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Most people would not, at first glance, see Eudora Weltys "A Worn Path" as a look into madness. However through careful comparison to "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Gilman, certain disturbing similarities can be brought to consideration. First the writing styles and the tone along with the individual authors themselves will be compared at length. Secondly the "heroine" of the individual stories will be examined in depth. Finally we will look at the similar plot paths and the logical reasoning by which the assertion alluding to insanity is made.
Both stories take place in the 1800's. Phoenix Jackson the main character in "A Worn Path" was a young girl during the civil war and quite elderly at the onset of the story. The treatment prescribed in "The Yellow Wallpaper" was based on a book "Fat and Blood" by Weir Mitchell published originally in 1877. In fact the story was written due to the authors failed treatment at the hands of Dr. Mitchell (Gilman) with some embellishment and even goes so far as to mention him by name in the story. Comparing the tone and setting of the works shows a stark contrast. Whereas "A Worn Path" is bright, full of life, and at times even comical "The Yellow Wallpaper" is far darker and has a very Victorian Gothic feel. This is perceived mainly as author intent, Miss Gilman is trying here to set a proper atmosphere where one can almost hear the ping as the narrator's mental clockwork comes apart and important pieces fly into the far corners of the yellow room. While the language used is similar one can tell that almost fifty years separate the publishing of the stories with "The Yellow Wallpaper" being the older of the two. It is of note that while Gilman wrote of a personal bout with madness and her prescribed treatment, there is no sign of Welty suffering from any form of mental degradation even in her final years as an interview given a short time prior to her passing shows(Moberly).
The main characters are as different as night and day. Phoenix Jackson, an elderly black woman, had a pretty hard life prior to the setting of "A Worn Path" born a slave and freed after the Civil War. Being too old to go to school at that time she is uneducated and due to her advanced age, "I the oldest people I ever know"(p66), her eyes as well as her memory starting to fail her. Her children had passed away some years back leaving her to care for her grandson and as she put it "We is the only two left in the world."(p69). Unfortunately for Phoenix, the nurse says her grandson, "Swallowed lye. When was it?--January-- two-three years ago--"(p69) prior to the starting of the story. For his sake she makes this lengthy trip like clockwork to get his medicine with the story being set at the beginning of one such eventful trip into town. This greatly contrasts to the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" whom we are led to believe is a Caucasian woman probably in her twenties. It is alluded to that the narrator had given birth a short time previous to the beginning of the story as she makes mention to not getting to be with her child several times. Today she would be diagnosed with postpartum depression however during this time no such diagnosis existed and Dr. Mitchell s work was used as a catch all for mental problems involving women often labeled "The nervous disorder prevalent in thin women who are lacking in blood, henceforth referred to as NEURASTHENIA"(Mitchell). She has a caring but oppressive husband who along with her brother, are both doctors and firm believers in Dr. Mitchell's work. Their prescribed treatment, to have utter rest and relaxation in her room with nothing to cause a disturbance in her thinking or lead to hysteria, actually leads the narrator to insanity.
While it is true that Phoenix is widely seen for her perseverance and the accomplishment of making the journey to town, a feat considering her age, this is not the most widely recognized point of the story. In both works the main characters are prone to flights of fancy whether it is dancing with a scarecrow in a field(p66) or believing that your husband and attendant have a special fascination with the wallpaper in your room(p431). However there are more disturbing correlations such as the optical illusions both women suffer from. Phoenix at one point has an imaginary small boy who brings her cake and the narrator sees a woman in the wallpaper and during the day more women that creep about outside of the windows. Moreover both women have no fear of death. The narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" even considers suicide. Phoenix comes face to face with a rifle toting man and his dog who, after helping her up, points the gun at her and asks "Doesn't the gun scare you?", something that would extremely worry most people living at such a time where their murder would probably go unnoticed especially if they had someone depending on their safe return. Neither of these situations brings much distress to the women as they are treated like being threatened with a gun is a mere inconvenience and suicide "is improper and might be misconstrued". It is noticeable that at the end of their respective journeys both women show at least some loss of cognitive faculty.
While it is most certain the the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" has had a full mental breakdown by the end of her story Phoenix's plight is far more troublesome and insidious. By the end it is made clear that she is suffering from at least some stage elderly dementia. Elderly Dementia is a blanket term that covers multiple, sometimes interrelated, problems that affect the mental functions of the elderly. Today millions of elderly Americans suffer from it and as of yet it is by and large untreatable (Wiley-Blackwell). With this in mind it is not entirely surprising that the most asked question to the author was if the grandson was still alive. Welty's only response was that Phoenix believed him so(Moberly). The nurse's rather rough "You mustn't waste our time this way â€¦ He isn't dead, is he? " and Phoenix's reply "There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip."(69), lead one to question whether Phoenix is truly a full blown case of dementia. Is she in fact living in a fantasy world where she is still caring for an eternally ill grandson or is she not entirely lost to the world. Either way while the unfortunate narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is severely troubled there is still hope. With Phoenix all of the current studies into dementia show that the disease is progressive and will slowly worsen with time. Either conclusion does not bode well for the grandson.