Charlotte Perkins Gilman: “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1891) When Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s infamous “The Yellow Wallpaper” was first published, the short story caused a furor. Readers, including doctors, feared that the act of reading it could induce madness. What a powerful spell this story must have cast in its day, before the common currency of creepy TV shows and horror films. Yet it is equally effective today, and still feels shiny and new despite the old-fashioned tone of the narrative voice.
The key to Gilman’s story is the unreliable narrator—a technique with a rich tradition. In general, readers expect to trust the narrator to tell the story as it is. In fact, all stories, even those that claim to be eye-witness factual accounts, are told through the filter of the teller, and that filter is often clogged with the teller’s own past and agenda. The “teller” in the case of non-fiction is always the author—but even a scrupulous journalist or historian may have an agenda or thesis that drives the telling. In fiction, the telling is complicated by the narrator—not the author, and sometimes a character. Ishmael tells a different version of the story of Moby-Dick than Captain Ahab would, or the native harpooner Quequeg. Herman Melville chose Ishmael as the teller of his tale, and Ishmael is a great deal less unreliable than Ahab. But how much trust should we put in the literal word of the narrator of first-person fiction? Our instinct is to take the word at face value, and that is what Gilman uses to warp our fragile little minds.
The tale is simple. The narrator and her husband, John, a doctor, rent an elaborate country manor house for the summer, getting it for a suspiciously low price—we are encouraged to think that it might be haunted. The narrator, who records her thoughts to create the narrative we read, has been suffering from a nervous depression, and her husband thinks rest is the best thing for her. They set up in the old nursery of the house, which has some odd features to it that largely go unanalyzed (though not unnoticed) by the narrator. There is no furniture in the room, just a bed that is nailed to the floor. She guesses that the room was first a nursery, then a gym, because there are metal rings on the walls. We might see through her oversight and consider this the room of a mental patient, but Gilman does not spell this out and the narrator seems not to put two and two together. For her, the room’s main feature is its yellow wallpaper, a disconcerting color, indeed discolored in grotesque ways in patches, some of it torn from the wall, and patterned with non-repeating, non-linear shapes that draw the eye, but frustrate attempts to decipher regular patterns.
As the summer progresses, the narrator constantly expresses, on paper, her discomfort with the room, and seems morbidly obsessed with the wallpaper. Her husband—and doctor—a loving, father-knows-best type, insists that moving would just mean a surrender to her neuroses, and she should stay right here. The wife begins to have hallucinations (or are they hauntings?), seeing a woman moving behind the thicket of lines in the yellow wallpaper, and some times escaping to creep around the room, or at times visible on the paths outside the house.
The reader has only the narrator’s views to go on, and Gilman’s narrative is intentionally confusing, from moment to moment unclear as to whether the narrator is, herself, a mental patient and is hallucinating everything, whether she was mad to begin with or is being driven mad by her husband’s care, or whether she is susceptible, in her nervous condition, to supernatural activity at hand. The only clear thing is that her husband, who she deems well-meaning, is making things worse for her, combining affection with condescension, and treating her like a “little girl.” In this he mirrors the general attitude of male doctors towards female patients in an age when female sexuality, expression, and creativity was largely frowned upon and seen as destructive to the “natural place” of women as subservient heads of domestic activities and little else.
The story turns dramatically on a single letter: I. The narrator has spoken of another woman trapped within the wallpaper who at times creeps out from it, then, all of a sudden, near the climax of the story, after saying she would almost like to leap from the window, the narrator speaks as though she has crept out of the wallpaper herself, and wonders if all the creeping women “have come out of the wallpaper as I did.” The effect is chilling, and we fear a nasty end, as the narrator mentions her hidden length of rope—might she hang herselff? She has managed to lock herself into the room, and her husband is at the door trying to get in. She tells him where the keys are, and then . . .
The story drew such a response that Gilman felt compelled to publish an explanation of why she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In her willingness to open up about having lived for three years in a “melancholic” state—what we would call depression—Gilman demonstrated how radically advanced she was for her time, as such admissions could bring a stigma. It was not done, in the 1890s, to speak openly about one’s mental turmoil, and Gilman was brave to do so. Like too many women at the time, and like her protagonist, Gilman had been deemed “hysterical”: a misogynistic diagnosis that essentially considered women a bundle of coiled nerves who could best be helped by what her doctor prescribed as a “rest cure.” Her main point was how misguided was the all-too-common diagnosis of male doctors at the time, who suggested that female nervousness and “hysteria” were due to too much intellectual behavior and use of the imagination, which could not be healthy for women. Her doctor prescribed rest, harmless “domestic activity” and “no more than two hours per day of intellectual activity.” Most of all, she should stop writing.
Gilman tried this therapy and found herself worse off than ever. It was only when she roundly ignored this advice, and returned to writing, that her burden lifted. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an expression of Gilman’s own state of mind, but also an excoriation of doctors who advised creative women to repress their imaginative powers. In her essay, Gilman notes that she wrote the story not to induce madness in the reader, but to ease the discomforts of the imagination and to point out the well-meaning insanity of prescribing women to be less creative than their own intelligence calls for them to be, and of trapping women in a paternalistic fantasy that denies them the liberties of their own natures.
And yet the story is not a tale of liberation but of an abject descent into a very dark realm indeed, creepy as the worst fever dream.