Before we analyze synesthesia in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” we must first distinguish between literal synesthesia and literary synesthesia.
Literal synesthesia is a neuropsychological phenomenon where perceptions that normally occur through one sensory modality are processed through another–or several others.
This condition, which according to most sources is permanent, has been misunderstood as a mental defect in the past. Boris Sidis, a noted American psychiatrist and psychologist, explained in “An Inquiry into the Nature of Hallucinations: I.” five years after “The Yellow Wallpaper” was first published in 1899 that literal synesthesia may actually be a form of hallucination. He wrote, “When a certain stimulus makes an impression on a peripheral sense organ and gives rise to secondary sensation, we really have a hallucination, but in its simplest form” (26).
However, Jamie Ward, a researcher at the University of Sussex in the U.K., argues in an article published just a few months ago that synesthesia is not hallucination. In instances of synestesia there is both an “inducer” and a “concurrent,” terms invented by scientists Grossenbacher and Lovelace in 2001. The inducer is the stimulus that brings about the synesthetic experience, and the concurrent is the experience itself (50). In instances of hallucination, however, there is a concurrent but no inducer, according to Ward (50). Hallucinations are mental fabrications, whereas synesthesia is based on the actual physical environment. Thus, today synesthesia is considered a normal albeit atypical way of perceiving the world. It is thought of as a legitimate way of observing phenomena that non-synesthetes perceive a different way.
Literary synesthesia, on the other hand, is not a condition but the application of synesthetic description to literature. Glenn O’Malley defines literary synesthesia as “a writer’s use of the ‘metaphor of the senses’ or of expressions and concepts related to it” (391). Literary synesthesia does not require that a character is a synesthete, but can also appear in narratives that escape the lines of “normal” sensory experience.
In an article titled “Literary Synesthesia,” O’Malley offers examples from Dante’s Divine Comedy, where literary synesthesia is used to evoke a sense of nearing divine truth. The work is split into three parts: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The three together represent a spiritual progression marked by sensory enhancement that O’Malley argues is illustrated by synesthetic expression (410).
For example, O’Malley explains that in Hell the speaker describes places where “‘the sun is silent’ (Inf. I. 60)” and “‘every light [is] mute (Inf. V.28)'” (409-410). There are few synesthetic description in Hell; where they are present they are weak, and as O’Malley explains, “may only be called intersense analogies in a negative sense” (409). In Paradise, on the other hand, there is an abundance of intersense analogies. In Canto XII, O’Malley compares, “intricate comparisons between the reflections of song and the echoing of rainbow splendors reinforce one another (line 1-15)” (410). As the soul moves from Hell to Purgatory to Heaven in Divine Comedy, O’Malley explains, it experiences a more and more unified experience of everything withing the domain of God (410). He concludes that all examples of literary synesthesia “which serve and take strength from a purpose like Dante’s should be construed with regard for poetic and philosophical insights and intentions” (410).