Posted: March 18th, 2023
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams” writing styles; James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” compare to my own life.
Modernism vs. postmodernism
Over the course of the late 19th and early 20th century, American literature began to turn inward. Instead of looking to outer manifestations of the human character, American authors began to use interior monologues as a way of creating a narrative arc. Stories such as “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “Winter Dreams,” and “Sonny’s Blues” manifest the characteristics of both realism and modernism in the ways that they address relatively mundane subject matter, such as failed familial and romantic relationships. They also begin to show signs of the fragmented, postmodern narrative style which is more fully realized in Baldwin’s “Winter Dreams.” But their main, characteristic feature is the degree to which they use mundane details in the style of realism and the psychological state of the character in the modernist style to create suspense and drama, versus more traditional exciting exterior plot turns.
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the heroine is on an enforced ‘rest cure’ from which she is banned from all stimulating activity, including intellectual activity. The story is narrated in a first-person, limited narrative style and the reader must carefully discern what is real from what are merely the symptoms of the character’s distorted perceptions. Realism is manifest in the rather mundane details chronicled by the main character, such as the wallpaper of her room, the fact she has just had a baby, and the frustrations of her marriage. However, the fragmented narrative style and her unreliability underline the modernism inherent to Gilman’s feminist project. Ultimately the woman’s madness is shown in her delusion when she believes that another woman is trapped by the dreadful yellow wallpaper of her room. The discrepancy between her perceptions of reality and the truth are shown early on in the narrative. However, it is not only her point-of-view that is warped — other characters clearly do not see her suffering, or understand her true needs. Gilman’s tale shows some gestures towards postmodernism given fact that no one knows ‘the truth’ — the husband’s view that a lack of stimulation will cure her causes her madness and is no less insane than the narrator’s frustrations and paranoia about the imaginary woman’s physical entrapment. However the story’s meaning is clear, namely the evils that are done to women in the name of protecting them.
In “Winter Dreams” F. Scott Fitzgerald uses third-person, omniscient narrative to tell a realistic tale of the failed class and romantic aspirations of the main character Dexter. Dexter is financially successful but unable to marry the upper class woman he loves, Judy Jones. The realistic nature of the story is manifested, as in Gilman, with its rather mundane structure and details. The story begins at a golf course where Dexter is a caddy, and the couple’s relationship is chronicled in a series of matter-of-fact details. The discrepancy of perceptions of truth and reality are not manifest in Dexter’s thought processes, in contrast to “The Yellow Wallpaper” but through small but significant details, such as Judy’s confidence swinging golf clubs and the nature of Dexter’s unglamorous business assets. Through small details, the story gains a ‘truthful’ feel. Shifts in time are presented in carefully-detailed scenes, giving the story its modernist, fragmented quality. There is also a certain ambiguous morality to the tale. Judy Jones functions less as a three-dimensional character than as a symbol Dexter invests his hopes and dreams into, only to find this symbol bankrupt and lacking in real value. Once again, the main character’s internal development is more important than the relatively minor and trivial events of playing golf and infidelity that make up the surface narrative of the tale.
This ambiguity of morality intensifies in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” In contrast to the cool and dispassionate styles of Gilman and Fitzgerald, Baldwin invites the reader to identify with the first-person narrator who seems to have more wisdom and distance upon his life than the first-person narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The main character of Sonny’s Blues struggles with his identity, but his struggle is larger than that of the modernist ‘self’ and reflects a postmodern amalgam of the greater American consciousness, as it pertains to race. Unlike Gilman’s narrator, the narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” is telling his story in retrospective, and can view the significance of the life of drug-abusing brother and his own, more middle-class existence with a cool and more rational eye. Yet unlike the meaning of both Gilman and Fitzgerald’s stories, there is no clear, neat moral to the story of Sonny any more than there is a solution tot the ‘race problem’ of America. Baldwin invites the reader to create parallels between his or her own life, and the life of someone who shows great promise, but ultimately pursues a self-destructive path. The themes of the story are everyday and realistic sense yet modernist in the sense that they focus on a character’s emotions rather than exterior action. “Sonny’s Blues” has a universal resonance even though it touches upon postmodern themes of the fragmented identity of ‘race’ — one character pursues a life of traditional, conventional success, while his brother takes the stereotypical, fallen path of a troubled African-American man. However, the story has no neat ending, not even a tragic one, because America’s racial struggles will continue, and alienated African-Americans like the narrator will have a divided self — neither securely in white or black America.
Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. Wright University. Web. 1 Aug 2012.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “Winter Dreams.” Electronic Text Center, University of South Carolina.
1 Aug 2012.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. 1 Aug 2012.
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