Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” first published in the January 1892 issue of The New England Magazine.
“I know a little of the principle of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of. It is repeated, of course, by the breadths, but not otherwise. Looked at in one way each breadth stands alone, the bloated curves and flourishes—a kind of “debased Romanesque” with delirium tremens—go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity. But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase.”
Unnamed narrator (UN) and her physician husband John have taken a colonial mansion with extensive grounds for the summer. She wonders why it’s been unoccupied for so long, and why they’ve gotten it so cheaply. She’d like to think the place romantically haunted, but practical John laughs at such superstition.
UN is not supposed to be “working”—that is, writing—but this secretly scrawled narrative relieves her. Though John refuses to think her “sick,” he admits she’s suffering from nervous depression and slight hysterical tendencies. Exercise and fresh air (and various drugs) will soon set her up. It’s for fresh air that John picked the top floor bedroom. It has windows all around and was evidently used as a nursery, then a playroom: the windows are barred, you see, and there are rings in the walls, and the wallpaper is stripped off in places, as if by rambunctious children.
Or did the children hate the wallpaper as much as she grows to? A student of design herself, UN can find no aesthetic order in its uncertain curves and angles and bulbous bits like staring eyes. It’s full of “great slanting waves of optic horror,” a “debased Romanesque with delirium tremens” that “goes waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity.” As for the color! It’s far from the cheerful yellow of sunlight and buttercups. Where it’s faded, it’s unclean. In other places it’s “a dull yet lurid orange” or a “sickly sulphur.”
In the moonlight, the paper seems to have a faint back pattern, a woman who creeps behind the fungous bars of the fore pattern and shakes them, as if trying to escape.
Dear John won’t accede to her pleas to switch rooms or leave the house altogether. She’s letting dangerous fancy enter her mind. For his sake, and that of their recently born child (whom she can’t bear to be around), she must control her imagination!
Imagination, eh? Hasn’t she caught John and his sister Jennie staring at the wallpaper? Jennie claims it’s because John and UN’s clothing often has yellow “smooches” on it from brushing the paper. They should be careful about that.
UN continues to study the wallpaper. In addition to growing new mushroomy tendrils and shifting the tones of its yellows, it exudes a yellow smell that pervades the house and clings to her hair. And what’s that rub-mark near the floor, that circles the whole room except behind the bed? (The bed, she notes, which is nailed down.)
At night the woman behind the fore pattern—or is it many women?—crawls very fast, shakes the bars, and pokes her head through the twining fungus only to be strangled white-eyed by it. During the day she seems to get out, for UN can spy her out of every window, always creeping along, sometimes “fast as a cloud shadow in a high wind.”
John asks questions and pretends to be loving and kind. When he’s away, Jennie offers to sleep with UN. UN sends her off so she can help the woman behind the wallpaper break free. UN pulls and the woman pushes; UN pushes and the woman pulls. Before morning, they’ve stripped off yards of paper. Next day UN locks the door and keeps stripping. The day after, she and John will leave the house, just as UN starts to enjoy her room’s bareness. She can’t reach the paper nearest the ceiling, alas, and can’t move the bed. Look how gnawed it is. She bites it herself in her rage. Why, she’s angry enough to jump out a window, but the windows are barred; besides, that’s a step that could be misconstrued.
Outside women creep, and creep fast. Did they come out of the wallpaper like UN did in spite of John’s (and Jane’s) opposition? Will she have to get back behind the pattern at night? She doesn’t want to creep outside, where it’s green, not yellow. She wants to keep creeping around the walls, her shoulder to the yellow smooch. It fits there so nicely.
John comes and threatens to break down the door. UN tells him where she’s thrown the key outside, repeating her instructions very gently and slowly until he must go fetch it.
When John comes into the room, she’s creeping. She looks over her shoulder and tells him she’s escaped in spite of him. Plus she’s pulled down most of the paper, so he can’t put her back behind it!
Now why should that man faint right across her path by the wall, so she has to creep over him every time!
What’s Cyclopean: The most interesting word choice in this story may be the “smooch” of yellow that streaks around the wall. Such an… affectionate… term, under most circumstances.
The Degenerate Dutch: In which the case is made that patriarchy is considerably creepier than any elder god.
Mythos Making: Gilman beats Chambers by three years on the terror of the color yellow, and Lovecraft by about three decades on the terrors of fungus and geometry.
Libronomicon: You shouldn’t write; it will only excite your fancies.
Madness Takes Its Toll: The titular wallpaper appears to have all the sanity-destroying powers later attributed to the Necronomicon.
What is it about the color yellow that inspires famously unreliable narrators? There’s “The King in Yellow,” and now “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Yellow! A cheerful sounding word, right? Almost like “hello.” Rhymes with “mellow.” It’s the color of so many flowers, not only buttercups but marigolds and dandelions and lilies and roses and goldenrod. It’s the color of our sun, and of wheat fields under the sun, and of exotic spices from sunny lands, like saffron and turmeric.
But Nature also chooses yellow for “old, foul, bad” things. Jaundiced skin. Stained teeth. Predator eyes peering out of jungle foliage. Pus. Those nasty puddles that leak out of overstuffed dumpsters. You have to be really careful when you mix up some yellow. A touch too much green (or blue), you’ve got slime or ichor. A touch too much red, you’ve got a “lurid” orange or sulphur, a rotten egg yolk.
The wallpaper in our story has all the icky tones of yellow. It’s like the mottled hide of an old woman dying of hepatitis, and hey, there’s actually a woman behind it, or the soul of a woman, or the souls of all women penned in until they go mad, sometimes with quiet resignation, sometimes floridly, as here. Appropriately, she in an attic, and the attic windows are barred (not for the safety of children, after all), and the floors are splintered and the plaster gouged and the bedstead gnawed (not by rollicking naughty boys) but by a lunatic. In Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft suggests that Gilman’s UN finds herself in the cell of a former madwoman. Yes, good husband and noted physician John didn’t pick this vacation house for its views, nice as they are. He picked it for the proper accommodation of his postpartum bride, who’s proven to be no nice presentable Victorian Madonna. Nope. She’s an emotional wreck, but not “sick.” Never call her sick to her face. She couldn’t handle it. Her congenitally overwrought imagination would spin out of control. While we’re at it, no more writing for her. No more hanging out with her stimulating cousins Henry and Julia. Just air and quiet and that wallpaper.
So, is UN the only madwoman ever to occupy this attic? Was there another? Is there STILL another madwoman, spiritually steeped into the paper, waiting for a susceptible body and mind to usurp? Or is it just UN’s pathological fancy that creates the woman, the women, only to be “possessed” by her or them?
It’s not an easy question to answer. How far can we trust UN? Her narrative reads like that of an educated and lively-minded woman, writer and artist, just the sort of companion to be esteemed by cousins Henry and Julia. Violets and lilacs may go well with yellow, but Gilman’s prose here wears no complementary purple. UN’s writing is straightforward, colloquial, vivid in its descriptions, often wry or even ironic in its tone. It’s a downright relief to get so many paragraph breaks — UN must be sane, to break paragraphs so astutely. Yeah, if that damn John wasn’t so dense a physician and husband, she’d be fine. Her instincts are right—she needs activity and stimulation and work, not seclusion and overbearing physic, including who knows what drugs? With all her “tonics,” no wonder she’s too weary to write or do anything but lie around and stare at the walls.
And the paper.
John’s either incompetent, for all his “high standing,” or he’s gaslighting UN!
Or not? Just because UN comes off as smart and talented doesn’t mean she can’t be paranoid, too. And on the verge of psychosis.
Then there’s the overarching theme of women socially trapped and restrained, which idea UN projects into the wallpaper. That theme works fine whether one thinks UN is indeed on the verge of psychosis at story start, then pushed over the verge by mistreatment; or whether one thinks UN was right that the house is strange, that it’s truly haunted, and by a ghost that will ultimately possess UN. Possess her to the point where she doesn’t recognize John, but refers to him as “that man” who’s blocking her creep-path.
I always like the supernatural alternatives in stories like these. Yeah, I want there to really be a King in Yellow, not just a crazy man who believes in the King. Yeah, I want there to be ghosts in the wallpaper, ghosts creeping in the road and hiding under blackberry bushes and cruising across the open country like cloud shadows! Or the one ghost, so fast it looks like many ghosts. Cool! Think of “The Yellow Wallpaper” made in the modern cinematic style of fast-forwards and jump-cuts, of cameras that wander across mundane rooms or landscapes, only to suddenly pan into the horror! Or has that been done already?
The creeping women so creep me out.
Oh, and I can relate to UN about the seductive weirdness of certain wallpapers. I put one up in the breakfast room that in the sample looked like innocent vines and apples and forget-me-nots in the style of William Morris. But once there were large expanses of this stuff, I started seeing voluptuous female torsos accompanied by stylized uteruses complete with ovary-apples and sinuous Fallopian tube branches and blue-flower spermatozoa. And that can get just a wee bit psychosexual before one’s had one’s coffee, don’t you know.
Still like it, though. Would probably also like the Yellow Wallpaper, if I could get used to the background woman shaking the foreground all night. Blackout curtains could be the solution—no moonlight or other animating illumination! Too bad John would have nixed curtains as too much of an expense for a mere summer rental.
The last time I read “Wallpaper,” it was the token feminist story in my high school literature textbook. Strange aeons later, I remembered the feminism—overt enough to be comprehensible to teenagers in an era before “gaslighting” was discussed daily on Tumblr. And I remembered the madness-versus-the-supernatural ambiguity, a trope for which I had considerably less patience at the time. I did not remember how utterly, claustrophobicly creeptastic the thing is.
Plus, in high school, I had a lot less experience with patronizing gaslighters. Now, after helping a few friends through a few traumatic divorces, I’ve seen the point where you ask yourself: is this relationship actually less horrible than having a partner who steals your body to summon shoggoths? “Wallpaper” is all about that fine, fine line. At some level, it doesn’t matter whether Jane is possessed by the non-Euclidean décor, or driven from postpartum depression into dissociative mania by her husband’s “care.” The visceral horror is just as nasty either way.
If it is a horror story, what’s going on? Jane starts with the ‘fancy’ of a haunted house—the inevitable suggestion, given the gothic tradition of the time. The “nursery,” however, suggests a different aspect of gothic horror, and one that Lovecraft drew on decades later. Bars on the windows, rings on the walls, gouges all around and bed bolted to the floor… if children ever lived there, they were Whateleys. But the attic’s also the traditional place to lock “mad” relatives, especially female ones.
As for the woman in the wallpaper herself, who delights in creeping—“ghost” seems like far too simple a term. I suppose she could be the spirit of the room’s previous inhabitant. Or she could be the wallpaper itself. The fungous, seaweed-like wallpaper with patterns and angles no human eye can sanely follow—and the very act of trying gives them power. It’s an old gothic tradition, after all, for the house itself to be a character. It’s not much of a stretch for part of the house to be the eldritch horror.
I’ll just note that the usual Victorian methods for dyeing wallpaper yellow involved neurotoxins. So it’s maybe not weird that the color ended up with such nasty associations.
Even taking the wallpaper as a literal and supernatural brown note, John’s role as precipitating jerkwad is vital. The constraints he places on his wife make sympathy with the imprisoned creeper inevitable. Perhaps they also make the space behind the wallpaper seem like a tempting escape in its own right, enough to facilitate the exchange, or possession, or whatever the hell is going on at the end.
The tropes born here will play out across several literary traditions, from mainstream feminist literature to straightforward haunted house stories. In the Mythosian line, Chambers’ King in Yellow stories appear only three years later, featuring a play with similar effects to Gilman’s wallpaper. Lovecraft’s narrators suffer gothicly whenever they come near an ancestral manse. And John and Jane’s marriage reminds me strongly of Asenath and Edward’s. Lovecraft depicts a lot of unhealthy relationships—but more often they involve one partner tempting the other into complicity with unspeakable acts. It’s in “Thing on the Doorstep” that we see a relationship as a quelling thing, something that forces one member to literally suppress their selfhood.
As horror grows more psychologically sophisticated in the decades following, this dynamic will grow more common. All too often, the greatest threats to sanity, life, and limb, come from those with whom we’re most intimate. Once you’ve reached that point, the veil that keeps normal life separate from horror is already pierced—evil spirits and elder gods won’t have any trouble joining the mix.
Next week, in Stephen King’s “Crouch End,” we learn that elder gods make terrible landlords.
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint in April 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.