Monday, January 21, 2013

The Yellow Wallpaper -- Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman

Title: “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Author: Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman
Publishing Information: The New England Magazine 1892, republished as a standalone printing by Small Maynard and Company in 1899
Source: http:/

Short Bio: (July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935)  Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman was born in Hartford, Connecticut, but shortly thereafter moved to Providence, Rhode Island, when her father abandoned the family. She was raised in the company of her paternal aunts, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Catherine Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker, all advocates for women’s rights. As an adult she championed Utopian feminism and Nationalism (which according to an article on Gilman in Wikipedia, is a movement which worked to "end capitalism's greed and distinctions between classes while promoting a peaceful, ethical, and truly progressive human race" -- She is most noted for her book Women and Economics (1898), which promoted equality of the sexes within both the household and the workplace to further the development of human society and culture.

Comments on the Story:

Spoiler Alert: Due to the brevity of this short story and thus the necessity to describe some plot points in detail, and also the revelation I discovered when researching the author for the Short Bio that completely changed the genre of the story for me and thus may spoil your ability to enjoy the various aspects of how it can be perceived, I suggest that you read the story before perusing my review.

When I first read “The Yellow Wallpaper” it struck me as an edgy ghost/horror story.  However, as hinted at above, after researching the author and her reasons for writing the story, my view of it forever morphed into that of a psychological thriller – the violent spiral of someone into madness – and from that a social commentary on the times.  I believe this duality was probably not intentional on the author’s part, but instead is a product of time which creates a hidden view point caused by the modern reader’s lack of knowledge concerning the period in which the story was written. Time allows societal details to fade and thus distances the reader from the motives of the original characters.  This muddying of what the author thought would be understood without being explained allows the psychological to become parapsychological, and thus a story of madness and cruelty can, over time, become a traditional ghost story.

To illustrate my point, let me first explore the elements of what makes this a ghost story from a modern reader’s perspective.  “The Yellow Wallpaper” takes place in a country home rented for the summer by a doctor and his wife so as to allow the wife (who is the first person narrator of the story) a long period of quiet isolation in which to recover from a depression that set in after the birth of their child. She is prescribed total rest, being prohibited from taking exercise and from indulging in flights of fantasy.  For the wife, who is an aspiring writer, this ends up being a form of torture. She feels that being in the active society of others would cure her faster, though she does not discuss any of her thoughts with her husband who seems to believe that her symptoms are strictly psychological, and thus are to be cured only by imposing absolute self-control. As she describes it: “John does not know how much I really suffer.  He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.” 

Once settled into the house, the wife selects a ground floor room with a terrace overlooking the gardens for her confinement, but her husband rejects this idea, instead insisting that she take an old nursery in the attic. The room is oppressive with bars on the windows, a gate on the door and hideous yellow wallpaper.  As a concession to accepting his demands, she asks that the paper be changed, but he argues that if that is done, then she’ll want different furniture and the bars removed – in other words, she’ll never be satisfied. She concedes and calmly accepts his wishes, outwardly accepting that her husband/doctor knows best, but inside, she slowly starts to revolt against the unwanted repression.

Stuck in the room, all alone, she begins to obsess about the wallpaper which she describes as:

“One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.  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 repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight...It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things…But there is something else about the paper – the smell…It is not bad – at first, and very gentle, but quite the subtlest, most enduring odor I ever met….The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper – a yellow smell!”

The longer she stays in the room, the more odd things she begins to notice – sections of the paper missing from the walls – apparently ripped down – gouged marks in the floorboards, chips of plaster torn from the walls, gnaw marks on the posts of the bed which is nailed to the floor, and a long scuff mark all around the room at about her shoulder height. These observations she secretly writes down in a journal, diligently hiding it from her husband. Day after day, her obsessions increase until she begins to see someone moving behind the wallpaper, a woman she describes as trying to escape.  At first she is frightened by this, but as the days pass, she begins to empathize with the woman, eventually making it her mission to rip down the rest of the paper to free her, only to find that by doing so, she herself has become entrapped in the design.  At the end of the story, her husband comes home to find her ranting while endlessly circling the room, her shoulder following the scuffed mark on the wall.

As you can see, all the elements of what we might consider a traditional ghost story can be checked off your list: it takes place in a creepy old house; there are glimpses of some horrible past events that occurred there prior to the arrival of the narrator; the narrator experiences hyper-awareness and a building fear as she endures her confinement alone in the repellant nursery; and ultimately, she resigns herself willingly to accept possession by the supernatural power that inhabits the yellow wallpaper – her paltry sad life exchanged for the freedom of the vibrant and determined creature trapped within it.  It is an excellent example of late 19th century supernatural horror. Or is it? 

As stated above after researching the author for the Short Bio, I found out that Gilman actually wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a statement against the repression of women within a male dominated culture and as a reaction to her subjugation by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell to the Rest Cure for her postpartum depression.  The Rest Cure consisted of isolation, absolute inactivity, muscular electroshock treatment , and avoidance of mental stimulation such as conversation, writing and reading.  For Gilman it was a form of cruel punishment that drove her to the brink of madness.  Luckily for us, she did not succumb to the call of the pit, but instead pulled herself back to reality and was able to record her experience in this excellent story.

Now that you know both sides of the coin, so to speak, try rereading the story again. First approach it from the point of view that it is a horror story, taking what the narrator describes as actually occurring.  Then try to see it through the eyes of someone who has experienced postpartum depression and undergone the Rest Cure.  And finally, try to put yourself in the shoes of a reader contemporary with the author, someone living through the dynamic social changes at the end of the 19th century prior to the Women’s Rights movement – try to envision how on the one hand, to a woman who had experienced a life similar to what the author had, the story might have seemed enlightening, and yet to others who had not, or who viewed the role of women in the more traditional way and as a second class citizen, it might have seemed shocking, even scandalous. 

As an aside, there is a nice little throw-away line in the story as a jab at Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell.  “John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.”  According to my research, the author sent a copy of this story to Dr. Mitchell after it was published and claimed that he modified his Rest Cure procedures due to it.  That said, there is apparently no written record of the doctor ever having responded to the story in any way.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a truly interesting and gripping story, & your assessment of it through the eyes of the time really helps us understand more of what the author may have intended, as well as seeing it through 21st century eyes. Well done!