Exam season. The most stressful time of year for any teacher, regardless of what subject you teach. Today was the English exam that my lovely Year 11s were sitting. The first year group of my career – they are special to me. I always feel nervous and worry about them all, I am desperate for them to do well. Yet, I could literally burst with pride. They are cool as cucumbers, telling me to “relax miss” and showing me that they have learnt so much this year. So whilst they are frantically writing remembering all the exam skills we have spent a year fine-tuning, I look back to the start of my career.
I started at the deep end. I was teaching Gothic Literature to a top set, very bright group. Thinking back I know I was incredibly nervous. What if they asked me something I didn’t know the answer to? We started with The Yellow Wallpaper. These students, with some slight changes to the group have shaped me into the teacher I am today. 3 years I have spent teaching them. It has been mostly sheer joy. As a leaving present I bought each of them their own copy of The Yellow Wallpaper (which I signed and dated.) It seems right that today I post a review of this book, which also happens to be one of my own personal favourites.
I can remember the first time I read this incredible short story. I got carried away and it ended far too quickly (6000 words isn’t enough!) I felt a range of emotions when reading this, and still do when I re-read today. Mostly I felt a lot of anger and uncertainty when reading this. It must be the little feminist in me! The fact that the narrator isn’t given a name (or a name that is confirmed. Potentially she is called Jane) still bugs me.
The opening provides crucial information regarding who she is. ‘It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral homes for the summer.’ From this we know the narrator is obviously female as she is married, most likely to be middle class and has a husband named John. These three traits, all in the first sentence, foreshadow the importance for the development of the plot rather than her identity or personal history. As a Victorian story, these highlight the conflicts during this period of time, especially regarding women.
The plot shows how the narrator, unreliable as she is, descends into madness. Her husband tries to be supportive but he lacks the understanding of his wife – typical of the time period. He believes it’s in her best interest to go on a rest cure after the birth of their child. They stay in this mansion which she states has “something queer about it.” They move into a room upstairs which has lots of windows, however they are all barred. There is also tears in the wallpaper and scratches in the floor. The narrator assumes these attributes are from children, yet as a reader I’m not so sure. There is something that doesn’t quite sit right, yet I can’t put my finger on it. (Although it obviously becomes clearer at the end of the text.)
The narrative continues to describe the wallpaper. It’s “yellow smell” and the “breakneck pattern”, missing patches and the way it’s leaves yellow stains on skin and the clothing of anyone who touches it. The vivid description of how the the longer she stays in the room the more it seems to change and mutate is quite astonishing. The narrator believes she can see see a female figure in the wallpaper. The description is so detailed, when I closed my eyes I could easily imagine it for myself.
The wallpaper is clearly a metaphor for the narrator’s own freedom. She believes she needs to peel off the remaining wallpaper to set the woman she sees within it free. On the final day of summer she locks herself in the room and decides she needs to take all the paper down. Yet when John arrives back he has to use a key to get in. Finally, she claims “I’ve got out at last.” This quote will forever stay in my mind. The blurring of the narrator and the wallpaper as they seem to become one is rather astonishing.
This book is truly special in the way it deals with the relationship with madness and Victorian women. The vivid description, the well paced plot, the contextual accuracy makes it a really interesting read. It is important to note that a Victorian reader this text was unprintable and shocking. It’s by no means a pleasurable read. It’s uncomfortable, unnerving even. But it is a superb snapshot into early feminist writing.