Books

17 January 2017

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, USA, 1892


I found this short story especially interesting. As an early piece of feminist writing, it looks at attitudes towards women, both generally and from the point of view of mental health. A woman who stridently presented legitimate views could easily be called hysterical, while a woman who was demure and silent – on the verge of being in some kind of vegetative state – was considered normal.

A depressive, Perkins Gilman spent a lot of time being treated by doctors and psychiatrists, and as a result she would doubtlessly have been well acquainted with the subject about which she was writing.

 Photo of Charlotte Perkins Gilman from Poetry Foundation
 
The story tells of a woman, the ‘I’ in the story, who has been brought to a house in the country by her physician husband. As the story unfolds it becomes evident that the woman is possibly suffering from post-natal depression, but nothing is stated outright. The husband is certain that the only way for his wife to be cured is by rest, with no distractions of any kind. She is not allowed to leave the house, read or write. In fact, she is not permitted to do anything. Under no circumstances is she to experience any kind of mental or sensory stimulation.  

In desperation the woman turns her attention to the yellow wallpaper in the room where she has been placed, and bit by bit she conjures up a completely new world, which is often quite terrifying. Gradually any line between what is reality and what is merely in her imagination becomes completely erased. Whether the woman finally sinks completely into a state of madness or whether she finally conquers her husband is something that only the reader can decide.
Illustration of the yellow wallpaper from Kozah
 
As a writer, Perkins Gilman was aware that writing was one way in which she could break free of men’s stifling expectations, but she also knew that many men were frightened of what this could lead to – they preferred women to do womanly things that did not in any way threaten or compete with men.

In The Yellow Wallpaper, Perkins Gilmore cleverly balances the wife’s learned submissiveness (her husband was so kind; he was only trying to help her) with the wife’s awareness of her own pressing needs. She knew only too well that the ‘rest cure’ did more harm than good.

A valuable piece of feminist writing, which is not outdated, not even after more than one hundred years.