Review: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

…in which Lucinda turns detective and discovers ALL OF THE SYMBOLISM.

I had never heard of The Yellow Wallpaper before it was mentioned by the lovely Orangutan Librarian on a-guest-post-on-someone-elses-blog-that-I-now-can’t-find-the-link-for. My sincerest apologies to both the unnamed blogger and the orangutan, especially as it was a really interesting post about forgotten classics. I’m so sorry! 

As I’ve been in a bit of a reading/blogging slump recently (despite being in the middle of some really good books – seriously, what is wrong with me?) I thought a short novella with a quick review might be the way forwards. What I hadn’t appreciated though is the depth that this tiny-creepy-weird story has. Seriously guys, there is so much symolism, irony, hidden meanings, metaphor, layers on layers on layers of subtext – quite how one author managed to pack so much into 6000 words is beyond me *gazes into the middle distance as that short review (maybe I could use bullet points!) disappears in a puff of smoke*

On the face of it, The Yellow Wallpaper is a deceptively simple story. A young woman finds herself, upon the orders of her doctor (who is also her husband) in a yellow wallpapered attic room “for her own good”. We’re led to believe that she’s suffered some kind of breakdown in that kind of Victorian fainting fit/get the smelling salts/fresh air and bed rest type way that could be result of anything from wearing your corset too tightly to a full psychotic episode. As the novella goes on the seriousness of the unnamed character’s mental health condition appears to worsen, but so much is left unsaid that it’s entirely left up to the reader to work out what’s going on.

The clever bit (there are loads of clever bits, but this is the cleverest of them) is the way that the novella is written. You almost don’t notice, but the whole thing is a journal entry so it’s effectively a single point of view monologue with no objective events or actions that you can use as anchor points to work out the “truth”. With such an unreliable narrator there’s huge scope for ambiguity and the author includes “evidence” for various different scenarios. I’m still unsure what actually happened but as far as I can see there are three potential options *with spoilers – look away now*:

A) The main character is actually mad and her selfless husband/doctor is trying to help her (evidence: mention of a baby suggests post partum depression/psychosis, possibly loving relationship, clear symptoms of poor mental health, administration of drugs)

B) The husband/doctor is coercively controlling his wife/patient to keep her locked away (evidence: babyish language towards her, I know best attitude, lack of informed consent, inability to stop the treatment by the patient, no knowledge of what medication she is being given (is she a test subject for his research?) conflict of interest).

C) This is a horror story, everything is actually happening, the room is haunted.

Or maybe it’s a mix of all three…is the author making a comment on the duality of a caring/controlling relationship – the gilded cage of marriage that so many women during that time found themselves in? Does living in a patriarchy drive you mad? Is a life of domesticity with a husband and baby actually a horror story?

So. Many. Layers.

I loved how considered each aspect of the story was, and how there were so many double meaning and metaphors. For example, I could spend hours researching and talking about the choice of yellow –specifically yellow – wallpaper as a title for the book and as a central theme. The decision to name the book after such a symbol of mundane domesticity and to not make it about the central female character speaks volumes – the woman is forgotten, the appearance of the home is key (indeed, she’s unnamed within the text – even when her husband refers to her it’s with silly pet names) her place is quietly within the home. The choice of the colour yellow conjures ideas of sunshine happiness but the main character describes it as being a sickly colour, suggesting a metaphor perhaps for her own ill health, the state of her relationship or perhaps how she views the state of society at that time. Yellow is also the colour of cowardice (is she afraid of her husband? Has her fear of standing up to him got her into this situation? Is she at all self aware of her condition and is perhaps afraid of it – or is it a fear of judgement? Is she afraid of motherhood – and does she feel cowardly for not being able to look after her own baby?) and it’s also the colour that items (specifically paper) turns to as they age – again, is this a metaphor for her own ageing and/or her feelings about the deterioration of her physical and mental health post childbirth? 

The wallpaper itself is described as having an initial obvious pattern, but a less obtrusive sub pattern (that can only be seen under certain circumstances) with what looks like hidden, creeping women who have tried to break through the pattern but had their heads chopped off in the process. I don’t think it takes a genius to see that again, there’s a clear feminist message here – symbols of creeping women (perhaps suggesting servitude, perhaps suggesting pleading, perhaps suggesting hiding) trying to break free of a dominant pattern (patriarchy? Society in general?) but being executed in the process (metaphorically being shut down, quite literally dying in the case of the suffaragettes). This could also apply to the feelings of the main character – is she oppressed by her marriage and looking for a way out? Or is it her own mind that she’s trying to get away from – is she scared it will kill her?

I loved the way that the main character describes her marriage, her situation and her surroundings in oh-so-subtly ironic terms. Her ideas that perhaps the room was a nursery (the children have certainly gnawed this bedstead! Look at the bars on the windows preventing them from having accidents!) or as a gymnasium (there’s hoops and suchlike on the walls) when clearly the room (perhaps the whole house – we don’t venture outside) has been used to restrain mentally ill people – I suspect it’s a disused asylum. “But we were so lucky to rent such a large property at such short notice!”

Similarly, the description of her husband and the reality of their relationship (he cares so much/he’s taken my child and keeps me locked in a room) is presented in overly positive terms. Is the main character wilfully ignoring these facts? Or is it a deliberate attempt by the author to show the ease at which you can make a situation appear normal purely with a few suggestions and clever semantics? I also think the choice of a nursery or gym is interesting – both places where perhaps the main character feels she should be (with her child or working to improve her health) and both happy, healthy places – in direct contrast to the room’s real use.

The deterioration of the main character’s mental health adds to the overall creepy tone of the story and adds to the sense of foreboding dread. It also means that she becomes less and less reliable as the novella progresses – have the ripped wallpaper, teethmarks on the bedposts and marks on the walls been done by her (and she’s forgotten – perhaps because she’s in the middle of a psychotic episode) or are they evidence of the malign influence of the wallpaper on the room’s previous inhabitants? 
Although the ending of the book is fairly abrupt and the story is ultimately unresolved I thought it packed a pretty good punch. It’s definitely a story that will stay with me for a long time.

Overall, I really enjoyed this brief but hugely multi-layered novella. It feels remarkably modern given the subject matter (I think because it’s so sparse) and is so cleverly written that you’ll be thinking about it for weeks – in fact, the more I think about it, the more I find myself reading into it. It’s a perfect short story and as it’s free to download (out of copyright due to it’s age) I’d recommend everyone goes and reads it right now.

Rating: Five patriarchal symbols of oppression out of five.

A haunting, creepy, short story with so many layers and hidden meanings you’ll still be seeing hidden metaphors weeks later. Can’t recommend highly enough.

Similar to: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (for hidden meaning), Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl (for being a bloody good short story).

Could be enjoyed by: Literally everyone.