The King in Yellow
by Robert W. Chambers
Synopsis in Seven Sentences
This novel, The King in Yellow, is a collection of short stories which seems to have no rhyme or reason. At some points it follows the lives of various artists (in Rue Barrée, The Mask, The Street of the First Shell, The Street of Four Winds, The Street of Our Lady of the Fields, and The Yellow Sign) through their lives. At others, (In the Court of the Dragon, The Mask, The Repairer of Reputations, and The Yellow Sign) stories seem linked only by the presence of insanity and a fictional play titled The King in Yellow. This play supposedly has the power to drive its readers insane, and has been banned across the world by absolutely everyone. When our characters are exposed to it, they find themselves in various states of insanity and often end up as either murderous or dead. As the book progresses, stories begin to seem less and less insane until one is reading a simple love story about an artist in Paris (Rue Barrée).
The King in Yellow
The King in Yellow is the name of the novel, the name of a fictional play, and the name of a character of sorts, so for simplicity's sake we shall call him The Yellow King. He first appears in the story The Repairer of Reputations. We learn that The Yellow King is powerful and terrifying, and he exists as this sort of horrible idea. Hildred believes that he is the cousin of The Yellow King, and we believe that Louis is The Yellow King. By the end of the story, The Yellow King becomes Hildred, and then Louis again. After this story, The Yellow King becomes less of a character and more of an idea. In his next appearance, The Mask, he is an idea that follows the play. After reading the play, two of the characters go crazy. Their insanity is caused by the presence of The Yellow King in their minds. The amount that was read was directly proportional to the insanity of the reader. He becomes a bit more subtle and invasive than he was as an actual human. He is next seen in In the Court of the Dragon, first as the play that our narrator read before the story began, and then as the organ player who hunts the narrator. Here, The Yellow King is definitely an idea, pervasive and terrifying. He now seems everywhere at once. Our character says that “...[The Yellow King] had been hunting my soul in the Court of the Dragon.” (page 105), describing his experience with The Yellow King seeming to follow him everywhere, including to his home in the Court of the Dragon. At the end, the Yellow King appears inside of the play as a physical being, but one is still left with the impression that he only exists outside of the play as a sort of ominous cloud. In The Yellow Sign, The Yellow King goes from an idea which pervades the air to a spirit which possesses others through their reading of his play. In this story, he sends a reanimated dead man to hunt those who have been avoiding him after being marked by the yellow sign. From the beginning of the novel to the end, he becomes a physical man, then a small and localized idea, then a larger and more invasive idea, then a huge idea that seems to spread through the air, then as a sort of god who possesses others to do his work. He gradually goes from a character in a play, to the ravings of a crazy man, to the ravings of a collection of people, to a god-like figure. To me, he really represents insanity and the power that outside forces seemed to have on the individual lives of Victorian Era citizens. In an age connected by hopelessness and fatalism, The Yellow King is every huge and powerful force that keeps people from controlling their own lives.
Colette, while never a main character, is one of the few characters that repeats through several stories. Though there is no indication that she is actually the same character, she is at least named the same thing. She first appears in The Street of the First Shell, where she is a beautiful young orphan. She goes through hardships to help her friends and, through extremely poor, is extremely selfless. She begins the story as an accessory to Mr. West, and slowly grows into this strong girl that has her own share of troubles. She is not a strong character, she is a woman who suits the times, but she is a character with high endurance. It takes a war, riots, lack of food, and imminent death to make her cry. Even with so much darkness, she is shown to have small joys. In the quote “'I--that is, I must explain that things are changed. Colette and I--are to be married-'” (page 205), West describes his joyful engagement to Colette. In her next story, The Street of Our Lady of the Fields, she is the friend of Elliott and a Parisian. She is seen as happy and vapid, as opposed to the tragic figure she was in the last story. She's a model who lets artists draw her however they please, and her friends are of free spirit and loose morals. She is almost the precise opposite of her previous self.
Sylvia seems to exist as many people, all sharing the same name. She is first in The Yellow Sign as a former love interest of Jack Scott. She is spoken of only very little, and only in past-tense. Jack Scott speaks to himself as says “The one passion of my life lay buried in the sunlit forests of Brittany.” (page 127) referring to Sylvia. This leads us to believe she is dead. She is later revealed to be both beautiful and religious. In her next story, The Street of Four Winds, she is spoken of as two people. She is at first a cruel and distant woman who was once known by Severn, and later as a controversial figure who is liked by artists and hated by the rest. When we finally meet her in person, as opposed to just hearing about her, we find that she is dead. She appears once more in the story The Street of the First Shell as the wife of Jack Trent. This is the only story which shows her as a real, living person. She is frail, and weak, and she is married to Jack Trent. She is now a mother and a lover and a keeper of dark secrets. Through the course of the story, she goes from being a memory to being a living human.
Two Themes to Track
This novel, being a collection of short stories, did not seem to keep any themes throughout the entire book. There were, however, two which appeared in the majority of stories.
Those that try to change their fates will be punished.
The most fatalistic characters in this book were always artists. These artists would either fight or accept their fates, and are punished or rewarded accordingly. Tracking this through the stories reveals that the author clearly believes in fatalism.
Women should be entirely submissive.
The female characters in this book tend to be very frail, simple, and dependent on a man. They reflect the way that women were viewed at the time that this story was written. As the story progresses, how submissive the main female is directly correlates to how well she and/or her love interest end up.
Signs of the Times
This novel was from the Victorian Era. It was highly impacted by the idea of fatalism: that one's fate is decided for them and that they cannot change it. Every character which has tried to change their fate, and therefore went against fatalism, was punished. Character portrayal was also affected by the times. Women were weak and submissive, and men were strong and stoic. Artists were too loose with their morals, and a play could cause mass hysteria.
The Man He Killed
By Thomas Hardy
Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although
He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.
Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.
The poem The Man he Killed by Thomas Hardy shows Victorian fatalism. The narrator, a soldier, speaks about killing another man in a war. He has no control over where he meets the man or what he is expected to do. He is not motivated by any personal hatred. He is simply doing as he is told by outside influences, which is the very definition of fatalism.
Eve by Thomas Brock
This sculpture, in marble, is called Eve. Victorian artist Thomas Brock created the incredibly lifelike sculpture. It connects to the short story The Mask in that it seems almost as though the artist used the same potion as Brutus and Alec to create it. The fictional artists would dip flowers, plants, and small animals into the potion in order to create a realistic sculpture. Brock did it without a potion.
There were several parts about this novel that I liked, and several that I despised. I enjoyed the carrying over of minor details and characters into other stories. It made the world of The King in Yellow seem more connected and, therefore, more real. Sometimes the carrying over is subtle, such as the case with the statue The Fates in the park in the first story (page 10) being seen again in the very next story (page 65). Sometimes the carrying over is unmistakable, such is the case when Jack Scott appears as a minor character in The Mask (page 66) and becoming the main character in The Yellow Sign (page 115). A few thing the author did seemed unnecessary or even completely irrelevant. After The Prophet's Paradise, the stories shift from being about insanity to being a series of Parisian love stories. They seem to be completely unrelated to the King in Yellow, and barely mention anything crazy at all. The very last story echoes the first slightly, but it still does not mention the King in Yellow. The Prophet's Paradise itself is insane, but also highly confusing. Several of the poems that make it up seem to have no rhyme or reason, and send no real message. The entire story connects to nothing else in the entire book. I appreciate it as a divider for the two types of stories told, but I feel that the same affect could be accomplished by having a single blank page between them.