An essay by Dr James Roberts

Tracing the Sign...

If the play represents a sacred text, then the Sign is paralleled with a religious icon. It is the crucifix to the King's bible. A nice metaphor, but does it work? What 'use' does the Sign have in the stories?

The Sign is, in its initial description to us (in the story of the same name), in the form of a symbol or letter, usually reproduced in yellow or gold, that is "neither Arabic or Chinese, nor... did it belong to any human script." From the attempts artists have made to reproduce the symbol on paper, I am reminded of the Indian 'Om', used as a focus for contemplation and meditation and representing the name of the Deity. It has been adopted by many as a sign of absolute truth, purity and good. In a perverse way, The Yellow Sign brings about a type of introspection, but whilst it might bring understanding, it doesn't bring peace. It has also been compared with the swastika, again of Indian origins, but the hard edged iconic features of this symbol do not, for me at least, conjure up the chaotic swirling 'dance' of The Yellow Sign. Though perhaps the understated menace is the same.

In the story 'The Yellow Sign' the Sign seems to fall into the hands of the narrator quite by chance, a gift from his model, after she has been unable to trace its original owner. The Sign is only 'recovered' in the end by a figure originally identified as the watchman, and then later as The King in Yellow. This only occurs after the two central characters have read the play and recognised the Sign for what it was. Whether the reading of the play is a catalyst that draws in The King or whether he would have come to claim his Sign anyway is immaterial to the two doomed characters, but in the over-all picture it is of interest to us. Perhaps the understanding of the Sign works to focus their attention, unintentionally summoning the watchman/King. This seems to be the idea formed by the narrator in his fevered recollection of the play and how, in the midst of this terrible understanding, he knew that the King would be coming to reclaim the Sign.

This version of the Sign, gold on onyx, seems to be more important to the King than, say, those in 'The Repairer of Reputations'. Castaigne, at least as far as he is aware, has a "silken robe embroided with the Yellow Sign". Castaigne also has a scroll "marked with the Yellow Sign", which he reveals to his cousin, who fails to recognise it altogether: "Oh, that's it, is it?" Indeed, the appearance of the Sign seems not to inspire dread or result in the tragic consequences evident in 'The Yellow Sign', despite Castaignes earlier claim that it was a sign that "no living human being dared disregard." Towards the end of the story Castaigne hands a Sign to a homeless person begging for money. "I had a blank bit of paper in my pocket, on which was traced the Yellow Sign, and I handed it to him. He looked at it stupidly for a moment and then, with an uncertain glance at me, folded it with what seemed to me exaggerated care and placed it in his bosom." Of course, 'traced' might mean that it was traced invisibly by finger, perhaps as some sort of imagined ritual. Does the homeless man see anything? We don't quite know, but we may have our suspicions, as Castaigne seems to. Again, within the context of the story it simply leaves us in the dark. Which, whilst a good story device for installing a sense of dread, doesn't help us understand the Sign any better.

Maybe the Sign is valuable when fashioned into a gold and onyx amulet. Maybe it has some undisclosed power that is of use to the King that he doesn't want to fall into the hands of others. It is perhaps a royal insignia, one which is both used by the King to denote his status and by heralds or followers to denote their allegiance. Or it could be as simple as a secret symbol used worn or shown in order to let fellow conspirators recognise each other.

These last two cases are both valid for groups such as the 'thousand men' on Mr Wildes list (who had "received the Yellow Sign") and the 'Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign', (despite a lack of evidence to link them directly to the King). In neither case would it be desirable for an outsider to get their hands on (or use) the Sign, of course, their own mad schemes coincide with those of the cult (or the King). Of course, perhaps when the Sign is in the hands of those who work towards goals that coincide with the Kings, he does simply turn a blind eye.

Finally, I'd like to ponder on the actual meaning of the Sign. Recognising it seems to give in power, particularly in 'The Yellow Sign'. The tramp given the piece of paper traced with the Sign in 'the Repairer of Reputations' might recognise it (we never quite know), but if he does is it because he knows the play and recognises its power? Or does he perceive something more subtle in the swirls of the Sign? Can he percieve and appreciate its inherent madness? There is something about the Yellow Sign that even we can recognise, three lines twisting out from a central point, swirling around it (like tatters of a robe?), whilst the centre sits fixed... and yet, sometimes, it seems to gaze back at us... To those within the fiction of the stories, what else might the Sign reveal?

To me it suggests a number of things. Not 'chaos', at least not in that clichéd way in which chaos represents everything random and haphazard. This is a directed chaos, a very personal sense of chaos turned towards you and then focussed, as if you were at the wrong end of the telescope, being watched. Madness, in some ways. A build-up of intense, wild and sometimes dangerous energy. True, sometimes a creative energy, but ultimately a maddening self-destructive one. It also brings to mind the idea of a 'downward spiral'. The spinning of the Sign suggests any number of nature's spirals, either unravelling and unleashing it's influence at you, or pulling you in and enveloping you within it's heart.

The Yellow Sign is a chaos that repells or embraces.

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