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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