The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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How does a story without a ghost make it into an anthology of ghost stories? Well, maybe if there are ghosts, but only in the mind of the main character. (many think those are the only kind of ghosts, thus the expression, “There are no haunted houses, only haunted people.”)

**Major Spoiler Alert! – if you want to read the story yourself, do so before proceeding**
I first read this unsettling story almost twenty years ago. It chronicles a young woman’s descent (initially through journal/diary entries, but later this structure of the story loosens a bit) into psychosis. Suffering from a “nervous condition” (perhaps what today would be diagnosed as post-partum depression) her husband, who is also a physician, prescribes, effectively, what was known as a “rest cure,” a popular treatment for hysteria in the late 1800s, when this story was written.

As part of his “prescription,” they rent a home for three months in the summer while their own home is being remodeled. Over the wife’s objections, he chooses an upstairs former nursery room for their bedroom. It has the most hideous yellow wallpaper. Gilman describes the paper in increasingly disturbing ways. “I never saw a worse paper in my life,” and the “pattern lolls like a broken neck,” and “great, slanting waves of optic horror,” and “It is the strangest yellow, that wall paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.” She eventually decides there is something/someone lurking (creeping) behind the pattern, especially when viewed in the moonlight.

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.” This revelation comes about halfway through the story, and the reader is now certain that, even though at the start of the story it seems certain that she is a “victim” and her only physical illness is in her mind (or, actually, in her husband’s mind), she is now actually becoming psychotic. Clearly a case of “the cure being worse than the disease” – a charge frequently leveled against the “rest cure.”

As the end of their three month rental nears, she becomes more obsessed with “getting her (the “woman” she sees behind the pattern) out.” Having locked herself in her room she succeeds in ripping some of the paper off the wall, and when the frantic husband finally gets into the room she triumphantly tells him, “I’ve got out at last…and I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” He faints and becomes merely a obstacle for her to crawl around as she continues tracing the path of the wallpaper around the room.

This story is frequently offered as an early example of feminist literature. In the way that it condemns the unequal – and frankly condescending – treatment of women’s illnesses in an androcentric (that’s a new word I learned today 🙂 ) medical world, it certainly qualifies. I must admit, however, that the first time I read this story, I hadn’t even thought about that interpretation. I merely enjoyed it as the genuinely creepy, well-told story which it truly is.

Have you read The Yellow Wallpaper? What did you think of it?

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10 Comments

  1. May 7, 2012 at 9:48 am

    This is one of my all-time favourite stories! I love how the narrator can slowly be seen to becoming more and more unhinged but at the same time you are completely unprepared for the ending! It’s a story I love to read over and over again! The mental health issue is dealt with incredibly well and is very well delivered. I saw the TV adaptation which was equally creepy!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      May 7, 2012 at 5:44 pm

      Hi Hannah,

      I totally agree. I like how Gilman – slowly – takes you further and further down the road of madness. In fact, the progress is slow enough, the reader doesn’t necessarily know or realize at what stage she’s passed “the point of no return.”

      I didn’t know there was a TV adaptation! I’ll have to see if I can’t find that somewhere so I can watch.

      -Jay

      Like

      • May 8, 2012 at 3:49 am

        It’s really worth a watch but I can’t seem to track it down anywhere now! I think it was a BBC one. I hope you manage to find it!

        Like

  2. Dale said,

    May 8, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Sounds like a great story, Jay! I hadn’t heard of it before. Have you ever heard of M. R. James? I think it’s Montague Rhodes James. I never had but I saw an article in a magazine about an anthology of ghost stories he wrote around the turn of the century. What I read about him on Amazon makes it sound like he’s a must read for any ghost story lover. The anthology that I saw was called “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary”.

    Like

    • May 9, 2012 at 3:18 am

      Ooh I have a complete works of M. R. James! (Slight ghost story fanatic!) they are brilliant short stories, some of them are pretty chilling! They’re definitely worth a read. Not quite as scary as some modern stories I found but still very good.

      Like

    • Jay said,

      May 9, 2012 at 6:42 am

      “Of course” I am aware of M.R. James! :-). He’s one of my favorites as well. I have a collection of his ghost stories. Some good ones I remember are The Ash Tree, Mr. Humphrey’s Inheritance, and The Mezzotints. I really enjoy his style. I think you’d like. Him, Dale.

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      • Dale said,

        May 9, 2012 at 6:44 pm

        So I guess I’m the only one that hadn’t heard of him! I’ll have to read some of them soon…and around Halloween, too.

        Like

      • Jay said,

        May 17, 2012 at 7:48 am

        Don’t worry, Dale. I didn’t “discover” him until I was in my thirties. I’ve been contemplating an October (or maybe 4th quarter) “mini-project” of ghost story (short stories) reading. I think I have plenty of material…
        -Jay

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  3. May 12, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    It’s also feminist in that you can read it as a woman struggling with feeling trapped and she’s struggling to free herself as she wants to escape marriage and motherhood and didn’t have the options to do so. Women who wanted that or wanted more than that were thought to be mentally ill. That’s one of the things I really enjoy about the story. You can read it on so many different levels, and it’s a truly creepy story.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      May 17, 2012 at 7:52 am

      Hi Lindsey,
      I think I mentioned above that the first time I read the story, I was ‘blissfully ignorant’ of the feminist subtext, but in later readings I began to appreciate it more. “Clearly” the woman she begins to see struggling to get out from behind the paper represents herself (or all women – as she notes that she sees many of them ‘creeping’ around the ground) trying to escape the societal confines of marriage, etc. It’s one of my all-time blue-ribbon short stories.
      -Jay

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