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The Yellow Sign by Robert Chambers: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Robert Chambers was a writer of horror and weird fiction whose work inspired H.P. Lovecraft and other authors in these genres. In this lesson, we'll summarize and analyze his creepy tale 'The Yellow Sign.'

Summary

Mr. Scott, the story's narrator, is an artist living in New York City. One day he notices an overweight, pale young man— the watchman for the church next door to his apartment building— who reminds him of a ''coffin-worm'' or grub. When Scott resumes work on his painting of Tessie, his model, he finds that her skin tones in it have become ''sallow and unhealthy'' (yellowish). He tries to correct this, but is unsuccessful.

Tessie recounts a nightmare she had about watching a hearse from her window at night. Scott was in the coffin it contained, but wasn't dead, and the hearse driver was the church watchman. Scott dismisses this. The next day, his building's bell boy, Thomas, tells him how he was passing the churchyard with his friends one night. He didn't like how the watchman was staring at them, so he accosted and punched him. The watchman's flesh was ''cold and mushy,'' and when he grabbed Thomas' wrists, his middle finger came off in Thomas' hand. He and his friends ran away after the encounter.

Scott tells Tessie about the nightmare he had after hearing her story: he was in a glass-topped coffin carried by a glass-windowed hearse and saw her watching him from her window. Tessie is unnerved and upset; she says she has feelings for Scott. The two share a kiss. That night, as he's passing the churchyard, the watchman asks him: ''Have you found the Yellow Sign?'' The next day, Tessie gives him a black onyx pin with a mysterious golden symbol that she found in Battery Park after visiting the aquarium.

A Victorian horse-drawn hearse with glass windows (1886)
A Victorian horse-drawn hearse with glass windows (1886)

The following day, Scott finds a book in his library that isn't his called The King in Yellow. He's upset because he's heard that those who read or discuss it go insane, including his acquaintance Castaigne, who's mentioned in Part Three of the story. He tells Tessie not to open it, but she does. Both she and Scott read the play and discuss it together.

An 1895 edition of The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers
An 1895 edition of The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers

That night, the hearse arrives, and Scott can't prevent the watchman from invading his building and room. Tessie dies at the hands of the watchman, and he then assaults and embraces the artist, who identifies him as the King in Yellow. The next day, the doctor says that Scott is dying, and that the watchman ''must have been dead for months.'' We learn that he's narrated the whole story from his deathbed.

Analysis

The title of ''The Yellow Sign'' refers to the symbol on the pin that Tessie finds and gives to Scott. This much is fairly straightforward. However, if you finished ''The Yellow Sign'' and didn't understand who or what the King in Yellow is, it's probably because your copy is a standalone text or is part of a different collection.

''The Yellow Sign'' is an intertextual narrative, or one that refers to other texts and requires readers to be familiar with them in order to understand it. The King in Yellow is a fictional play invented by Chambers that's reported to be cursed: anyone who finishes its second act will be driven insane, and worse may befall those who discuss it out loud. The collection of short stories in which ''The Yellow Sign'' was originally published was named after this (nonexistent) play, and its stories contain references to it. When Scott mentions ''the awful tragedy of young Castaigne,'' he's talking about events in ''The Repairer of Reputations'' in the same collection. (Castaigne's fate is that he finishes The King in Yellow and goes insane).

Once we know this, we can better understand what happens to Scott and Tessie: after Tessie ignores Scott's warnings and reads The King in Yellow, Scott reads it himself. Like Adam and Eve who eat forbidden fruit despite being warned against it, Tessie and Scott succumb to the temptation of knowledge— or in this case, a good story. They are doomed to the ''hopeless damnation'' of insanity (for reading the play) and death (presumably for discussing it). However, the King in Yellow, who was already a corpse, also seems to be lifeless and powerless by the end of the story.

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