A.G. Exemplary? Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

In this recurring feature, I explore the contents of anthologies of American Gothic literature (as explicitly identified by book title), considering the extent to which the selections exemplify the genre. Today, I focus on a signature piece in Flame Tree Publishing’s 2019 volume American Gothic Short Stories: Anthology of New & Classic Tales.

 

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Gilman’s popular 1892 tale is stocked with Gothic conventions. First, the story emphasizes its own textuality: the narrative is presented as the narrator’s private (and secret, since she has been discouraged from writing) journal. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is set in the typical American alternative to the English Gothic castle: “A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic feilicity,” the narrator writes at the outset of the ancestral hall that has been leased by her physician husband as a place for the bride and new mother to rest and recover from her “temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency.” Gilman also invokes notions of the dark double, as the narrator identifies with, and blurs the distinction from, the female figures perceived trapped behind the titular wallpaper (“I wonder if they all come out of the wallpaper as I did?”). Furthermore, the narrator’s husband John fits the mold of the Gothic hero-villain, as a certain danger underlies his affection for his wife. At best, he is a physician of dubious merit, a doctor whose prescribed treatment proves worse than the diagnosed illness; at worst, he is suspiciously duplicitous (this allegedly loving and concerned husband does spend a lot of time away from home, kept in town overnight by his “serious cases”).

In the best Gothic tradition, “The Yellow Wallpaper” presents readers with a quintessentially unreliable narrator. The protagonist’s perceptions grow more and more suspect as the story unfolds, and her plans of actions veer toward irrationality (such as when she “thought seriously of burning the house–to reach the [yellow] smell” seemingly pervading it). On a surface level, the narrator’s words don’t inspire much confidence, but they are also quite revealing. The aged wallpaper “has a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade,” and the same can be said of the “dead paper” upon which the narrator records her thoughts. The subtle “contradictions” detected in the wallpaper’s pattern are reflected in the very lines of the narrative. “He is very careful and loving,” the narrator writes of her husband, “and hardly lets me stir without special direction,” and the astute reader senses how the second half of the sentence qualifies the first. Like the wallpaper woman shaking the bars of her cage, Gilman’s story sounds a feminist critique of patriarchal society and its overbearing, misguided authorities (on a biographical level, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is Gilman’s pointed response to her own experience of Dr. Weir Mitchell’s regiment for alleged hysterics). Surely it is no throwaway detail that the “Fourth of July” is referenced in the middle of the story; while the nation can celebrate its freedom, American women of that time period could boast no similar achievement in the domestic sphere.

Finally, Gilman’s tale is a masterpiece of unsettling ambiguity. Does the narrator’s steady slide into madness validate her doctor-husband’s original diagnosis? Or is this a case of a woman unfortunately caught in the wrong place at the wrong time of her life and driven to madness? Denied “society and stimulus,” did this creatively-stifled female inevitably divert her considerable “imaginative power and habit of story-making” onto her confining environs? The feminist subtext here, however, should not blind us to what an undeniably creepy story Gilman has penned. The various descriptions of the wallpaper (e.g., “the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside-down”; “the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase”; “an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions”) are unforgettably eldritch. The reader cannot simply discount the supernatural element (especially if the narrator’s claim that her husband and sister-in-law have also been “secretly affected by” the wallpaper is accepted). All the bizarre behavior manifested by the narrator at story’s end (stripping away the wallpaper, gnawing on the bedpost, aligning her shoulder with “that long smooch around the wall”) could be interpreted as recurrences of previous incidents, as the narrator becomes the latest victim claimed by a haunted room.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a central work in the history of Gothic literature, looking back to Charlotte Bronte (the madwoman-in-the-attic motif of Jane Eyre) and Edgar Allan Poe (whose narrators repeatedly grow obsessed to the point of madness) while also pointing ahead to the psychology-complex ghost stories of Henry James (The Turn of the Screw) and Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House). A classic tale that continues to resonate well over a century later, “The Yellow Wallpaper” has etched its place on the Mount Rushmore of all-time-great American Gothic short stories.

 

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