Something I thought I’ll never understand is the cover picture on my copy of this book. It’s a copy I kept from school, and it has a picture of a beautiful naked female poised on the arm of a chair, a chair which looks like it’s covered in soft red curtains or an old-style voluminous dress. She’s facing away from us. I suppose now I’ve taken a while to think about it though, it makes sense. It’s partly showing how the character turns her back on us who have turned our backs on her. Partly showing the nakedness, the rawness of her humanity and desperation. Her embarrassment.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She lived from 1860-1935 and I reckon it’s fair to say she was a feminist. At a whopping 28 pages it’s definitely worth a read. First time round I liked it because it was dark and weird and seemed to make a good point. I came back to it lately with new eyes and liked it all the more.
It’s the tale of a young wife imprisoned by her society and the husband who cares in the wrong sort of way, who doesn’t seem to realise how he’s treating her. In fact, neither of them realise. This is where the society comes in: both the slowly suffocating narrator and her perhaps everyman (probably middle class everyman) husband John believe that she is ill with something relatively small and common for the ‘weaker sex’, and that she will escape it by ‘relaxing’, which seems to mean being denied all that she desires: her writing and the company of broader-minded friends. It’s important to see that the husband doesn’t quite realise this. Whether he’s just hard-working or having an affair, he’s not trying to hurt his wife, he’s ignoring her. He’s trying to treat her like a formula: putting in x must result in y. He doesn’t even look for the real problem. He doesn’t understand her. She has a better idea, but believes more in her need to be loyal, or the validity of John’s place as husband, and his medical expertise.
This is what unselves her – the conflict between the truth she knows and the lie she’s forced to accept to the point of knowing.
And this is ultimately what the tale is about: Gilman’s narrator is first alienated from all of those around her, and then alienated from herself, becoming the tormented woman of her developing dreams. She’s strangled and torn, like the wallpaper, and imprisoned. Pushed into a tragic role, from which she can only be freed by madness. Increasingly alone, it seems as though reality has abandoned her and so she abandons reality.
The story is a study in repressed suffering, all those little things that we hide from others and eventually from ourselves, that one day come out to build or break us. The point is wonderfully made in Gilman’s descriptions of the room in which her narrator becomes imprisoned – the room with the yellow wallpaper – as the story goes on. It was a nursery, and has a strange, heavy, fixed bedstead. The wallpaper is torn before she arrives and the bed is gnarled, she presumes by the children. But later we come to wonder…exactly when does she have time to sit down and write this, where is she looking from as she writes, and so where are we readers looking from. And maybe we start to wonder if the children aren’t worryingly like the creeping women she sees outside, and hidden in the pattern on the wallpaper.
In the end, I find myself looking back at the naked woman on the front of this edition, and asking myself “Is that skin yellow?”.