The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman - Essay

Charlotte Perkins Gilman


(Short Story Criticism)

“The Yellow Wallpaper” Charlotte Perkins Gilman

(Full name Charlotte Anna Perkins Stetson Gilman) American short story writer, essayist, novelist, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Gilman's short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892).

The short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by nineteenth-century feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was first published in 1892 in New England Magazine. Gilman's story, based upon her own experience with a “rest cure” for mental illness, was written as a critique of the medical treatment prescribed to women suffering from a condition then known as “neurasthenia.” The significance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a feminist text, however, was not acknowledged until the critically acclaimed 1973 reissue of the story by the Feminist Press. Henceforth, “The Yellow Wallpaper” made its way into the canon of feminist literature, becoming a staple of university women's studies courses. Since 1973, “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been reissued by several publishers in various volumes edited by literary critics. It was also adapted to film in a 1992 made-for-television production by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Plot and Major Characters

While in her twenties, Gilman was diagnosed with a mental disorder called neurasthenia or “nervous prostration.” She was treated by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the leading authority on this illness. Mitchell's rest cure, prescribed primarily to women, consisted of committing the patient to bed for a period of months, during which time the patient was fed only mild foods and deprived of all mental, physical, and social activity—reading, writing, and painting were explicitly prohibited. Gilman once stated that the rest cure itself nearly drove her insane.

The parallels between Gilman's experience and that of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” are evident in the story. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is structured as a series of secret diary entries by an unnamed woman, a young wife and new mother whose debilitating mental condition has prevented her from caring for her infant. She and her husband John, who is a doctor, have rented a house in the country, in which she is to take a rest cure. The narrator is confined to an upstairs room that was once a child's nursery but has been stripped of all furnishings and decor, except for a bed that is nailed to the floor, bars over the windows, and a garish yellow wallpaper. She describes the color and pattern of the wallpaper in an assortment of distasteful ways. The narrator becomes more obsessed with the wallpaper and begins to imagine that a woman is trapped behind it. The story's finale finds the narrator creeping around the edges of the room and tearing the wallpaper in ragged sheets from the walls in an attempt to free the woman she believes to be trapped behind it. When her husband unlocks the door and finds his wife and the room in these conditions, he is appalled. “I've got out at last,” she explains, “And I've pulled off most of the paper so you can't put me back!” He faints, and she continues to creep around the room, crawling over her husband as he lies unconscious on the floor.

Major Themes

Several major themes emerge from the narrative of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman's story expresses a general concern with the role of women in nineteenth-century society, particularly within the realms of marriage, maternity, and domesticity. The narrator's confinement to her home and her feelings of being dominated and victimized by those around her, particularly her husband, is an indication of the many domestic limitations that society places upon women. The yellow wallpaper itself becomes a symbol of this oppression to a woman who feels trapped in her roles as wife and mother. Gilman's story further expresses a concern for the ways in which society discourages women of creative self-expression. The narrator's urge to express herself through writing is stifled by the rest cure. Yet, the creative impulse is so strong that she assumes the risk of secretly writing in a diary, which she hides from her husband. Finally, “The Yellow Wallpaper” addresses issues of mental illness and the medical treatment of women. While the narrator is clearly suffering from some kind of psychological distress at the beginning of the story, her mental state is worsened by her husband's medical opinion that she confine herself to the house. The inadequacy of the patriarchial medical profession in treating women's mental health is further indicated by the narrator's fear of being sent to the famous Dr. Weir, proponent of the rest cure treatment.

Critical Reception

At the time of its initial publication in 1892, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was regarded primarily as a supernatural tale of horror and insanity in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe. In 1920, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was reprinted in the volume Great Modern American Short Stories, edited by William Dean Howells, who described it as a story to “freeze our … blood.” Elaine R. Hedges, author of the afterword to the 1973 version, praised the work as “one of the rare pieces of literature we have by a nineteenth-century woman who directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship.” Since that time, Gilman's story has been discussed by literary critics from a broad range of perspectives—biographical, historical, psychological, feminist, semiotic, and socio-cultural. Nearly all of these critics acknowledge the story as a feminist text written in protest of the negligent treatment of women by a patriarchal society. Furthermore, the story has sparked lively critical discussion and ongoing debate over the symbolic meaning of the wallpaper, the extent to which the story represents an effective feminist statement, and the implications of the story's ending. Critics continue to debate the question of whether Gilman provides a feminist solution to the patriarchal oppression that is exposed in the story, while acknowledging the enduring significance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as both a feminist document and a literary text for contemporary readers.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

The Yellow Wallpaper [The Yellow Wallpaper, A Novella] [as Charlotte Perkins Stetson] 1892

The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader: “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Other Fiction [Reader] [edited by Ann J. Lane] 1980

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings [edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz] 1989

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman [edited by Denise D. Knight] 1994

The Yellow Wallpaper, and Other Stories [edited and introduction by Robert Shulman] 1995

The Yellow Wallpaper [afterword by Elaine R. Hedges] 1996

“The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Other Stories [edited by Robert Shulman] 1997

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the History of Its Publication and Reception: A Critical and Documentary Casebook [edited by Julie Bates Dock] 1998

The Yellow Wallpaper [edited by Dale M. Bauer] 1998

“Herland,” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Selected Writings [edited by Denise D. Knight] (novel, short story, and prose) 1999

A Clarion Call to Redeem the Race! (nonfiction) 1890

In This Our World and Other Poems (poetry) 1893

The Labor Movement (nonfiction) 1893

Women and Economics: A Study of Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (nonfiction) 1898

Concerning Children (nonfiction) 1900

The Home: Its Work and Influence (nonfiction) 1903

Human Work (nonfiction) 1904

The Punishment that Educates (nonfiction) 1907

Women and Social Service (nonfiction) 1907

What Diantha Did (novel) 1910

The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture (nonfiction) 1911

The Crux (novel) 1911

Moving the Mountain (novel) 1911

Benigna Machiavelli (novel) 1914

Herland (novel) 1915

With Her in Ourland [Ourland] (novel) 1916

His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers (nonfiction) 1923

The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (autobiography) 1935

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader [edited by Larry Ceplair] (nonfiction) 1991

The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman [edited by Denise D. Knight] (diaries) 1994

A Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1900 [edited by Mary A. Hill] (letters) 1995

The Later Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman [edited by Denise D. Knight] (poetry) 1996

Unpunished: A Mystery [edited by Catherine J. Golden and Denise D. Knight] (novel) 1997

*Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Utopian Novels [edited by Minna Doskow] (novels) 1999

“Mag—Marjorie”; and, “Won Over”: Two Novels (novels) 1999

*Includes Moving the Mountain, Herland, and With Her in Ourland.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (essay date 1913)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” edited by Catherine Golden, pp. 51-53. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1992.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1913 in The Forerunner, a magazine founded and edited by Gilman, the author offers an explanation of her original intention in writing “The Yellow Wallpaper.”]

Many and many a reader has asked that. When the story first came out, in the New England Magazine about 1891, a Boston physician made protest in The Transcript. Such a story ought not to...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. “From The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.” In The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” edited by Catherine Golden, pp. 145-48. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1992.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1979, Gilbert and Gubar discuss the relationship between madness and female authorship in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”]

As if to comment on the unity of all these points—on, that is, the anxiety-inducing connections between what women writers tend to see as their parallel confinements in texts,...

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Paula A. Treichler (essay date spring/fall 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 3, no. 1-2 (spring/fall 1984): 61-77.

[In the following essay, Treichler asserts that the underlying narrative of “The Yellow Wallpaper” involves the narrator's confrontation with language, by which she defies patriarchal control and male judgment.]

Almost immediately in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the female narrator tells us she is “sick.” Her husband, “a physician of high standing,” has diagnosed her as having a “temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical...

(The entire section is 8130 words.)

Judith Fetterley (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Fetterley, Judith. “Reading about Reading: ‘A Jury of Her Peers,’ ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, edited by Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart, pp. 147-64. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Fetterley discusses the elements of gendered narrative self-reflexivity in Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as well as in “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe.]

As a student of American literature, I have long been struck by the degree to which...

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Janice Haney-Peritz (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Haney-Peritz, Janice. “Monumental Feminism and Literature's Ancestral House: Another Look at ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work, edited by Sheryl L. Meyering, pp. 95-107. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989.

[In the following essay originally published in 1986, Haney-Peritz asserts that the 1973 Feminist Press edition of “The Yellow Wallpaper” functioned to disrupt and displace the line of male critical response to the story.]

In 1973, the Feminist Press brought forth a single volume edition of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story which had originally appeared in the May 1892...

(The entire section is 6730 words.)

Linda Wagner-Martin (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Gilman's ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Centenary.” In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work, edited by Sheryl L. Meyering, pp. 51-64. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Wagner-Martin discusses the themes of motherhood and self-identity in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” asserting that the story is “a splendid example of gender-based narrative.”]

A friend is dead.

We cannot discount pain but the least bearable pain is the husband's cry of anger: You cannot die. I need you. The children need you. Your duty is to...

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Catherine Golden (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Golden, Catherine. “‘Overwriting’ the Rest Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Literary Escape from S. Weir Mitchell's Fictionalization of Women.” In Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Joanne B. Karpinski, pp. 144-58. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992.

[In the following essay, Golden discusses the writings of novelist and doctor S. Weir Mitchell, on whom the doctor in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is based. Golden demonstrates the ways in which “The Yellow Wallpaper” provides a feminist counter-discourse to nineteenth-century patriarchal medical discourse.]

In 1887 S. Weir Mitchell treated Charlotte Perkins Gilman (then...

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Joanne B. Karpinski (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Karpinski, Joanne B. “When the Marriage of True Minds Admits Impediments: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and William Dean Howells.” In Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Joanne B. Karpinski, pp. 202-21. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992.

[In the following essay, Karpinski discusses the role of William Dean Howells in the development of Gilman's literary career and in the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”]

At first glance, the intellectual minuet between Charlotte Perkins Gilman and William Dean Howells seems vulnerable to Gertrude Stein's complaint about Gilman's onetime home of Oakland, California: “There isn't any there,...

(The entire section is 8617 words.)

Sharon Felton (review date spring 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Felton, Sharon. Review of “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Thomas L. Erskine and Connie L. Richards. Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 273-74.

[In the following review of a critical edition of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” edited by Thomas L. Erskine and Connie L. Richards, Felton asserts that the volume fails to address the needs of either an introductory reader or a literary scholar. Felton, however, observes that the introduction, chronology, and bibliography included in the volume are useful.]

This volume on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one of four titles selected to kick off...

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Janet Beer (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Beer, Janet. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ on Film: Dramatising Mental Illness.” In Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction, pp. 197-213. London: MacMillan, 1997.

[In the following essay, Beer discusses the 1992 motion picture adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation.]

In 1988 a ninety-minute adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was made for BBC television; filming took place in the autumn of that year and it was ready for broadcasting in January 1989 although it was not actually shown until January 1992. The project had been initiated...

(The entire section is 7346 words.)

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “‘Fecundate! Discriminate!’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Theologizing of Maternity.” In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer, edited by Jill Rudd and Val Gough, pp. 200-16. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Gilbert and Gubar discuss “The Yellow Wallpaper” in terms of feminist discourse on issues of maternity and childrearing.]

“Not all the long, loud struggle for ‘women's rights,’ not the varied voices of the ‘feminist movement,’ and, most particularly, not the behavior of ‘emancipated women,’ have given us any clear idea of the power and purpose of the...

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Ann Heilmann (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Heilmann, Ann. “Overwriting Decadence: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Oscar Wilde, and the Feminization of Art in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Catherine J. Golden and Joanna Schneider Zangrando, pp. 175-88. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Heilmann asserts that Gilman challenged the dominant nineteenth-century patriarchal discourse on high art by transforming her own ideas about art and politics into the narrative of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” thereby mapping “the transition from male aestheticism to a new female aesthetic.”]

When William Dean Howells approached...

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Heather Kirk Thomas (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomas, Heather Kirk. “‘[A] Kind of Debased Romanesque with Delirium Tremens’: Late-Victorian Wall Coverings and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Catherine J. Golden and Joanna Schneider Zangrando, pp. 189-206. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Thomas discusses the motif of the wallpaper in “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a feminist critique of popular ideas regarding gender in relation to the textile arts and domestic space. ]

I would like to suggest a rereading of “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), one that utilizes the medium of...

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Todd McGowan (essay date 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: McGowan, Todd. “Dispossessing the Self: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and the Renunciation of Property.” In The Feminine ‘No!’: Psychoanalysis and the New Canon, pp. 31-46. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, McGowan observes that recent historicist readings of “The Yellow Wallpaper” provide key insights into the relationship between female subjectivity and the ownership of private property.]

Fredric Jameson begins The Political Unconscious with the mantra, “Always historicize!,” calling this an “absolute” and “even ‘transhistorical’ imperative” of radical thought.1 Historicizing,...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Hill, Mary A. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 362 p., 1980.

Biography of Gilman, with particular focus on the development of her political thought and activities.

Kessler, Carol Farley. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress toward Utopia with Selected Writings. New York: Syracuse University Press, 316 p., 1995.

Biography of Gilman, with particular focus on Utopianism in her thought and writing.

Lane, Ann J. To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Pantheon...

(The entire section is 726 words.)