The Yellow Wallpaper, and other stories, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was many things. A feminist, a writer, a public speaker and political campaigner. Her best known story is The Yellow Wallpaper which was published in 1892 in the New England Magazine. It’s a tremendous piece of work. Justly famous.
I read The Yellow Wallpaper as part of a Dover Thrift Editions collection. It stands out from the other stories. Sufficiently so that although I do recommend tracking down a copy of The Yellow Wallpaper itself I’m not sure I’d recommend tracking down her other fiction. Sometimes an author puts lightning in a bottle, and however they try once it’s out they can’t get it back in again.
The Yellow Wallpaper itself is the story of a woman who has recently given birth and who is depressed and nervous. Her husband is a doctor and so also her doctor. He has prescribed a rest cure and they have rented a large Summer house for three months. Her husband is a solid and unfanciful man, and has installed them in what was once the nursery of the house. A large room with barred windows, a solid bed and decaying yellow wallpaper.
Banned from writing in her journal, reading or visiting friends lest she excite herself, the narrator sits and lies in the room staring out of the window or at the peculiar wallpaper.
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.
The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
As the story continues, the pattern becomes more repugnant. A smell is noticed, and the narrator becomes persuaded that she can see a woman moving at times behind the wallpaper, trapped within it but eager to get out. It is almost as if the woman were imprisoned in the room in which the narrator must spend her days…
Essentially, The Yellow Wallpaper is structured as a ghost story. MR James would have been proud of it. It also has elements of the gothic tale with its imagery of a woman trapped in a high room unable to free herself. For all those ingredients though, it is not a ghost story and it’s no spoiler to say it’s not. It’s much more frightening than that. It’s a story about how through a dangerous mixture of love and self-assurance a man drives the woman he loves towards insanity.
John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.
The final pages, the final paragraph, are remarkably chilling. In writing this piece I discovered the story was semi-autobiographical, which makes it all the more disturbing. Gilman wrote at a time when post-partum depression was disregarded as mere hysteria and in which women generally were viewed as intellectually and emotionally frail. That ignorance had a cost.
The remaining stories deal in similar territory, but less effectively. In The Yellow Wallpaper Gilman has very serious points to make. It talks about how female creativity and expression are quashed and so forced to find such outlets as they can. It talks of how men do not listen to women, and of how male certainty can crush women. Ultimately too it talks of how men themselves are damaged by relationships founded on inequality.
The Yellow Wallpaper manages to make all these points while also delivering an excellent quasi-ghost story. The story doesn’t just have a point, it also has a narrative.
The next story in the collection (don’t worry, I’m not going to go through them all) is Three Thanksgivings. An elderly woman of 50 (and yes, I am glad to live in a time when 50 is no longer elderly) is being urged by her now married children to give up the large house she inhabits and move in with one or the other of them. At the same time, she owes a mortgage to a Mr. Butts who is keen to own both the house and the woman herself through marriage.
The story consists of three thanksgivings, as per the title. In the first two she visits each of her adult children, a son and a daughter. The son wishes to make plans for her. The daughter’s husband likewise. The children both mean well but they offer no freedom and nor of course does Mr. Butts. The solution is to create a woman’s society which gathers at the large house and pays its own way with women from all across the county gathering to better themselves and enjoy each other’s company.
The story has a clear point to it. The elderly woman is faced with unappetising choices and with sacrificing her independence. With the aid of other women, she maintains her dignity and self-determination both. Perhaps the reader could organise such a society in her own community?
Gilman can still write. I quite liked the passage I’m about to quote, but overall Three Thanksgivings isn’t so much a short story as a speech in story form.
Afterward Mr. Butts called. He came early in the evening with his usual air of determination and a somewhat unusual spruceness. Mr. Peter Butts was a florid, blonde person, a little stout, a little pompous, sturdy and immovable in the attitude of a self-made man. He had been a poor boy when she was a rich girl; and it gratified him much to realize – and to call upon her to realize – that their positions had changed. He meant no unkindness, his pride was honest and unveiled. Tact he had none.
Mr. Butts is in a way typical of Gilman’s characters. Few of the people in these stories mean unkindness. The enemies here are selfishness, thoughtlessness, assumptions of how things should be. Even the errant husband in Turned who cheats on his wife with their maid (one of the best of the stories after The Yellow Wallpaper) doesn’t mean unkindness, though in his particular case that makes his wrongs all the worse.
As the collection continues, its didactic nature becomes clearer. Several stories are essentially lectures about how letting a wife work might make for a happier marriage, or how when one sex is free the other is freed too. Gilman is no hater of men. For her men are victims too of societal roles that do nobody any favours. Men make their women into ornaments and in turn their women make them into joyless providers.
Another issue I had with the collection is that Gilman’s prescriptions do assume a certain level of prosperity. Perhaps that’s inevitable. Feminism had to start somewhere and starting with the already moneyed and educated has a certain logic. Still I couldn’t help observing that the women in her stories generally had positions fortunate enough to give them options beyond those their men offered them.
One final quote.
Mollie was “true to type.” She was a beautiful instance of what is reverentially called “a true woman.” Little, of course – no true woman may be big. Pretty, of course – no true woman could possibly be plain. Whimsical, capricious, charming, changeable, devoted to pretty clothes and always “wearing them well,” as the esoteric phrase has it. (This does not refer to the clothes – they do not wear well in the least – but to some special grace of putting them on and carrying them about, granted to but few, it appears.)
What’s depressing in that quote (taken from probably the weakest story of the collection, If I Were a Man) is how much of it remains relevant after so much time has passed. One story refers to how women in another state now have the vote. Progress there has been made. On the domestic front though far too much of this collection still stirs a degree of recognition.
The Yellow Wallpaper. Alternatively, as it’s out of copyright, the title story can be found online here . That second link leads to what I suspect may be the original version, as it uses her married name rather than her maiden name which she reverted to. It also comes with illustrations, which for some reason I’m always fond of in a book.