The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I read The Yellow Wallpaper during a break at work after reading Fleur Fisher’s post. This was a super quick read-10 pages in the PDF I printed off-but it certainly packs a punch. I’ve heard that it was a good story but based on the talk and the depth of the discussion I never expected it to be so short. Short it was, but the story was also full. An unnamed woman tells us her story.

She and her husband John have leased a home for a few weeks while their home is undergoing repairs. We find out that John is a physician and our narrator has just had a child (he is a baby at least) and she is under strict orders to rest and refrain from any activity as she attempts to fight off a nervous condition and the fancies of her mind. What she really wants is understanding, conversation, and generally intellectual pursuits. Instead she spends much her her time alone or bombarded with commands from her husband who just wants her to get it together because there is nothing at all the matter with her (he’s a doctor, he should know). She wants to write and resorts to writing secretly and then stashing her writing when someone enters her bedroom.

In her bedroom there is a peeling and generally ruined yellow wallpaper. At first she despises the wallpaper-it is ghastly, the pattern is nauseating, it has rips and stains. The wallpaper in many ways is just like our narrator. She then becomes fascinated by it and devotes many hours to figuring out it’s secret-the shifting patterns, the woman behind the paper. It seems that we are experiencing her story through her writing-almost like we might be reading her diary. The narrator is entrapped.

Gilman’s work brings up issues of social constructions placed upon women and their mental health. She does not however offer much commentary on the issues though this may not even be her point. I often wonder about the portrayal of women in novels written during this time and earlier-they seem so fragile often suffering from some ill-defined sickness, their mental health is often in jeopardy though those around her may not recognize it. I wonder even more about the effects of social constructions on men like the narrator’s husband. From her point of view it appears that he may be the source of her entrapment by stifling her creative ability and freedom to make decisions. But what will happen if she is diagnosed with a mental illness how will this reflect on his ability to run a household, to please his wife. What does this say about their family, etc. Keeping up social appearances was of the utmost importance then, and now. He wanted an everyday housewife and mother but that’s not what he got. His answer-to restrict until conformity is found. Even then, what does it mean for her to get better or to at least appear to be better, what does it mean if she remains ‘crazy’?

In the PDF I read, Gilman explains the impetus for her story written in 1899. She had herself suffered from mental health issues and had been prescribed a similar treatment as the narrator in her story. Her rest and idleness served to aggravate her problems and were not resolved until she began to interact with the world again.

The Yellow Wallpaper was reprinted as a Virago Modern Classic in 1981

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4 responses to “The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

  • Claire (Paperback_Reader)

    It’s certainly powerful for being so short, isn’t it? I loved the story when I read it a number of years ago and I’m glad that you took the opportunity to read it online rather than add it to the TBR list, especially when it is so short.

  • Aarti

    I read part of this one, but not the entirety. I just read the book Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar which is also based on mental illness in women, but slightly different situation. It’s definitely something that should be highlighted more, I think, and I’m glad some authors do it so well and sympathetically.

  • LeaningSun

    You’re right Claire, it was powerful and I’m also glad I could read online. I’m not sure the TBR pile could handle many more additions 🙂

    Aarti, I read your review on LT. This book sounds wonderful

  • fleurfisher

    It is extraordinary, isn’t it?! I don’t usually like reading online but in this case, being short and stark, it might work rather well.

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