Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935)
"The Yellow Wallpaper"
Can we really understand just where women were in 1899, when Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper"? Women were disenfranchised and infantalized. Normal physical processes such as the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and childbirth were pathologized by an almost entirely male-dominated medical profession. Being a woman was a pathological condition: women, when they were troublesome or disruptive to the patriarchy, were "hysterical."
This is the context for Charlotte Perkins Gilman's brilliant short story "The Yellow Wallpaper." Gilman tells the story of a woman who is suffering from postpartum depression and is held as a virtual prisoner by her physician husband. The tale is told in diary form, written on scraps of wallpaper scraped from the walls of the "nursery" where the narrator is imprisoned. As the narrator continues to suffer from isolation, inactivity, lack of stimulation, and the patronizing treatment of her husband, she descends into madness.
The story ends on a note that is simultaneously horrifying and darkly humorous. In an essay ("Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper') published in 1913, Gilman describes how she came to write "The Yellow Wallpaper."
For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia--and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure....Gilman seemed to recover, and was then sent home with instructions to "live as domestic a life as far as possible" to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again as long as I lived."
This was the cure for depression in an intellectually capable writer? Go home and be domestic--no thinking or writing allowed.
I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.
Then using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and went to work again--work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and parasite--ultimately recovering some measure of power.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" is a story that deepens the reader's respect and understanding with each reading. A brilliant, capable mind created this carefully crafted story of madness. Gilman herself struggled with melancholy--we would call it depression. Her first episode occurred shortly after he first marriage: one imagines the constraints upon this independent woman were the cause. Her second episode followed the birth of her child. Today she would receive real medical treatment, not imprisonment. Gilman's other work is less well known, but of interest. She wrote a work of nonfiction, Women and Economics, and a Utopian novel, Herland--an idealistic work well worth the reader's time.
The full text of "The Yellow Wallpaper is easily found online, including here: