Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper deal closely with the theme of madness and mental deterioration. The two main contrasts between how this is presented can be found in the self-awareness of their respective narrators, and the contributions of internal or external forces.
Firstly, the narrator of Poe’s The Black Cat begins the narrative from a prison cell, expressly claiming, “Mad indeed would I be to expect [belief], in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad I am not—and very surely do I not dream” (Poe, par. 1). This assertion is contradictory in that the narrator is both accepting that his story sounds mad, but trying to convince the reader to believe that he is not mad anyway. This adds to the sense of lunacy, as the narrator being in a prison cell awaiting his execution makes it obvious to the reader that his actions must have justified such a punishment in the eyes of the authorities.
In complete contrast to this, the narrator on Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is led to believe that she is indeed mad. While Poe’s narrator claims that he is not mad, but that nobody will believe this, Gilman’s narrator conversely claims that she is ill, yet cannot convince anyone that this is true. She states that her husband “assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with [her] but temporary nervous depression—a slightly hysterical tendency” (Gilman, 648). Though at the beginning of the narrative, the narrator believes herself to be ill, rather than mad as her husband tells her—and everyone around them—her inability to convince people of this results in her eventual conformity to this perceived madness.
Another consequence of the way that this narrator’s husband speaks to her is that his opinion acts as an external catalyst for her madness. This is mostly significant because his opinion of her makes her internalize her thoughts, becoming gradually more obsessed with the idea of madness and therefore becoming mad. The narrator is then left to her own thoughts, and her madness becomes deeply internalized. This is shown by “The Yellow Wallpaper” of the title, which refers to the intense fascination the narrator finds in her small world. Having been forbidden from most of the activities she has enjoyed, such as visits in society and writing, she finds her interest instead in the blank walls of her room.
She likens this to childhood, saying, “I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store” (Gilman, 650). This shows how obsessive she is about her surroundings and how trapped she feels within her own mind and imagination. In contrast to this, the main factor of Poe’s narrator’s madness is external, rather than internal. He claims that his nature was good and gentle until he began to depend on alcohol. He writes that, “through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance [I] had (I blush to confess it) experienced a radical alteration for the worse” (Poe, par. 6). The importance of alcohol in this story makes the narrator unreliable and explains, to an extent, his tendency towards violence and hallucination.
These two stories both show the ways in which people can be affected to madness. While Poe’s narrator brings madness upon himself, Gilman’s narrator is influenced by the opinions of others.