallpaper has more obvious implications for her role as a woman in the relationship. But what does synesthesia, a phenomenon where the subject experiences an out-of-the-ordinary crossing of perceptions—where s/he perceives something completely different from what others perceive—mean symbolically? At this stage of my research, my hypothesis is that synesthesia is an ideal mental/neurological phenomenon for driving home the story’s more frequently examined theme of women’s struggle to achieve freedom.
To investigate further I will need sources in the form of both scientific research and literary criticism. In the last decade or so, scientific evidence for synesthesia has arisen through research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); I have already obtained a scientific article titled “Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Synesthesia: Activation of V4/V8 by Spoken Words,” which will hopefully help demonstrate synesthesia as a real phenomenon. I will also need sources that identify and explain the subjective experience of synesthesia and provide a general overview of the condition, such as “Synesthesia” by James Ward. It will be useful to find sources on the history of synesthesia as a diagnosis and on how synesthesia was viewed in medical as well as social spheres in Gilman’s days (could Gilman have been aware of such a phenomenon?). Also, debates in the scientific community about the degree to which synesthesia is fixed or related to social context would be useful in examining the potential nature/root of the protagonist’s synesthesia. I have also located an article titled “An Inquiry into the Nature of Hallucinations: I,” which was published five years after “The Yellow Wallpaper” and explains, “Hallucinations are secondary sensations. The simplest state of hallucination is found in the phenomena of synesthesia” (Sidis). I will consider the synesthesia in this story as a basic form of hallucination, and what that may mean for the theme of women’s struggle for freedom. Synesthesia as a literary device—what the device involves and/or signifies in literature—is discussed in “Literary Synesthesia” by Glenn O’Malley. And finally, I will need a source that analyzes the theme of women’s freedom in “The Yellow Wallpaper” to bridge the gap between scientific and literary analyses.
Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Boston: Small & Maynard, 1899. N. pag. Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper. Web. 30 Mar. 2013.
Sidis, Boris. “An Inquiry into the Nature of Hallucinations: I.” Psychological Review 11.1 (1904): 15-29. PsycARTICLES. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.