The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I heard about this short story through the National Library of Medicine’s Traveling Exhibition Program (we will be hosting several exhibitions at the hospital library where I work). I hadn’t heard of it before, although clearly I should have! If you want to read it, too – and I recommend it – I found my copy online here.

It is a very quick read at 9 pages, during which our narrator keeps a secret diary. She suffers from nervous depression, or neurasthenia, or the usual woman-sickness as diagnosed in the 1890’s when this story was written; and her physician husband has prescribed bed rest. So she’s shut up in the top floor of a decaying old mansion, in what used to be a children’s nursery (she thinks) because it has bars on the windows; and it has terribly ugly yellow wallpaper. Now, she’s forbidden even the exertion of writing, but because she disobeys, we get to follow her descent into madness, by way of that wallpaper.

It is a chilling story, and let me tell you that I read it while camping alone in a remote valley in Colorado, in a tent with a yellow rain fly on it (in the rain) – but never fear, I’ve made it back with all the marbles I began with, I’m reasonably sure. No one has tried to make me stay in bed yet, at any rate.

It turns out that this is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s own story, to some extent: she was diagnosed similarly and given a similar “treatment”, but feeling herself slide downhill, disobeyed doctor’s orders, shook herself off, and got to work – writing, and living her own life. This turned out to be the healthier option for her, and it seems she lived a reasonably happy life thereafter. My copy (link above) came with a less-than-one-page piece called “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which she states that “it was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy.”

I learned more by going back to the NLM’s exhibition entitled The Literature of Prescription: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, which I recommend and which also won’t take you but a few minutes.

Finally, I couldn’t resist sharing with you this related piece of art that I found while trolling the interwebs…

Lovely work, and of the images I found online that try to illustrate this story, it was my favorite.

Not only is the plot chilling, and the purpose behind the story important and sympathetic, but it is a well-crafted story too. I enjoyed it very much and am moved by the story behind the story. I’m lucky people like Charlotte Perkins Gilman were speaking up over 100 years ago, or I would never have been allowed to go camping alone in a valley in Colorado, yellow rain fly or no.

Rating: 9 disruptions of the pattern.

3 Responses

  1. I read this short story in high-school and it really creeped me out in its accuracy of portraying mental illness/psychological break-down. Very few literary works have been able to effectively convey such a dreaded sense of claustrophobia as terrifying as this one. Good stuff.

  2. […] The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (fiction) […]

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