“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (a #Review)

Reader! Don’t ask, what is in the wallpaper? Ask, who:


Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.

Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.

And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern–it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.

They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!


“The Yellow Wallpaper” is 6,000 words of striking through the mask. In the quote below, from Ahab’s explanation of his pursuit of the White Whale, I have changed Melville’s word “man” to “woman”:


“Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, woman, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If woman will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”



With the husband/doctor’s infantilizing endearments such as “little girl,” the patronizing care of the woman suggests real domestic oppression. Clearly, the woman (sometimes women) in the wallpaper are in a prison:


“She just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.”


At the same time, the source of the narrator’s mental illness arrives ready-made from offstage.  1887 patriarchal oppression has a role here, and this is inescapable. But to limit it to that seems to trivialize the narrator’s humanity. A human being doesn’t need domestic or political oppression to have a problem with reality. Rather, what assumptions do we carry today that sanity is the default point of human equilibrium?

What everyday miracle (or hubris) of civilization helps us to feel that we are, most of the time, living in a shared reality?

This short story doesn’t answer. Instead, it offers delightful creepiness and narrative tricks to bring its full impact:


“Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch. I really do eat better, and am more quiet than I was.”


Warning bells go off when I read these assertions. Healthy, unconfined people do not need to offer such reassurance. As a reader I’m not prepared for the wallpaper’s assault on the senses, its unreal behavior, tactile disobedience, and odor. The ragged line of many one-sentence paragraphs at to the experience of unraveling. It also offers a generous readability.

Further claxons roar when the narrator hints that her husband and doctor do not want her to write. My initiation reaction as a reader what this was a male evil inflicted on her. However, after reading Gilman’s 1913 biographical statement about her story, I understand the author references this as part of a prescriptive “rest cure.” It is not simply evil to ask a person suffering a “nervous breakdown” (Gilman’s words) to abstain from work. Arguably, as compulsion, it was an act of medical ignorance. The evil part was to compel her to do so, and with the narrator’s dark liminal resources, it fails to take away her liberty. As the narrator declares from her state of creeping madness:


“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”


Even today, there is an ethical question, often heartbreaking, of when compassionate authorities should compel people suffering mental illness to accept treatment. When is a mentally ill person responsible for determining her or his treatment, and when not? Treatment can still be invasive. Common wisdom and law on this question changed in my lifetime toward personal freedom. Relatedly, there are hundreds of mentally ill homeless people camped among garbage not far away as I write this. These are additional realms in which the story touches a discomfort between thresholds.

Gilman makes clear in her 1913 statement about that she needed to work to become healthy again:


“I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

“Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again–work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite–ultimately recovering some measure of power.”


Who was the “wise friend”? I don’t know.

In the story, the husband’s arrogant, sometimes infuriating good intentions and patriarchal power lead him to override the narrator’s repeated hints and evasions. These evasions turn inward in passive-aggressive rebellion, seeking solitude, locking the door, seeking to enter the wallpaper. Mental illness brings an illusion of freedom.

Maybe the sick woman’s confinement has something in common with modern prison solitary confinement—a condition that induces madness and, in prisons could arguably qualify as a cruel and unusual punishment.

Without intellectual stimulation, there is a fungus of decay. The wallpaper has become her psychic expression, in it, of it, behind it.


“I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.”


We have all seen faces in patterns… The word “pattern” appears 25 times in the story. The human mind is a pattern seeker… how potent the imagery of the wallpaper, its color, weavings, its smell and movement. It’s delightfully creepy, and reminds me of the Lovecraft’s story of an early radio operator who finds a way to make visible the horrible animalculae who inhabit in its waves. There’s the mediocre Twilight Zone’s “Little Girl Lost” who gets lost between walls, with 4th dimension…


Screen Shot 2017-12-06 at 11.51.16 AM

How effective the hint of a creeping woman going round and round her room like Doré‘s image of prisoner exercise, revisited in yellow by Van Gogh in the year of his suicide.


prisoners-exercising 1890

What is it about the color yellow? Is mental health the baseline state? Or is it an aberration? Is it connected to artistic people like Gilman or Van Gogh? How does the nuclear family, the demands of small children, commodity consumption, relate to mental instability? Is it something about women and modern living? Something about her upper middle class life? Does the narrator’s servant Jennie have the opportunity to succumb to madness? She’d probably die in a wallpaperless ditch, like Bartleby the Scriviner, in a prison yard.

The theme of a woman’s unhealthy descent toward the liminal in “The Yellow Wallpaper” made me think of another character, Beret. She is the wife of the protagonist Per Hansa, in the novel Giants in the Earth (published 1924, set in 1873) by Ole Edvart Rølvaag. Per Hansa is a man of action who thrives in the challenges of homesteading in the north American plains; she, however, suffers from loneliness and desolation. To make her feel more at home, he painted the walls of their half-sunken sod home white. Like the all-too-permeable yellow wallpaper, the white walls pushes the woman’s mental health deeper into depression.


The lime had been mixed according to directions, and spread over the walls–three coats of it, no less; now the sod hut shone so brightly inside that it dazzled the eyes. . . . Before the snow came, Beret thought it delightful to have such walls; but after there was nothing but whiteness outside–pure whiteness as far as the eye could see and the thought could reach–she regretted that he had touched them. Her eyes were blinded wherever she looked, either outdoors or indoors.


She becomes more religious without becoming less melancholic. Unlike the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” there is no “rest cure” available to a pioneer woman. Unlike the real Gilman, the regime of work does not ease her mental distress of Beret:


Beret went about her work with a greater determination; but her sad mood did not lift.


During a harsh winter, over many days, she wants Per Hansa to make a journey to fetch a minister for a dying neighbor. Over the course of many pages, she pushes and pushes Per Hansa to make a dangerous trip in the cold. She remorselessly threatens to do so herself. Finally he relents, attempts it, and freezes to death.

I bring this up because I want mention that Gilman’s story recognizes that the suffering of women impacts the suffering of men. As Gilman points out, there is a liminal issue, a trap door of our shared problem with the fragility of the relation between our self and our reality. “The Yellow Wallpaper” ends with ghoulish, wink of misunderstanding of the man’s utter horror, or possibly worse:


Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!


Screen Shot 2017-12-06 at 11.51.33 AM

As a helpless kid in the 60s-70s, I grew up hearing of how much women hated being housewives, of the lurking option of putting their heads in the oven. Without claiming expertise on the genre, you could put “The Yellow Wallpaper” on the unhappy shelf with Diary of a Mad Housewife, and The Bell Jar. There are others, old and new; let’s not forget Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. Since rumor has it, women even with careers continue to be unhappy, there may be further such works. Alternatively, you could frame this story in a way that emphasizes our shared suffering (7 out of 10 suicides in the USA 2015 were white men). You could place “The Yellow Wallpaper” among categories of human literature among those that poke reality and find it more fragile than we might have otherwise assumed.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a much stronger work than Gilman’s Herland. It’s more interesting to explore problems than perfection. From the first paragraph to the last, this is highly effective, creepy, feminist gothic. “The paper stains everything it touches.”

You can read “The Yellow Wallpaper” here for free.

You can listen to The Yellow Wallpaper here for free.

You can read Gilman’s 1913 statement “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” here.

Published in: on December 6, 2017 at 2:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

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