Irony and Symbols: the Way of Gilman and Poe
If Edgar Allan Poe had lived to see the days that Charlotte Perkins Gilman was alive and writing, he would have commended her for her excellent taste in literary devices. It may be true that the father of dark romanticism and this social reformist have little in common, between their life stories and the messages they aimed to portray in their works. However, Gilman and Poe both utilized a combination of literary devices, specifically symbolism and irony, to solidify the characters and overall themes of their works.
It’s unlikely that Poe simply slapped a ticking clock or a black cat here and there to spice things up. There was a method to his madness, and that method was symbolism. In literature, “symbolism is used to produce an impact…[it] takes something that is usually concrete and associates or affixes it to something else in order to give it a new and more significant meaning” (Wiehardt). They can be as obvious as the American flag, or as abstract as three lines painted on a wall. The reader can find an abundance of examples of symbolism throughout these famed literary works: Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, and Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.
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Much of the symbolism throughout The Cask of Amontillado revolved around one key object in the story, which was the Montresor Family’s coat of arms. It is first revealed to the reader as Montresor leads Fortunato through the winding catacombs, en route to Fortunato’s inevitable demise. As Montresor describes the scene etched into the coat of arms mounted on the wall of the catacombs, the reader quickly realizes that the object is more than just décor.
The Montresor family’s coat of arms depicts “a huge human foot d’or” (Poe), a clear symbol for the reader to visualize. “As the snake is being crushed, it is biting the heel of the gold foot. The scene seems to illustrate graphically what an enemy of the Montresors can expect” (White 553). From this, the reader can speculate that the snake on the coat of arms is representative of Fortunato, who the reader knows has done Montresor wrong in the past. The golden foot, then, symbolizes Montresor, prepared to enact his revenge on Fortunato and make him pay for having crossed him.
As if the connection between the visual of a giant food crushing a snake and Montresor’s relationship with Fortunato weren’t obvious enough, the family motto on the coat of arms further solidified this. The motto, “Nemo me impune lacessit” (Poe), translates directly to “No one provokes me with impunity.” In other words, it reads, “No one can hurt me and expect to get away with it.”
“A particular detail in the motto that is worth noting is that it speaks not of “us” but of me. Insofar as we are not aware of the motto’s origin, the singular pronoun creates some misdirection. It gives the impression that Montresor is seeking redress as an individual person who has been wronged rather than as a member of a family he feels has been wronged. To do justice to Montresor, we should understand that he is not an individual person seeking redress for personal insult or injury but, rather, an agent of retribution acting on behalf of his family” (White 552).
The motto explicitly symbolizes what the reader can predict regarding Fortunato’s fate. The blue field in the background of the coat of arm’s scene is also worth noting, though it is a less obvious symbol than the previous two. “This is the only color explicitly mentioned that isn’t connected to death and darkness. It literally means “sky blue” and sky means freedom, especially when we contrast it with the claustrophobic, prison-like atmosphere of the catacomb” (Shmoop). This being said, the free, blue sky in the coat of arms acts as somewhat of a foil to the enclosed catacomb that Fortunato will inevitably die in. This contrast further adds to the seclusion and eeriness of the setting Poe has placed his characters in, and the symbolic coat of arms helps the reader understand the story’s central theme of revenge even better.
Perhaps even more prominant than Poe’s symbolism in The Cask of Amontillado is that throughout Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. In this piece, Gilman used symbolism to solidify themes of isolation and oppression, and to further express the feelings and struggles of the main character, as well as women in general.
Two of the most obvious symbols in this short story are the woman in the wallpaper and the wallpaper itself, and it’s nearly impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other. In describing the pattern of the wallpaper in the narrator’s room, she says she, “[gets] positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere” (Gilman). She also describes the color as “smouldering.” The pattern, to the reader’s knowledge, is confusing and complex, even aggravating to its onlookers. Haney-Peritz, an English professor at Queens College, points out that, “Commentators have seen in this description of the wallpaper a general representation of “the oppressive structures of society [in which] the narrator finds herself” (Madwoman 90)”. Those “unblinking eyes” may very well symbolize the narrator’s husband, constantly watching her every move like she is a child, controlling her all the while. From a more global perspective, “…the pattern of the wallpaper represents the social constraints imposed upon women…” (King 29), not just the narrator herself.
Within this intricate pattern on the walls exists a sub-pattern…a shape resembling that of a woman, whom the narrator claims is shaking the pattern from behind. “The front pattern does move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very ‘ bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern – it strangles so…” (Gilman).
The symbolism here is undeniable. When the narrator explains that she sometimes sees many women behind and other times only one, the reader can infer that Gilman meant to show how individual women are oppressed, specifically by men in their lives, and how these women are also oppressed as a collective group, by society. The woman in the wallpaper remains still in the light, representing the ways in which women often feel the need to lie low in the public eye rather than speak up and draw attention to themselves. The very end of the description above is arguably the most powerful part, expressing that despite women’s attempts to escape oppression, it is often debilitating and too strong to free oneself from for good.
Not as obvious as the symbolism of the wallpaper, though just as thought-provoking, is the symbolism of the colonial house in which the woman and her husband reside in for the summer’s duration, and more specifically, the way the woman’s opinion of the house changes. “In the Gothic novel the house changes from being a symbol of male privilege and protection conferred on the fortunate female of his choice, to an image of male power in its sinister aspect, threatening and oppressive (Figes 74)” (Davison 54). In the beginning half of the story, the narrator describes the house and its surroundings with an overall pleasant tone.
“Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deep-shaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees. Out of another I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf belonging to the estate. There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house” (Gilman).
However, as the story progresses and the narrator’s mental health begins to suffer, one begins to see her opinion of the house adopt a much more negative view. She even goes as far as to ask her husband several times if they could leave. “I told him that I really was not gaining here, and that I wished he would take me away” (Gilman). The reader may interpret this shift in opinion as the narrator starting to realize that her husband’s actions, which once seemed protective, are oppressive and even abusive.
Just as Gilman and Poe used symbolism to solidify the themes of their works, these two didn’t slip sarcasm and dramatic irony into their writings on accident, either. Wake Forest University’s English Chair Joseph Milner points out that, “…Irony is, in fact, a fundamental feature of good literature because it captures the uncertain interior social interactions and the small moral tussles that characters experience.” Verbal irony often aids in one’s understanding of the inner workings of the character’s minds, whereas dramatic irony produces an almost humorous effect, affecting the story’s tone as well as the reader’s general attitude towards the themes. Whether the irony is verbal or dramatic, it’s one literary element that Poe and Gilman clearly used to their advantage.
In Poe’s Cask of Amontillado, the main instance of irony is introduced to the reader in the very first sentence. The reader learns of a character named Fortunato, and the ironic aspect is revealed as the story progresses. “…a student would not need to be versed in any foreign languages to notice that Fortunato’s name is ironic. He is definitely not the fortunate one” (Nevi 462). The unlucky man’s fate consists of being trapped alive by Montresor, deep within the catacombs. The name “Fortunato” insinuates some acquisition of wealth or luck, and the fact that Fortunato is only met with punishment is indeed ironic. More specifically, this is an example of dramatic irony, which Poe included to produce a humorous effect.
An instance of verbal irony occurs towards the end of the short story, as Montresor is enacting his revenge. Montresor asks Fortunato, “Once more let me implore you to return. No?” (Poe). Of course, this is ironic, as Fortunato at this point is chained to the granite wall and is physically incapable of returning. This quotation from Montresor gives the reader insight into the character’s sarcastic, mocking nature.
Similarly to Poe and his Cask of Amontillado, Gilman used both verbal and dramatic irony throughout The Yellow Wallpaper. This short story takes the form of diary entries that the main character is secretly writing throughout her summer stay. In these accounts, the woman often uses irony as he speaks to the audience. On the topic of her husband’s work life, she writes, “John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious. I am glad my case is not serious!” (Gilman). The sarcasm at the end of this sentence expresses the narrator’s belief that her husband belittles her condition and fails to take her ailments seriously. Another instance in which the narrator’s words are laced with irony is when she says, “I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have!” (Gilman). At points like this, the dialect of the woman is so humorous that one might think she was performing stand-up comedy. These witty one-liners of hers that Gilman has incorporated throughout the story enhance the reader’s perception of the narrator’s personality.
The most conspicuous example of dramatic irony in The Yellow Wallpaper is in the narrator’s description of the room her husband has confined her to. She judges, “It was a nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium… for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls” (Gilman). The reader, however, understands that this room resembles something far more sinister, as its torn wallpaper and bolted bed frame suggest. “Throughout the story, Jane characterizes the room as a nursery, but its description better fits a prison and/or mental institution” (Suess). Jane compares the room to playful, childish settings, while the reader sees the true nature of it. Not only does the room resemble a prison, with its wall-rings and empty nature, it serves as one in the story, as well. Jane is a prisoner to this room her husband has confined her to, and a prisoner to her mind as well. This use of irony and contrast between settings helps the reader see even more clearly the severity of the abusive situation.
There’s no lack of symbolism nor irony in either of these stories. In The Cask of Amontillado, the scene on the coat of arms directly correlates to what is taking place amongst Montresor and Fortunato. In The Yellow Wallpaper, the wallpaper and the woman behind it effectively represent conflicts that the narrator, Jane, is faced with. Both Poe and Gilman gave the characters in these stories a humorous, witty side, and incorporated a great deal of dramatic irony, as well. Symbolism and irony are both concrete literary elements whose additions to writing do wonders on their own. However, when the two are used together, as Poe and Gilman had done so, the themes and character development become even stronger.
- Davison, Carol Margaret. “Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Women’s Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, Jan. 2004, pp. 47–75. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00497870490267197.
- Gilman, C. P., & Lane, A. J. (1980). The Charlotte Perkins Gilman reader: The yellow wallpaper, and other fiction. New York: Pantheon Books.
- Haney-Peritz, Janice. “Monumental Feminism and Literature’s Ancestral House: Another Look at ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Women’s Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, Feb. 1986, p. 113. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00497878.1986.9978632.
- King, Jeannette, and Pam Morris. “On Not Reading between the Lines: Models of Reading in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 26, no. 1, Winter 1989, p. 22. EBSCOhost, 0-search.ebscohost.com.library.brookdalecc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=7134339&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- Milner, Joseph O., et al. “Teaching Students to Recognize Irony.” Clearing House, vol. 87, no. 6, Nov. 2014, pp. 254–258. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00098655.2014.947351.
- Nevi, Charles N. “Irony and ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’” The English Journal, vol. 56, no. 3, 967, pp. 461–463. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/811596.
- Poe, Edgar A. (1910). The Cask of Amontillado. The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Lit2Go Edition). Retrieved April 09, 2019, from https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/147/the-works-of-edgar-allan-poe/5245/the-cask-of-amontillado/Shmoop.com. (2019). The Coat of Arms in The Cask of Amontillado. [online] Available at: https://www.shmoop.com/cask-of-amontillado/coat-arms-symbol.html.
- Suess, Barbara A. “The Writing’s on the Wall” Symbolic Orders in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Women’s Studies, vol. 32, no. 1, Jan. 2003, p. 79. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00497870310086.
- White, Patrick. “‘The Cask of Amontillado’: A Case for the Defense.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 26, no. 4, Fall 1989, pp. 550–555. EBSCOhost, 0-search.ebscohost.com.library.brookdalecc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=7135901&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- Wiehardt, Ginny. “The Importance of Using Symbolism In Fiction Writing.” The Balance Careers, 6 Apr. 2019, www.thebalancecareers.com/symbol-definition-fiction-writing-1277138.