Saturday 31 January 2015

A Victorian Alphabet: Y is for Why Yellow??

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) is a staple nineteenth-century text for students of literature in the English-speaking world, and especially the US. The 6,000-word short story is an account written in the first person of a woman, Jane, who has been confined to an upper room in a secluded house by her husband John as a result of a nervous disorder. There, having been prescribed a ‘rest cure’ for her hysteria, separated from her baby, and barred from writing, she goes slowly mad, convinced there is something living behind the room’s yellow wallpaper.

Even this straightforward summary raises lots of questions (and contains plenty of content for future blog posts!), but one central question stood out to me the first time I read the text (and seems to have occurred to multiple other students turning to Yahoo Answers for clarity!) – why is the wallpaper yellow, rather than any other shade?

The choice isn’t an accidental one, and is closely linked with contemporary ideas about the colour. Here’s how Jane introduces it first:

The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.

Two important and recurrent associations with yellow are noticeable – yellow is the colour of putrification and also of a milder kind of fading, caused by the passage of time.

Earlier in the century, Dickens had used yellow in the same way, frequently linking the colour to particular characters who are older and somehow linked to decay. This is how Pip first describes the home of Miss Havisham, perhaps the character in the English canon most associated with physical deterioration and the passage of time, in Great Expectations (1860-1):

I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow. 

In The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman is at pains to highlight that the paper is a yellow of these very associations of festering age, rather than say a sunny yellow:

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.

Jane even links the rotting smell she finds pervading her room with the yellow paper itself:

The only thing I can think of that it is like is the COLOUR of the paper! A yellow smell.

In doing so, she is not merely exhibiting an increasing monomania with the paper. ‘Jane’, isolated though she is, is acting just like many other writers of the 1890s! For many (especially European) writers of the Fin de Siècle, yellow was the defining colour of the period, with its associations with degeneracy, the wasting away of the age, a sickliness brought on by inbreeding, boredom or excess.

There was a practical link too. In the nineteenth-century, scandalous French novels were bound in yellow paper to warn browsers of their racy contents. It is one of these books which helps to corrupt the impressionable Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, published the year before Gilman’s story.

Lord Henry gives Dorian a ‘book bound in yellow paper, the cover slightly torn and the edges soiled’. Note how its state of dilapidation is similar to Jane’s paper:

It is stripped off—the paper—in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down.

Later, in Wilde’s novella, Dorian pins the blame for his moral decline squarely on this book:

"Yet you poisoned me with a book once. I should not forgive that. Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to any one. It does harm."

This suggestion – that a book, even a yellow book, can really poison a mind – is one which Wilde rejects firmly:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

But it is interesting to note that Dorian’s book is not generic. It has a particular model as Wilde’s description of it makes clear. It is À Rebours (1884), by Joris-Karl Huysmans (which I reviewed on this blog in September 2013), a novel which is the quintessential story of the degenerate (French) life.

Here’s the effect the novel has on Dorian:

It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.

Dorian’s feelings of discovery and revelation here before a later fall match perfectly with the early stages of Jane’s fixation with the yellow wallpaper. The novel and the paper feel incomplete, raiments, something torn, but they inspire what could be described as creativity – Jane’s writing, Dorian’s beautiful life – but could also be identified as self-destructive madness.

When it came to naming a quarterly literary journal in London in 1894, its founders were in no doubt what to name it – The Yellow Book was the perfect descriptor of the age although it (fittingly!) died out before the end of the century (1897). With contributors including Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, H.G. Wells and Henry James, The Yellow Book shows just how much yellowness meant to writers of this period.

It is within this context too then that The Yellow Wallpaper should be read. The question is not ‘why is the paper yellow?’. It might rather be ‘how do these ideas of degeneracy, and this link to the Aestheticism of the period, play into to Gilman’s other concerns, with gender, motherhood and madness?’

We’re nearly there! What should be 'Z' in my Victorian Alphabet?? It’s a tricky one so send me your suggestions – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!


  1. Speaking of yellow, there's also a fairly disturbing pornographic story called "The Yellow Room" (1891), clearly capitalizing on these associations of licentiousness.

  2. You've reminded me that I must read The Yellow Wallpaper.

    As for Huysmans' A rebours/Against Nature, it was blamed for corrupting Dorian and his creator, but there were other significant yellow books in Wilde's life. See

  3. Great post! My students and I discuss the synesthesia of the yellow in class every term. I often start with a discussion of what they associate with yellow (rot, urine, decay,etc) and then move the discussion to why it is so important that the yellow is not just something she sees but something she smells ("The color of the paper, a yellow smell"). The melding or crossing of the sensory is very much linked to the decay of the paper (as a metaphor for mental or textual decay).
    Many neo-Victorian novels and texts find interesting ways to bring in how important yellow was in the 19th century in their rewriting, or positioning of the texts.
    I am glad this post has allowed many to have this discussion about colour and textuality.

    1. Thanks, Ann! That sounds like a good seminar topic. Any recommendations for relevant neo-Victorian novels here?

    2. Hi, Sorry for the late reply, neo-Victorian is not necessarily my area of expertise however, I think a lot of the ideas mentioned above are in Parmar's _Vanessa and Her Sister_ . It was such an excellent read!