The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
It is to Aesop, if my memory serves me well, that the aphorism good things come in small packages is attributed. It is a pithy summary of Gilman’s extraordinary long short story or novella, published in 1892.
At first blush it appears a very simple story. A woman is suffering from what her doctor husband, John, has told her is a nervous depression. He rents a rather creepy house, described as queer, for three months and keeps her in a room. She is ordered to rest and forbidden to engage in anything which could agitate the brain. The room, though bright and airy, has bars on the window and the bed is bolted to the floor. With nothing to do, although she does surreptitiously keep a journal, the woman obsesses about the yellow wallpaper.
It is described as “repellent” and “smouldering unclean yellow” with “sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin”. Some of the paper has fallen or been torn off the walls. Watching the wallpaper, she seems to think that it takes on a life of its own with a woman trapped behind it. She tears the wallpaper off the wall in an attempt to liberate her. I won’t spoil the denouement, but it leaves the reader wondering what really happened.
The style is simple but realistic, you really feel that you are listening to the woman’s neuroses and getting into her character. Gilman’s simple style ratches up the tension, there are Gothic elements to the tale, and you are keen to follow the story to its end.
I have never read any Gilman before but I was impressed with the power, emotion and sense of horror she had generated in such a simple narrative. It is an astonishing piece of writing. Inevitably, it is more nuanced and layered than it appears.
The story is based on Gilman’s own experiences. After she had given birth, she went through a serious phase of postnatal depression. A celebrated American psychologist, Dr Weir Mitchell, whom she consulted, recommended a complete rest without any mental stimulation, rather like John had prescribed the unnamed narrator of the story. Gilman found the so-called cure simply exacerbated her condition and almost drove her mad, or in her own words, “to mental agony”. Her recovery came when she abandoned the treatment and took up writing again.
The story, though, also addresses broader issues, particularly how mental conditions were perceived at the time and treated. It also can be seen as a proto-feminist tract in which the reader is invited to consider the hegemony of the male and the subservience of the female. Women are silly, flighty creatures whose equilibrium is easily disturbed. The medical profession, which was totally male dominated, took the view that any deployment of the little grey cells by the fairer sex would lead to strain. That was not their role in life and when the strain of intellectual exercise proved too much, the only cure was to lock them away. The male, after all, knew what was best.
The story’s ending can be seen as a denunciation of the traditional view of the man’s role in determining what is best for a woman’s health. It is a powerful piece of writing and well worth seeking out, if, like me, you have never come across it before.