“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.
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.
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.