“What is the matter?” the narrator’s husband asks in one of the last paragraphs of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. It’s the first time he asks his wife what is wrong. But by that point, it’s too late.
You see, no one likes a mad woman.
And in the end of The Yellow Wallpaper (*spoilers*) our female narrator ends up quite mad. But she also takes back her own power and, in a way, her freedom.
When Taylor Swift released folklore in July 2020, listeners got a few more glimpses into the painful battle for her masters that was coupled alongside the heartbreaking betrayal of someone she trusted for years.
Swift’s song mad woman is a calm, steady, methodical descent into the special kind of insanity fueled by pain and anger. For centuries, women have been minimized and ostracized, hunted and blamed, burned, lobotomized, isolated, and shamed, themes Swift has explored in countless songs.
When looking at lyrics of mad woman and certain aspects of reputation and Lover through the lens of The Yellow Wallpaper, the short story from 1892 feels as if it could have been written by Swift herself, a modern day story of timeless female pain.
In Wallpaper, readers meet a woman who is being forced to “rest” to cure her depression and anxiety in a room with horrible yellow walls. We immediately see how the narrator defines her own mental state and own sense of self through a man’s perspective: her husband.
John, a doctor, is a steady drumbeat of dismissiveness disguised as rationale (*cough* patriarchy*). John’s extreme reasonableness causes our narrator to assume she’s the one with major problems. He cares so, so, much, which is why he is telling her what to do and how to think/feel:
“John is practical in the extreme.”
“John says the very worst thing I can do is think…”
“He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.”
At one point the husband calls the narrator “little girl” when telling her what she shouldn’t be doing.
Throughout Swift’s career, she’s continually run into men who infantilize her, reduce her to her emotions and try to minimize her strength. And her experience with her masters is no different.
Whether we saw statements declaring men’s reasonableness and maturity while labeling Swift’s emotions as a “temper tantrum,” or whether they are flying around saving face, the men in the story of her masters are kindred to the narrator’s husband, John. They gaslight the woman who tries to speak. Your thoughts and your feelings are incorrect, little girl.
But Swift’s anger fuels her determination. Swift sings, “When you say I seem angry/ I get more angry” just as the narrator in Wallpaper states, “I get positively angry with the impertinence of it [the yellow wallpaper] and the everlastingness.” And the narrator becomes obsessed with the walls of her room, “I exhaust myself in trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction,” which echoes the lines from mad woman, “They say ‘Move on’, but you know I won’t.”
Swift stated in multiple interviews how excited she is to re-record her masters. Her conviction is heartfelt and positive, but can also be characterized as a sort of obsession, her being one of the first artists to dive into such an ambitious goal: only a certain degree of beautiful madness could drive such an undertaking. The narrator in Wallpaper says, “I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.”
Much like we’ve watched Swift’s career evolve, the yellow wallpaper evolves for our narrator throughout the story. Depending on the time of day or night, the pattern looks different. And at night, it looks like bars. The narrator states “…it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern…The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.” Eventually, the narrator begins to tear at the wallpaper to try and free the woman. She locks the bedroom door (because “No one likes a mad woman”) and gets to work.
In Swift’s music video for Look What You Made Me Do, we see Swift trapped inside a golden cage, surrounded by men. Whether by breaking away from her country-expectations or spearheading creative freedom, Swift also was forced to tear down the confining wallpaper that surrounded her. Imagine Swift trying to negotiate for the rights to her original masters. The narrator in Wallpaper tries once to voice her wishes to her husband to not avail. “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…but he said I wasn’t able to go,” she states.
And while Swift tried her best to avoid the current scenario, without the madness and fury, we wouldn’t be getting Taylor’s Version re-recordings, we wouldn’t get the vault songs and get the opportunity to support a woman reclaiming her own art.
At one point in Wallpaper, the narrator says her husband, “laughed a little the other day, and said I seemed to be flourishing in spite of my wall-paper…I had no intention of telling him it was because of the wall-paper.” One can imagine Swift saying something very similar. That is is because of the very thing that drove her mad that she is doing so much better.
When her husband breaks down the door, asks in horror what she is doing, asks “What is the matter?” we see the narrator is crawling around on all fours.
She says, “‘I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane? And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’ Now why would that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”
Though there are a number of interpretations of who “Jane” is, many agree it is the name of narrator herself. In Swift’s video for …are you ready for it? Viewers see Swift against Swift, we see her battling herself, evolving through versions of what she felt she ‘should’ be, imprisoned by perfectionism, before destroying her controlling-robotic version and rising above it all.
And just like the narrator, whose sane, rational, husband ended up being the one to fall, we get to revel in the glorious madness of Swift moving over and past the very men who tried to lock her away.
The yellow wallpaper drives the narrator to madness, totally fills her every thought, and eventually leads to her “freedom.” She loses her mind but simultaneously reclaims herself (and somehow that was everything).
No one likes a man woman.
What is the matter?
You made her like that.
It does not do to trust people too much.
I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me.
I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder.
You know I didn’t want to have to haunt you, but what a ghostly scene.
Read Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” here.
Listen to Swift’s “mad woman” here.