“The Yellow Wallpaper” is the most renown short story of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). It starts as a spine-chilling probably-horror-story that then becomes even more terrifying when we realize what extremes human mind can reach when put in inadequate conditions, even without any supernatural elements to interfere. We’ve learned from Charlotte Perkins’ article “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’” that there was a lot of speculation held about the motives behind this short story, so she decided to shed some light on it.
Though it may seem that the author described the fall into madness so vividly and in such a detail simply to gain attention and draw in more readers, that’s only a part of the story. From her biography we discover that after marrying Charles Walter Stetson in 1884 and giving birth to a child the following year, she “was beset by a crippling depression” (World Authors 1900-1950). It was believed to have started as a postpartum but kept returning throughout her entire life. In her article Perkins acknowledges that for many years she suffered from “a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia,” (Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’), and even worse. In hope to get a proper treatment she contacted the most prominent specialist of women’s nervous disorders of the time - Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. His recommendations were exactly what was to be expected from a man of the nineteenth century – rest, isolation from almost everyone, except her child, minimization of intellectual activity, in fact, any activity at all, including creative work.
Nowadays, due to the development of psychoanalysis and from our own experience, we know that idleness and social exclusion are hardly the best way to escape our inner demons, quite the opposite, actually. But things were different then, especially for women, as their proper place was considered to be at home, managing the household and raising children, so there’s no wonder that all they presumably needed to regain their strength and mental stability was to lead a quiet and uneventful life, not straining their “delicate constitution” in any way. Maybe some did benefit from this magical cure, but that was certainly not the case with Charlotte. Having quite a dynamic personality, with writing as a main occupation, she almost lost her mind dutifully following instructions given by the noted doctor. Though, as she points out, she didn’t reach the state when hallucinations appear, the other symptoms mentioned in her short story she didn’t have to make up.
Having triumphed over the illness Charlotte happily returned to writing and with it wanted to demonstrate all the faults of the appraised method of treatment women’s mental disorders, and puerperal mania in particular. For this purpose she exaggerated some aspects and altered others, choosing the yellow wallpaper in the protagonist’s bedroom as a source and illustration of her declining lucidity, though as the author admits, she, personally, had no problem with the design on her walls. Charlotte sent a copy of “The Yellow Wallpaper” to the Doctor Mitchell – very expressive criticism – but got no reaction. Though it was not only him that she targeted with this story. Living in a time when women were deprived from the right to vote, she raised an issue of inequality, misunderstanding and mistreatment, both in social and medical spheres, becoming a feminist theorist and lecturer later in her life.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman shocked everybody who read “The Yellow Wallpaper” – editors, health workers, ordinary readers, who suspected that only a person enduring depicted horrors could have written such an imaginative and believable story. For the most part they were right, though it was not only desire to share the experience and present a creepy work to the public that prompted Charlotte to publish it.
1. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. nlm.nih.gov. U.S. National Library of
Medicine, 2016. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.
2. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” U.S. National Library
of Medicine, (from “The Forerunner, 1913). Web. 14 Jan. 2016.
3. “World Authors 1900-1950”. “Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.” Biography Reference Bank
(H.W. Wilson), 1996. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.