Truth is elusive. It’s like a spirit that haunts our accounts but remains intangible. Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses this precise metaphor in her novella The Yellow Wallpaper, which tells of a confined housewife troubled by a presence inside her bedroom’s wallpaper. The ghostly entity reflects a hidden truth about our unnamed narrator. To some extent, it represents the modernists’ view of truth in the literary arts, but, on a more immediate level, it turns out her repression given form.
The same way, say, Marlow fixates on Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper obsesses over her bedroom’s wallpaper. At first, she’s simply put off by its unattractiveness: “I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.” However, harmless disgust quickly morphs into disturbing anger and paranoia: “There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down. I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness.”
The wallpaper is personified. It is given malevolent intent: “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!” The narrator cannot escape its aggression: “I find it [the wallpaper’s smell] hovering in the dining room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me in the stairs […] Even when I got to ride, if I turn my head suddenly and surprise it–there is that smell!” At night, the wallpaper’s outside pattern “becomes bars”, and she sees in it a woman shaking “the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out”. The spirit that haunts her is actually her own.
The narrator herself is trapped. Her husband does not allow her out of the house: “I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. But he said I wasn’t able to go.” Also, he forbids her any meaningful activity. The narrator is not allowed to write. She is forced to do so clandestinely: “There comes John, and I must put this away,–he hates to have me write a word.” However, John is not the only character against her writing: “She [John’s sister] is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!”
Like the entity inside the wallpaper, the narrator is a prisoner. The patterns that hold her are those of a male dominated society. The final pages of The Yellow Wallpaper depict the woman’s attempt to escape, though I’ll leave you to decide whether I’m referring to the ghostly presence or to the narrator. Suffice it to say that the scene, with its own mad patterns and deliberate inconsistencies, chilled me to the bone when I first read it.
If this notion strikes you as a tad elusive, keep in mind that, to writers like Gilman, a word only symbolizes a concept; it is not the concept itself. For example, the word “wallpaper” is not wallpaper in itself. When going through The Yellow Wallpaper, each reader has probably seen different wallpaper in his or her mind’s eye. In this fashion, we are forever alone: no one can possibly share our existential perspective. Because of this, modern authors tend to depict experiences in an abstract manner, using symbolism to convey their ideas.
Nowhere in Gilman’s story is the yellow wallpaper clearly described. Readers are told that the “outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus […] an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions”. This is all very ambiguous. However, every reader has likely imagined something unpleasant and upsetting because fungus and toadstools are generally associated with death and decay. Gilman uses the wallpaper as a symbol to communicate women’s plight, a truth that oppression has made obscure.