He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.

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.

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13 Comments

Filed under 19th Century, Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, US fiction

13 responses to “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.

  1. Ahh, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one of my favorites, Max. I’ve read it many times and each time I am surprised at how immediate it feels. Despite the fact that I know what is happening and what is going to happen, I feel completely present and my pulse jumps as the narrative jumps. Her writing there is just superb, so haunting and so formally perfect.

    I agree that her other stories don’t compare, which is a shame. The visceral “Yellow Wallpaper” becomes the didactic “Three Thanksgivings.” Still, a remarkable and important achievement.

  2. I knew the ending when I read it, someone had told me ages ago. It didn’t diminish its power at all. Wonderful story.

    Turned wasn’t bad, not a patch though on The Yellow Wallpaper and still essentially instructional. But as you say, The Yellow Wallpaper itself is a remarkable and important achievement.

    You might still enjoy the link to the online version, I think it’s a scan of the original magazine publication.

    Is she well known in the US? She’s not in the UK, but then it’s not our history.

  3. I read The Yellow Wallpaper years ago as it seems to be required reading in short story courses, and it’s one of those stories that stayed with me. Yes, a little gem. I have a collection of her stories somewhere….

    Just checked and there are 4 free choices from this author for the Kindle on Amazon.

  4. Max: as for the question is the author well-known in America. I would say that if you take a few lit. courses, sooner or later The Yellow Wallpaper shows up. At least once. The story appears in many of the standard text anthologies.

  5. That makes sense. Oh well. One person’s literary discovery is another’s set text…

  6. I’ve never heard of her but I shall read the Yellow Wallpaper, at least. Thanks.

    The theme of Three Thanksgivings makes me think of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”. It’s very modern. I think feminists usually insist on financial independance as a preriquisite to freedom. Here, if I understand well, the idea is that the right to have one’s own home, which means a place to be alone and have some intimacy, is the basis for freedom. And indeed, intimacy is what is taken away from prisoners.

  7. Financial independence is clearly vital. The issue I had here was that Gilman didn’t really address the reality most women of her day faced: that such independence was extremely difficult. Her protagonists tend to be well educated women of a certain social position.

    But as I say, that may be an unfair criticism. Firstly, that’s what she knew. Secondly, you have to start somewhere and that was probably the most realistic group to start with.

    One thing the women in these stories are generally denied, save where they assert it for themselves, is their own space. They have the domestic space, but it is shared with children and the demands of housework. They are granted little if any freedom to develop an internal life. Indeed it’s discouraged or seen as irrelevant, even harmful.

    I should read more Woolf.

    My second link in the final para leads to the full short story, I’d suggest printing that off rather than buying it. It is worth reading though.

  8. Thanks for the advice, I’ll print it.
    You know I think women of lower social position had jobs and widows supported their families. (think of Zola)
    The idea of internal life is linked to the picture of the 3 feet stool. One foot for your social self (sharing the life of the community, work,…), one foot for your family self (spouse, parent), one foot for yourself (your hobbies and internal life). If one foot is missing, the stool falls down.
    Women have been denied this third foot and often still are, because the two others “selves” leave no space. But it happens to busy men too.

  9. You’re quite right of course. Many women of other stations did work. I do still think it was harder for them to set up on their own though.

    The stool is a nice analogy. Certainly some of these stories deal precisely with women who are so busy dealing with family and community they have nothing left for themselves.

  10. Pingback: Charlotte Perkins Gilman - World Literature Forum

  11. I love The Yellow Wallpaper and some time ago did a comparison of it based on our current knowledge of and treatment of post-natal depression which proved fascinating ( well for me at least because that’s part of my day job)
    For a lesser known book where Charlotte Perkins Gilman does explore the plight of the less-moneyed I can highly recommend What Diantha Did, this from the intro…
    “First published serially in Gilman’s magazine the Forerunner in 1909-10,the novel tells the story of Diantha Bell, a young woman who leaves her home and her fiancé to start a housecleaning business. A resourceful heroine, Diantha quickly expands her business into an enterprise that includes a maid service, cooked food delivery service, restaurant, and hotel. By assigning a cash value to women’s “invisible” work, providing a means for the well-being and moral uplift of working girls, and releasing middle- and leisure-class women from the burden of conventional domestic chores, Diantha proves to her family and community the benefits of professionalized housekeeping”.

  12. That sounds fascinating DGR, how did you find the depiction of depression in the story?

    The tale you describe sounds very Gilman. There’s an instructional element it seems to me. A sort of “this is how it’s done in this story, and you could do likewise.” One of these tales has a similar conceit with a babysitting business.

  13. Max, you can read it here if you are interested
    http://dovegreyreader.typepad.com/dovegreyreader_scribbles/2009/01/new-year-new-reading-and-the-yellow-wallpaper.html
    What interested me was that we have invented nothing new about PND, the same symptoms and distress seem to apply now as then and interestingly I had sympathies for the husband, which people rarely feel when reading that story, he must have been utterly terrified of his wife’s problems and with little idea of how to handle it. Still an issue these days, mental illness often remains the taboo that we don’t quite know how to handle.

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