Charlotte Gilman – The Yellow WallpaperFebruary 24th, 2010 by Peter
As far as the Daughters of Decadence and the Fien de Siecle go, I’m really not sold on most of their writing. But encountering The Yellow Wallpaper is encountering much more than the other stories; stories about women being pains in the asses, or rebelling against common norms of Victorian gender roles; all fairly straightforward. I mean, how boring is that?
Why, yes; I am a man… what gave it away?
The Yellow Wallpaper is all that, but at the same time it is so much more. Easily the best of the stories I have read from the Daughters of Decadence anthology, the short novella is decades ahead of its time in its semi-modernist structure and treatment of the human psyche. But beyond that, to deal with the plain content of the piece, it’s unavoidably engaging; drawing you in and making you want to read all the way until its undeniably chilling conclusion.
Without giving too much away, what the protagonist—whose name we do not learn, the reason being, I assume, to allow her to become an every(wo)man character—perceives as male, patriarchal oppression and isolation leads her, through one rather telling plot device to complete mental breakdown; to put it simply, the poor woman goes mad. It’s no secret to the reader that she is going to go dotty; it’s clear from almost the beginning, but the way in which she begins to lose herself is fascinating, captivating and, perhaps most importantly of all, deceptive.
Most of this is achieved through the story’s form: Written as a journal of sorts, you see the world through the main character’s eyes. You either reject the woman as mad from the beginning, or the form beguiles you into believing her word to be authoritative and unquestionable. It pains my pride to say it, but I was drawn in by the latter. Her descriptions of the room she occupies and about the iconic wallpaper are, at first, innocuous; even the peculiar details of the place glaze over us; a nursery. Yes, a nursery, I believe her. Why not, she seems of sound mind. After all, she can write!
As the story goes on, however, and she begins her slow, but increasingly rapid descent into madness, we see that we have been duped all along. We do not see the world in her writing, we see her world, and her world is, and has always been a world of madness.
The most poignant moment of the story, I found, was when our ‘protagonist’ goes beyond mere obsessive madness into a kind of delusional role-reversal. What she first studied and created in the Yellow Wallpaper she herself becomes. The whole moment of transition is dealt with in one single sentence, and I found it necessary to double-take and make sure I’d got it right.
Once the revelation dawns on you, the rest of the story falls back on itself, and we see in retrospect that there was never any real moment of sanity, and that our narrator has been constantly unreliable. The image we are left with, and that certainly plagued me for some hours after reading, is of our ‘heroine’ creeping around the room, shoulder to the concertina, ribboned wall she has created, and on every lap of the door she steps over her husband, the figure of power she unconsciously rebelled against. The questions hang in the air once the text is finished; was her madness caused by the husband’s patriarchal regime? Did she achieve her freedom from this ‘oppression’ through the madness and, if she did, was it ultimately worth it?
And finally; would you wallpaper a room in yellow? Yellow!?