The Lady Within “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Most stories come prepackaged with a general roadmap of where the reader’s emotions should go: twists, betrayals, revelations, and even exposition are expected to make the reader think, feel, or perhaps even experience a call to action. The road an author takes the reader down is often tied to some lesson or theme it is meant to embody, whether that theme is a point along the road or found by viewing its scope. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “Any narrative which is concerned with the idea of storytelling,” metanarratives are more than a linear path built on reactions and expectations. Metanarratives speak to a theme or idea by demonstrating it extrinsically, be it through the reader’s experience with the work or through the work’s interactions with dominant tropes in the genre. Enter “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Its narrator, a young woman temporarily living in an old manor with her husband (and eventually his sister), writes an account of her observations and experiences throughout her stay, with the wallpaper in her room becoming a focal point therein. Though the wallpaper appears hazy and abstract, behind the buds and stalks of fungus and strangled visages, in the daylight she eventually makes out the figure of a woman. She is frozen by daylight, but at night that woman creeps about the back-pattern, thrashing the front pattern and bars that hide behind it. As the wallpaper continues to clear, the narrator becomes increasingly obsessed with it, and obsessed with the lady she sees behind it. The lady seems to multiply as her pattern recurs, and she attempts to escape, strangled by the front pattern every time. Eventually the woman does seem to escape out from behind the wallpaper into the garden during the day, and she seems to multiply there as well. Strangest of all, she seems to slip back into the wallpaper by nightfall. The journey through the narrator’s writings, particularly her journey with the lady, invokes a curious metanarrative which, in a sense, can place the reader in her uncertain and contemplative shoes. The use of a mentally ill and unreliable narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” creates a metanarrative concerned predominantly with a search for truth within the reader, which begins with the titular wallpaper and its illusory prisoner, continues into its vague ending, and leads the reader to question the veracity of the people and places around her.