The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Short Fiction review)

Saturday, January 21, 2012



The Yellow Wallpaper

Charlotte Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper is a work I have seen on and off on many blogs and websites but never really got to read until now. Mental illness is a topic that I tend to gravitate towards reading about, so when I finally finished reading this short story, I wasn't disappointed. The woman in the story is suffering from a mental illness that her physician husband has diagnosed as temporary nervous depression. He doesn't listen to her suggestions or wishes but instead forces his opinions on her. She believed that working, socializing and writing would help her recover faster, but her husband worried that those activities would stimulate and excite her condition unfavorably. He therefore takes her to a summer mansion and keeps her in an airy upstairs room, and persuades her to stick to a rest treatment, in hopes of curing her. Over the next three months, we get to see the effect of this treatment on her, through her journal entries that she writes in secret.

The protagonist is oddly fascinated by the sickly yellow wallpaper in that upstairs bedroom. Initially repelled by its appearance, she asks her husband to remove it or let her move to another room, but her husband insists that she not cave into such fancies and not let the wallpaper bother her. Even though she is still creeped by it, she cannot look away from it and keeps obsessing over the patterns. She begins to imagine that she can see eyes and heads and even a woman in the wallpaper patterns.

I loved the multiple issues that were highlighted in this story. The unreliability of the narrators adds a powerful punch to the story. Most of the time, I wasn't even sure what to believe, but that didn't matter. It was very evident that she was suffering. She was obsessed by the woman in the wallpaper, and the climax was strangely disturbing.

In addition to the insight in to the mind of an ill person, we also see the imbalance of the household. John, the husband, doesn't believe his wife deserves to do anything she wished. He believes her only temporarily ill and coaxes her to listen to him. When she gives into her emotions (anger, irritation, sadness), he asks her to rein them in and to exercise self-control over her emotions. He even makes her feel that she is ungrateful for not valuing his help enough. While I don't think that he was acting out of malice in wanting to care for his wife, I do feel that he lacked respect for her as a person and a patient, and believed her weak and wanting.

I loved Charlotte's writing! Who knew you could write so much about something so boring as wallpapers. Here's a passage I kept reading because it felt lively and colorful to me, almost as if describing a vibrant personality. The "it" refers to the wallpaper pattern.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide--plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.

I'm glad that I finally read this really short work. This epistolary work is available in the public domain, and I actually read it via DailyLit, in under an hour. I only have one complaint and that is that occasionally the writing was so archaic and missing pronouns that I felt compelled to fill them in. On researching about this book after reading it, I learned that The Yellow Wallpaper is actually based on the author's own depression and the rest treatment that she was subjected to. In some respects, it reminded me of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar.


I read this book online via DailyLit.


17 comments:

Christina @ booktasty said...

I rear this in a high school AP Lit class and it rocked my world! One of my favorite short stories ever!

Athira / Aths said...

So glad to hear that! I wish I had read this sooner, but still, I'm glad I got to it.

Helen Murdoch said...

I think I said this when I saw you were going to read this one, but I read it in college (SO long ago) and remembering thinking it was great. Unfortunately, I don't remember all the details now...

Tea Time with Marce said...

I remember reading this when younger, memories overall are vague but remember enjoying it and thinking it was edgy "I think".  I should read it again and maybe Bell Jar.

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

I've seen this on blogs, too, and it sounds like there's a good reason for that.  This sounds like a very powerful story.

Lorren said...

This was one of the first literary works I read in college, and I remember being so disturbed by it, but I think it is also a powerful reminder about two vulnerable populations -- women and the mentally ill. It breaks my heart because the narrator is so right in that trying to distract herself and work would help her, and she is forced to do nothing but percolate and be disturbed. Such a powerful story. 

Athira / Aths said...

I wish I had read it a long time ago too, but still, I'm glad that I eventually got to it.

Athira / Aths said...

I will be eager to compare thoughts! Bell Jar was wonderful too, so I hope you give it a try.

Athira / Aths said...

I'm glad that I finally read this one. It is a powerful story!

Athira / Aths said...

That is what bothered me too - it doesn't matter that she spent all her time staring at the wallpaper. She could be staring at a kettle or a building or the roses or any such thing and it could drive her mad. She should have been allowed to do something creative and meet people.

Gwen said...

Just thinking about this book makes me tense up all over again. We have come so far in our treatment of mental health, but I could still hear my dad's voice in the back of my head saying, "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get over it." 

It was beautifully written and hit home on so many levels for me that I still won't consider any sort of floral wallpaper or the color yellow on walls. 

Ti said...

Sounds fascinating. I gravitate towards stories about mental illness as well. What you shared here really gets the blood boiling. A physician husband telling his wife that she basically needs to get over it. Wow! I'd go crazy too. 

Athira / Aths said...

I agree - I don't think I can stand floral or yellow wallpaper either. The book was definitely well-written. Still makes me wonder at how insensitive society used to be back then. The funny thing is - that 'pull yourself together' attitude still exists. Emotions are rarely discussed in some families that by the time a person is in the 20s, he/she is already carried a huge amount of baggage.

Athira / Aths said...

I was pretty annoyed too - no way to let her emotions out but by staring at the wallpaper? Really drives home the point.

Anna said...

It's been a long time since I read this in college.  I remember finding it boring back then, but I wonder how I would feel about it now?

Athira / Aths said...

I will be interested in hearing what you think about it now, if you choose to reread it. It is certainly a book I enjoyed.

Lisa said...

I listened to this one about a year ago and really was impressed. I'd love to listen to it again - there was so much there to consider!