Horror stories elicit a reaction in the mind and body of heightened awareness regarding a source of danger. Sometimes, these feelings are elicited through direct physical danger and sometimes they become more frightening yet when they attack the mind directly. However, both can built on similar themes and explore similar sources of dread. In the case of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, both authors build off of the horror of being entrapped, yet approach the issue from different sides – Poe from the physical and Gilman from the psychological – each with elements of the other.
The horrific can be found in both stories as the characters become trapped within their worlds, incapable of escape. While Poe does not explicitly state where his story is set, he provides several clues that it is in Italy. However, much of the story happens not on the Italian streets, but deep underground within the burial crypts (serving double duty as a wine cellar) of the Montresor family palazzo, which translates as a large home, mansion or palace. Within these dank and deeply buried basements, Montresor knows only he will be able to find the way out of the labyrinthine passageways although Fortunato seems incapable of considering this possibility. Through acts of friendship and the hospitable sharing of wine, Montresor is able to lure his guest beyond the bounds of reason. When Fortunato finally wakes up, it is to discover that he is shackled into place in a niche of the wall deep within the underground crypts. Regardless of whether Montresor goes through the final act of bricking up the opening, the horror of being trapped within this small dank space full of death against his will with no possibility of escape is horrific in itself.
In Gilman’s short story, an unnamed woman and her family take up residence in a remote mansion as a means of giving her the rest her husband has prescribed for her. The woman moves into an upper room of the house, thought to have originally been a nursery, with bars on the windows and old faded yellow wallpaper attached to the walls. This wallpaper plays a large role in the progression of the woman’s illness as she begins to see women creeping around inside it, trying to escape the oppression they, too, have experienced. “Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern – it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads” (Gilman, 1899). Through the course of the story, the woman transforms from an individual who adores the outside and green growing things to the artificial creation of man as it is represented in the impenetrable confines of the room. In the end, she chooses her only way out, effectively becoming insane.
There is a significant difference in the horror aspect of the two stories as Poe’s tale elicits a sense of the horrific on a physical plane while Gilman’s does this on a psychological one. The plot in Poe’s story is driven by murder, but this is only obvious as the narrator makes it clear that his intention is revenge. From here, the plot moves straight forward, beginning with the trickery that brought Fortunato deep into the ancestral burial crypt of Montresor’s ancestors and beyond the hearing of even the most sensitive servant to the final walling in of the victim. The narrator and murderer walks his reader step by step through the entire process. The depth of his plotting is revealed when he indicates to the reader the way in which he ensured no one would witness his crime. “There were no attendants at home; they had absconded to make merry in honour of the time. I had told them that I should not return until the morning, and had given them explicit orders not to stir from the house. These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as my back was turned” (24th para). In the end, he can’t help but brag about his cleverness, “For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!” (final lines of the story). The horror is in the cold-blooded way in which this action takes place as well as the physical sense of the crime itself.
Through character development and strong imagery, Gilman is able to draw the reader into her story, evoking similar feelings of oppression and weight within the mind of the reader that she describes as occurring within the psyche of her protagonist. The development of the character is a degeneration of sanity as a result of this constant oppression; but by allowing the reader to follow this digression, Gilman enables the reader to also understand how it could happen through first-hand sympathetic experience. The hopelessness of this woman’s situation is expressed early in the story as she relates her own opinions regarding her present condition: “Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?” It is the ease with which this understanding insinuates itself into the mind of the reader that increases the horrific aspect of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as the reader begins to comprehend that this sort of insanity may be only a heartbeat away from any ‘normally’ minded individual simply by having their liberty taken away from them.
While Poe approaches horror from the physical and allows the psychological to worm its way into the reader’s mind, Gilman starts from the psychological and demonstrates the natural physical progression from this state. Both authors utilize the concept of being trapped as a base for their horror, but illustrate different causes, motives and approaches to elicit similar emotional responses.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. Boston: Small & Maynard, 1899.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado.” Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Aerie Books, (2003).