Book appreciation: The Yellow Wallpaper - feminist parable a masterpiece

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm

The Yellow Wallpaper
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The New England Magazine


The first mention of yellow, besides the title, in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's feminist parable The Yellow Wallpaper occurs as an early exclamation of aesthetic disgust.

Our narrator, Jane, describes how she and her husband, John, have moved to an "ancestral hall", before noting that the room he has chosen for her is wallpapered with "one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns … and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide - plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves".

It is hard to miss the unsettling undertones: "commit suicide … destroy". Jane's revulsion rises to the surface: "The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight."

Yet, at first, this seems a marriage of touching concern and spousal devotion. We learn Jane has been unwell: "Temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency - what is one to do?" she asks breezily. John has taken the situation, and Jane, in hand. "He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction … I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more."

Again, clues exist to a sinister purpose: soon, John doesn't seem so much a careworn husband as a jailer and the 19th century's equivalent of a control freak.

Locked in solitary confinement, Jane loses touch with the world outside and begins a dangerously intense communion with the walls around her. "It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw - not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old, foul, bad yellow things."

Suggestive of putrefaction, "yellow" becomes symbolic of Jane herself, who starts stripping the wallpaper in the conviction that a "creeping" woman is trapped inside.

The 6,000-word masterpiece works as horror story, psychological thriller and feminist cri de coeur. Gilman was protesting at a society that labelled female imagination as illness and a medical establishment that treated women's depression with domestic confinement. The Yellow Wallpaper, she said, "was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy".

The Yellow Wallpaper is a monument to Gilman's courage, tenacity and imagination.