“It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.”
I heard about this story earlier today from Amanda over at Dead White Guys: An Irreverent Guide to Classic Literature where she called it “one of the creepiest things ever ever”. With the RIP VI challenge on the brain, this sounded right up my alley. I found a free copy of it online and cleared about a half hour on my work calendar, anxiously awaiting to be titillated (dirty) and flabberghasted (not dirty, but sounds like it should be). This is not, however, what happened.
Granted, this short story does pack quite a bit of punch in to it’s relatively tiny length. It’s at once a feminist plea to actually be able to DO SOMETHING – gasp! – as opposed to sitting around all day, an exploration of ‘madness’ and all that goes with the term, and an incredibly long winded narration on some shoddy home decorating. Because SERIOUSLY. C.P. Gilman goes on FOREVER about this yellow wall paper. In detail. Yes, it’s the title of the story. Yes, I guess it’s kind of this huge metaphor for the double-ness that exists between a woman’s inner life and her outer life. And sure, it gets kind of creepy at the end (especially when **SPOILER** you’re left wondering, in a very Hamlet-esque fashion, whether or not she really was the woman in the wallpaper, whether or not there was a woman in the wallpaper, and just what are those strange S&N-reminiscent marks all over the wall and bedpost? **END SPOILER**
I found the story to be far stronger in it’s feminist aspects than in it’s horror-story ones. The yellow wallpaper – “It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw–not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things…But there is something else about that paper–the smell! I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad. Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here” – is all that the main character (whose name we don’t ever learn, I don’t think) has to look at. All day. Why? Because she’s a lady – quite possibly a mentally ill one at that – and because of that her husband (a “physician” of the times, though he should really be careful against praising his depressed wife for sleeping all the time and then SUDDENLY BECOMING AN INSOMNIAC!!! I mean, can you say giant flashing ‘warning’ sign?) “says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.”
And by trying, she means she does nothing. Literally nothing. She sits. And stares. And writes this story, which apparently she shouldn’t be doing because it’s still too much exertion for her tiny womanly frame and weak, menstruation-laden sensibilities to be able to handle. So she watches the wallpaper. Is it moving? Or is the abstract geometry of the pattern just driving her insane? That’s the question, at the end of the day, that the reader is left to explore. Too bad the process of exploring this question is enough to drive me almost as insane as Ms Gilman’s wallpaper.
I’ll be counting this as part of my Peril of the Short Story section for Carl’s RIP Challenge, and can’t wait to hit up some
better other short stories! Don’t skip the read, though. It might be more your thing. I just like to know my insane people are insane. Unless you really are Hamlet, in which case I’m going to assume you be crazy. But it’s a great feminist read, and makes you really glad (as a lady) that the days of medically ‘curing’ a woman have come past “um…lock her in a room?”
PS: Thank you so much to all those fantastic well-wishers out there who passed on their congratulations! It means the world and I can tell you that we’re both (obviously) really, really excited!