Explore how characters deal with the issue of isolation in the novels ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Gilman and ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte.

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By examining both ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ the theme of isolation can be explored through the emotions of the characters and how they are conveyed, and how the authors, culturally and contextually influenced their novels. In Wuthering Heights, the theme of isolation is clearly shown through location. The name of the abode is used in the title itself, which indicates how significant the setting is. The two neighbouring estates, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange are set on the expansive Yorkshire moors. At the beginning of the novel, Lockwood’s observation reveals how isolated Wuthering Heights really is. For example, he says, “In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society.” The verb ‘removed’ is symbolic as it shows how distanced they are from the nearest ‘civilisation’. The characters are also cut off from the normality of ‘the stir of society’. This suggests that the isolation of the house puts an emphasis on the vulnerability of the characters as they are far from any external sources of assistance. In terms of context, this novel has gothic elements. During the Victorian period, the gothic genre was very popular as it gave a different perspective to the usual romantic novels by combining both horror and romance. The Victorians also enjoyed the atmospheric settings, as they conjured a sense of danger but also freedom. Much of Bronte’s childhood influenced her writing, as the Yorkshire moors used as a setting in the novel, reflects her younger years, when she lived with her family in a parsonage in Haworth. The desolate moors of Yorkshire were on one side of the parsonage while a graveyard was on the other side. This relates to the novel, as the nature and terrain of the moors also creates a sense of peril and makes navigation problematic. Furthermore, Bronte also disliked the experience of travelling from the parsonage. This is mirrored in the novel, as there is limited movement and only occasional journeys to Liverpool, Yorkshire and the nearby village, Gimmerton. The importance of the setting is vital to the novel and the theme of isolation as Bronte prepares us for the impact of solitude on the characters. Similarly, the setting of The Yellow Wallpaper invokes a sense of isolation. This is shown when the narrator of the story describes the location, “it is quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village.” As with Bronte’s novel, the house in The Yellow Wallpaper is also distanced from the almost nearby ‘village’. The house is also depicted with “hedges and walls and gates that lock and lots of separate little houses for gardeners and people.” The concrete noun, ‘lock’ foreshadows later on in the story, when the narrator’s husband locks her in her room. This word also has the effect of creating a sense of apprehension and forewarning. The ‘hedges’, ‘walls’ and the adjective ‘separate’, undoubtedly portrays the houses’ closed off atmosphere and makes the reader question why the house is disconnected ‘from the road’ and therefore disconnected from society. Inside, the depiction of the house, becomes even more restrictive as the narrator’s room is outlined as “a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly…the windows are barred.” The depiction of the room is almost juxtaposed as, it is ‘big’, ‘airy’ and takes up ‘the whole floor nearly’, which could imply some freedom. However, the verb ‘barred’ could suggest the obstruction of the narrator’s freedom and the room could also be likened to a prison. To accentuate the narrator’s isolation, Gilman mimics the emotional stance of the narrator to the physical arrangements of the house. In the same way Bronte’s novel mirrored her life, Gilman’s story reflects her experiences and how they affected her. In 1887, Gilman suffered from severe post-partum depression. She sought treatment from psychiatrist, Silas Weir Mitchell. His treatment was a ‘rest cure’ that consisted of bed rest, overfeeding, isolation, massages and electric therapy for her muscles. Consequently, Mitchell’s remedy worsened Gilman’s depression and she decided to shun his ‘rest cure’ and leave. This relates to the narrator as she also suffered from depression and was prescribed the ‘rest cure’. In Wuthering Heights, the majority of the characters are either outsiders or isolated during the span of the novel. Lockwood is a member of the idle gentry and is isolated and far from his home and family in an unwelcoming environment. Due to the fact that Lockwood is a newcomer, he would also be perceived as an outsider. For example, the character Nelly Dean says “we don’t in general take to foreigners here, Mr Lockwood, unless they take to us first.” Although Nelly Dean speaks about the character, Frances Earnshaw, there is an underlying reminder that Lockwood is also an outsider as he struggles to fit in with the social standings at Wuthering Heights. The concrete noun ‘foreigner’ could relate back to Bronte’s limited family life, as they were a part of their isolated Yorkshire community.Another character considered to be an outsider is Heathcliff. He was a homeless orphan growing up in Liverpool. Around this time in the 1840s, the economy of England was severe and appalling. Factory conditions in Liverpool were awful and so the middle and upper classes feared violent revolts from the lower classes. In the novel he is constantly defending himself from being maltreated by the other characters. Due to his social standing, he is never accepted and becomes an outsider as soon as he arrives at Wuthering Heights. Lockwood describes him as forming “a singular contrast to his abode and style of living.” The noun ‘singular’ suggests that Lockwood believes Heathcliff’s ownership of both houses is uncommon and peculiar because of his social status and background as a gypsy. The word ‘singular’ also has connotations of being solitary, individual and solo. As a result of him being treated as an outsider, the readers sympathise with his character. One other character who is isolated is Isabella. She is thought of as the weakest of the women in Bronte’s novel. Ignoring the advice of many characters, Isabella marries Heathcliff. She faces many consequences such as being disowned by her brother, being trapped at Wuthering Heights by her violent husband and failing to realise that Heathcliff does not love her and is only using her. Consequently, both her husband and brother, abandon her, leaving her isolated. To deal with her isolation, Isabella becomes deluded with fantasies as she imagines Heathcliff to be a ‘romantic Byronic hero’. Some features of the Byronic hero that Heathcliff displays are; being ruthless, cunning, emotionally and intellectually tortured and arrogant. For example, in a conversation between Heathcliff and Nelly Dean, he answers, “Isabella abandoned them under an delusion, picturing in me, a hero of romance and expecting unlimited indulgences from my chivalrous devotion.” This could relate to the fact that Isabella was influenced by many of the novels that she read and had a romantic outlook on life. This links to the literary context of Romanticism, that was also popular during the Victorian era. The Oxford Companion to English Literature’s definition of Romanticism says ‘its name derives from romance, the literary form in which desires and dreams prevail over everyday realities.’ This shows that Isabella, under the influence of romanticism, ignores reasoning and instead ‘desires’ the attention of Heathcliff. Punter (1996) says ‘The Gothic is a distorting lens, a magnifying lens, but the shapes which we see through it have nonetheless a reality which cannot be apprehended in any other way.’ Distortion, delusion and exaggeration are heavily underlined in the novel. Punter proposes that in Bronte’s novel, the reader is aided in approaching the unpleasant themes of reality by the ‘twisted’ and ‘distorted’ characters. The insight into these themes permits us to recognise the dangers of rejection and social exclusion that eventually leads to isolation. Likewise, the narrator in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is treated as an outsider. From the start of the story the narrator is naturally isolated because of her depression, as during the 1800s, mental illness was viewed as ‘madness’, ‘lunacy’ and ‘insanity’. Furthermore, the rich were tended to in the luxury of their own home or in private care, whilst the middle and lower class patients were looked after in asylums. Although the narrator is treated privately, her room with the ‘barred windows’ could bear comparison to an asylum. Ford (309) says that ‘there is much that we do not take into account. Such as her name, the argument against her individuality and the name of her in-laws.’ The narrator is nameless, which shows her lack of ‘individuality’. However, most of the other characters in the story have names. This could suggest that the separation of the named and nameless characters links to their independence. The oppression of the narrator by her husband also contributes to her absence of ‘individuality’. Her husband John is a very controlling character and practically governs the way the narrator lives. For example, the narrator tells John “I don’t like our room one bit. I wanted one downstairs, that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the windows…but John wouldn’t hear of it.” This connects to the status of women at the time as they were expected to be well behaved, docile, and to listen and be subservient towards men. Her husband also treats and addresses her like a child. For example, she is infantilised when her husband places her in the room that “was a nursery first, and then a playroom and gymnasium…for little children…and there are rings and things in the walls.” The phrase ‘rings and things’ is an internal rhyme and additionally heightens the secluded atmosphere of the room. His mollycoddling of her is further supported when he addresses her, by almost talking down to her, “What is it little girl?” and “why darling.” This shows that he has little respect for the narrator and regards her as a child rather than a woman. In addition, John ignores the narrator and her pleas when she asks him to ‘take me away’, from the room and house they are staying in. His lack of concern is conveyed when he replies that “the repairs are not done at home and I cannot possibly leave town…if you were in any danger, I could and would.” The use of internal rhyme again, emphasises his casual attitude towards his wife and his nonchalant demeanor contributes to the narrator’s isolation. Contextually, Gilman saw her physician and her husband as manipulative and the same person. Similarly, the narrator’s husband John was also a physician. The narrator says, “John is a physician, and perhaps…-perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.” Gilman often uses dashes to signify ‘breaks from reality’ and hallucinations. The effect of the dashes also signals the shift towards a nervous breakdown. This suggests that when the narrator thinks of her husband, it triggers a moment of nervous hysteria. This could be due to the fact that that the narrator exclaims “he does not believe I am sick!” The exclamation is effective as the readers can get the impression that the narrator is frustrated and this leads to more feelings of isolation as “one’s own husband assures friends that there is really nothing the matter”, which implies that she has no one in the story that understands her strain with the illness, but herself. This ties in with Gilman’s experiences as both her husband and physician took no notice of her struggle when she entrusted them with her views on how the treatment was affecting her.A difference between the two texts is the narrative structure. The unnamed narrator tells ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, from a first person point of view. The structure of the short story could represent the narrator’s gradual descent into madness. At the beginning, the narrator is calm and collected, while she is describing the setting and her surroundings. To conclude, both the characters in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ deal with the issue of isolation is similar ways. The setting also plays a key role in the theme of isolation as the fluctuating nature of moors in ‘Wuthering Heights’ reflects the characters emotions whilst, the ‘ancestral house’ in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has an effect on the health of the narrator. Most of the characters feel like outsiders and become isolated further.