Charlotte Perkins Gilman was known as a feminist crusader and follower of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was Gilman's aunt. Her primary interest was the inequality of the woman's place in the marriage setting. Though Gilman wrote many ambitious works, today she is primarily recognized for her story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," which was considered almost too shocking to be printed in its time.
After he first child was born, Gilman was struck with severe depression. Today, it would be labeled Postpartum Depression. She was placed under the care of a leading specialist in nervousness. Her treatment was forced inactivity. Soon Gilman suffered a complete nervous breakdown. Realizing that this was not the treatment that she needed, she left the care of her physician. Soon after, Gilman was able to return to normal activities although she said she suffered from the effects for the rest of her life.
In 1892, soon after this traumatic event in her life, Gilman wrote the short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper." This story is a psychological horror story along with a character study. The setting is a mysterious old mansion in the late nineteenth century.
The narration is first person point of view with the mentally troubled young woman as the narrator. Everything that is ironically expressed in the story is sifted through the narrator's consciousness and her calculation of reality. The charcater of the young upper middle class woman gives insights into the typical marriage and society of that time period, which deprive her of freedom and eventually her sanity.
The struggle between the woman and her husband is the basis of the story. She is powerless to speak up to him. He degrades and demeans her problems. The husband assures the family and friends that she is nervous and hysterical. Who are they to believe? Certainly, not this woman whose "case is not serious."
Through her secret journal, the woman describes her forced obedience to her husband's wishes; however, she expresses her disdain for the bedroom wallpaper, which intensifies to an obsession. Eventually, the narrator identifies herself with the woman who is imprisoned in the wallpaper.
Strangely, as the woman's insanity progresses, no one seems to notice the teeth marks on the bedstead. The narrator explains that it is the children that have done this. The floor has suffered as well:
Then the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there, and this great heavy bed which is all we found in the room, looks as if it had been through the wars.
Her husband constantly threatens to send her to a sanitarium. She is forced to become completely passive, banned from using her mind in any way. Her husband warns several times that she must use her self-control to pull in her imagination. Of course, the woman's eventual insanity is a product of the repression of her imagination. She constantly longs for emotional and intellectual stimulation.
For the author, a mind that is kept in state of obligatory inactivity is doomed to self-destruction. Gilman was asked why she wrote this story. She recounted her melancholia and her treatment. The doctor sent her home with this advice:
...live as domestic a life as far as possible, 'to have but two hours intellectual time per day' and never to touch a pen again as long as I lived.
Many years later, the doctor altered his treatment of nervousness after reading "The Yellow Wallpaper."