Roberta Writes – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

My blogging friend and talented author, Liz Gauffreau, recommended this book to me as an excellent depiction of a slow descent into madness. It is a short read, but very worthwhile.

Overview

The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman and first published in the New England Magazine in January 1892.

Narrated in the first person through a series of journal entries, The Yellow Wallpaper is the story of a young middleclass woman’s gradual descend into psychosis.

The story opens with the narrator, who remains unnamed, describing her move into a rented country estate for the summer. Her husband, John, who is a physician of high standing has prescribed this move so that she can have complete rest and overcome her post-natal depression.  Her husband’s controlling nature quickly becomes apparent as she is not allowed to choose their room but is subjected to John’s choice of a disused nursery on the top floor. He imposed his decision despite her telling him that she does not like the wallpaper in the room, a strange and damaged paper of various shades of yellow. The nursery is described in terms applicable to a prison and has bars over the windows and a large bed that is manacled to the wall.

His treatment further entails taking her baby away from her and confining her to the nursery. He tells her not to read, write or do any other form of ‘work’ and only to rest so that she can become well again.

During her countless hours in the nursery, the narrator becomes more and more obsessed with the yellow wallpaper, imagining she can see things in its pattern. Gradually she sees a woman, just like herself, trapped behind the first layer of wallpaper.

Origin of The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper is considered to be an important early work of American feminist literature for its illustrations of the attitudes of men towards the mental and physical health of women during the 19th century.

Gilman was writing about her own horrible experience in this short story. Five years prior to penning this story, she experienced chronic post-natal depression following the birth of her daughter. She was sent away for treatment to Dr. Silas Weir, America’s leading expert on women’s mental health at the time. His ‘rest’ cure involved strict bed rest with no reading, writing, or painting. He was of the school of thought that if women could be forced to be happy with their lot in life and stop hankering after things like education, the vote, and work, their discontent and mental ailments would be cured.

Gilman wrote later that her treatment was like a prison sentence and she ‘came perilously close to losing [her] mind.’

Themes of The Yellow Wallpaper

The themes of The Yellow Wallpaper are set out below with a quote to demonstrate their application in the story.

Women’s role in marriage

“There comes John’s sister. Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing. She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!”

Identity and self-expression

“I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.

I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.”

The Rest Cure

“So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas.”

Symbolism of The Yellow Wallpaper

The narrator is disgusted and fascinated by the yellow wallpaper and these feelings grow over the course of the story.

The yellow wallpaper becomes her primary object of analysis and stimulation as all other stimulus is forbidden to her by John. The pattern eventually takes on the appearance of bars and the narrator imagines that she sees a woman trapped behind them.

The narrator’s deteriorating mental condition in relation to the yellow wallpaper is demonstrated by the following three quotes which are in order of appearance in the story:

Quote 1: “It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.

The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.”

Quote 2: “This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had! There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside-down.”

Quote 3: “There are things in that paper which nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder—I begin to think—I wish John would take me away from here!”

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Purchase The Yellow Wallpaper here:

Amazon US

51 thoughts on “Roberta Writes – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

    1. Just read it. I think I’d go even further in if I wrote it … but it is fantastic, still. So many subtle references that leave you begging to examine the room’s details yourself.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Fantastic summary and analysis, Robbie! I read “The Yellow Wallpaper” a few years ago, and thought it was infuriatingly effective in showing how the creativity of 19th-century women was throttled.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Dave, I am glad you have also read and enjoyed this short story. It is a very good description of the awful effect of ‘no work’ on a distressed and depressed mind. However, having recently also read Regeneration by Pat Barker and gaining an understanding of the common attitude towards PTSD, it definitely wasn’t only women who were abused and whose mental health issues were ignored.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have read this book and seen it as a BBC production. It is so good. I found it frightening that men could have so much control over women, and not that long ago. A great review, Robbie.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Darlene, in many parts of the world, women still live under the thumbs of men and mother-in-laws. Having recently read Regeneration by Pat Barker, the attitude towards men suffering mental illness was even worse. Men had to be brave and manly, showing no signs of fear in the face of death and horrific conditions.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I profound reminder that we stand on the shoulders of giants. I am grateful for those who came before who marked the pathway, clearly and with determination. May we continue to seek positive outcomes for all.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Thank you for featuring “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Robbie. It’s an important story. I’ve read it several times, and the last time I read it prompted me to research the so-called “rest cure,” which was much worse than what was portrayed in “The Yellow Wallpaper” because of the diet it involved. I found 19th-century medical texts on how to administer the treatment. I ended up writing a story about a woman who is forced to endure that treatment. So far, literary magazine editors have found the story too long and “rather unpleasant.”

    Liked by 6 people

  5. That does sound a disturbing story, I think we would all lose our sanity so deprived. I remember when I was a teenager Dad saying a chap at work had a teenage son and the mother had been in a mental hospital ever since giving birth. I have read that there is a shortage of safe places where women with serious post natal depression can stay with their babies and receive proper treatment.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Unfortunately, women’s illnesses are still often considered to be “all in their minds”. Or “their own fault”. The treatment may be less severe but the dismissal of their suffering is not. (K)

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  7. Hi Roberta
    This classic is well-read because it influenced later feminist literature.
    The colour yellow is well known to be connected with psychosis. The best-known example is van Gogh who tried to heal himself by becoming the painter of the colour yellow. You can see that in the pictures of the famous Prinzhorn collection from Burghözli as well. But it seems to me that here the negative pole of the colour yellow is meant like envy and in extreme poison.
    I find this symbolism quite interesting as it is not that straight forward as it looks at the first glance.
    Thanks for sharing
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Wow, Robbie, this book sounds spellbinding and a shocking reminder of the control men had over women, and can still hold over women, even in today’s world. It sounds brilliant. Thank you for sharing your wonderful review.
    I am going to check this out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jacqui, your ancient people were more civilized because they accepted people for what they were and encouraged their talents. They didn’t demonise perfectly natural things like sex and ostracise people who fell by the way side is some way or another. A lot of the problems in life stem from a perceived moral superiority by some people.

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  9. The saddest thing here is that the approach to women’s health didn’t start to change all that much until the 1970s. Gilman sent a copy of this story to Weir Mitchell, the doctor who prescribed her “rest” treatment. Another patient, Virginia Wolff, wrote a scathing satire of the same treatment. Their works forced Mitchell to re-evaluate the isolation component and severity of his “rest” treatment and the superficiality of other “treatments” for women’s health issues, some that persisted, as before, into the 1970s. For context, check this out https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/theliteratureofprescription/exhibition4.html

    Liked by 2 people

    1. HI Phil, thank you for this link and for letting me know about Virginia Wolff. I knew she suffered from depression and eventually committed suicide. Very sad. The attitude towards mental health for men was much better, was it? I’ve recently read Regeneration by Pat Barker and I was shocked by some sections.

      Liked by 2 people

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