The Yellow Wall-paper by Charlotte Lesley Perkins Wheeler Gilman

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer. I would say a haunted house–there is something infected about it. Else, why should it be let so cheaply, and why have stood so long untenanted, during a global pandemic? John laughs at me, but one expects that in marriage.

You see he does not believe anyone is sick! If a Republican of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency–what is one to do? So I take hydroxychloroqine and Airborne, vodka tonics and exercise, until I am required to work again in the hospitality industry. My brother is also a Republican, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

Personally, I disagree with their ideas. But John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about Covid-19, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.

So I will let it alone and talk about the house. It is the most beautiful place with a delicious garden! But I don’t like my room a bit, where I use my laptop to design reopening plans to submit to the governor. It is big and airy, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways. It was an insane asylum first and then a gymnasium, I should judge, for the windows are barred and there are rings and things in the walls. The paper is stripped off in great patches all around my desk, as if a person wanted to refresh the decor then fell into melancholy because there is no future and no one will ever again have houseguests anyway.

I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those untraceable patterns committing every statistic sin. It is devious enough to confuse any epidemiologist, pronounced enough to terrify and demand study, and when you follow the uncertain rising curves for long enough they suddenly leap out of sight–plunge up at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in contradictions. It is a lurid sunset orange in some places, an unclean sulfur in others.

There comes John and I must put this away–he hates to have me blog.

*****

We have been here two weeks. John is away all day giving dishonest testimony to Congress. I am glad my paranoia is not justified!

John calls me a blessed little snowflake and teases me as if I have a crush on Dr. Fauci. John knows there is no reason to worry, and that satisfies him. He even scoffs at me about this wall-paper! There is a recurrent spot where microbes rise in plumes. I fancy I can detect a sub-pattern in certain lights, and behind it a strange, provoking, faceless sort of figure that seems to keep washing its hands.

But otherwise really I’m getting fond of the room. It is so remote from bad air and fundraising dinners! I can doomscroll for long hours without being perceived.

There’s a member of the extensive and unquarantined house staff on the stairs.

*****

It dwells in my mind so! The pattern starts at the bottom, rises acutely, dips in some places and plateaus in others. Then it climbs again, over and over. It is a constant irritant to the normal mind and I exhaust myself attempting to make sense of it. I will take a nap I guess.

*****

I don’t know why I should blog this. I don’t feel able. John would think it absurd. He says I mustn’t lose my faith in the president, and has me take Breitbart, to say nothing of vitamin C and rare meat.

I lie in bed and look at the paper. Behind the outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like people posting and tweeting alarming news at a social distance. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder–I begin to think–I wish the pharmaceutical industry would hurry up and release a vaccine!

*****

There are always new infection vectors in the wall-paper and the virus gets into my hair. In this hot weather it is awful, I cannot even walk in the garden. The CDC recommendations go round and round and round and round–they make me dizzy!

But I really have discovered something. The front pattern does move–and no wonder! The people behind the bars shake them! Nobody could climb through the pattern–it strangles so; but I see a woman wearing a mask and brandishing an absentee ballot.

*****

John has contracted the novel coronavirus and is complaining downstairs. He says the Democrats gave it to him and also that it was engineered by Chinese scientists. How he betrays himself!

I don’t want to go outside. I won’t, even if my employer asks me to. It is so pleasant to be in this great room with the masked social media people and read angry opinion pieces as I please. I have locked the door and secreted the key in the hydroxychloroqine bottle. How John does call and pound! It is no use, Republican, you can’t open it!

“For God’s sake,” he cries between coughing fits, “why won’t you let me in? It is only the common cold.”

“I have got scientific rationality at last,” say I, “in spite of the government’s denials! And I’ve made a mask of the wall-paper and you can’t take it off!”

Now I see John in the garden, opening the hatch to the survivalist bunker stocked with guns and canned goods. But I can outlast him because there is sourdough starter under my bed, and toilet paper, and dark chocolate, and useless calendars with all my appointments crossed out. I can creep the internet, cackling and screaming, until the spring thaw, now that I am perfectly sane.

Events of our exile

For the first time ever, while teaching “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I felt inspired to act out the last scene for my students: look, this is what she means, I said, crawling around the edges of the seminar room, fitting my shoulder into an imaginary smooch in the imaginary decorative wall-covering. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, I’m a little frightened at how much I identify with this narrator today. Did you ever register why she’s having her breakdown in a rental house with gorgeous views? Her own home is being renovated. There is no mention in the tale of plumbing mishaps—postpartum hormone/ neurotransmitter issues seem more immediately relevant—but hey, man, that’s all just leakiness and poor fittings in the house-as-self.

So, this afternoon we’re scheduled to move back in; the house won’t be finished but it should be liveable again. I am not confident that the transition will be smooth, but as I packed up our bits and pieces this morning in the house we’ve been borrowing from Kate, I confess I was muttering like a madwoman in an attic: I’ve got out at last, in spite of you dilatory contractors!

Meanwhile, here’s the list I’ve been keeping in my secret diary: evidence of how flooded with work and craziness our life has been for the past 7+ weeks. This is what’s happened since I last slept in my own bed.

1. I drafted many poems involving plumbing metaphors.

2. Madeleine’s height finally exceeded mine and Cameron outgrew a bunch of clothes. These factors compounded with a seasonal shift and poor Lexington shopping options put us into repeated sartorial emergency.

3. Madeleine earned her learner’s permit, began to motor around Rockbridge with an anxious adult in the passenger seat, had her ears double-pierced, and drove us bananas with her county-dwelling chauffeur requirements.

4. Cameron fractured his left wrist blocking a goal at soccer practice. He now refuses to allow his spiffy blue fiberglass cast with Gore-tex lining to be defiled with Sharpie signatures, which I remember as being the best part of the whole miserable adventure, back in the days of clumsy plaster.

5. Both kids finished their first academic marking periods without major crisis; Chris and I started teaching our fall courses, taught six weeks, and submitted overly generous mid-term grades.

6. Cameron commenced an optional science fair experiment involving varied watering conditions for small plants, because we all thought our lives needed further complication. We do not understand where these plants will live once we complete the move.

7. We started off spending much time in our damaged house talking to contractors and watching progress but, as the general disorder increased, became too depressed by the whole thing to stand being there.  It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw—not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.

8. Extremely frustrated with certain contractors, Chris and I took turns weeping, yelling, gnashing our teeth, and picking out tiles, but never gnawing on Kate’s nailed-down beds or tearing off strips of her wallpaper (she has neither, for which we were grateful).

9. I realized how destructive poll-reporting is to our democracy and, worse, to Chris’s mental health. The man is really suffering this election cycle.

10. When not suffocating under avalanches of student essays and poems, I reread Sarah Waters’ Night Watch, only realizing during the horrible protracted abortion scene that I had, in fact, read the novel before and felt cruelly tortured the first time around. Mindy Kaling’s memoir cured me. I just finished Chabon’s Telegraph Ave: A-. I’m wondering why none of my friends have mentioned Rowling’s book: that bad?

Back to reading student responses to Gilman’s gothic short story. Wish me an unhaunted, clean, peaceful night in my own bedroom tonight even though it is, in fact, painted yellow.