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Written at the end of the 19th century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a classic and influential feminist work.
The Realist perspective focuses on setting and story as a reflection of "realistic" conventions; stories should represent the norms of their era. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman wrote to express her feelings on the cultural subjugation of women, especially when it came to medical practices. The setting of the story is a summer mansion occupied by a doctor and his wife; she has just given birth and is suffering postpartum depression. He thinks she needs to relax without outside stimulation, but she is slowly becoming unstable because of the isolation. The huge summer mansion is too large to be confined, but she is not allowed to leave the premises, and so even in a large space she feels trapped. The mansion also contains old and peeling yellow wallpaper with a strange pattern; the wife fixates on this because she has no other stimulation. Because of the age of the mansion, she ascribes a haunting to the wallpaper, and also mentions a strange smell:
It is not bad--at first, and very gentle, but quite the subtlest, most enduring odor I ever met.
In this damp weather it is awful, I wake up in the night and find it hanging over me.
It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house--to reach the smell.
But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell.
(Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper," library.csi.cuny.edu)
This smell, if it is real, is probably mold and mildew, coming from the old paste and wallpaper as it decays in the summer heat. Mold infestations are common in old homes, and aside from affecting her with the smell, certain mold spores can cause hallucinations and infection, which might also play a part in her continuing mental deterioration.
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