Review: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper Book CoverThe Yellow Wallpaper [1892] – ★★★★   

Yesterday was the International Women’s Day – 8 March 2019, and although I am a bit late, I thought I would still review one of the stories from the feminist literature. The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story about the narrator’s path towards madness. The narrator is a woman who has recently given birth and is advised by her husband John, a physician, to have more rest and to stop writing in her diary. The narrator, however, loves to write and is very imaginative. On the top floor of their rented cottage, she finds a room which was once a nursery. There, one presence does not let her enjoy her stay – the presence of the yellow wallpaper on the walls. She gradually becomes fixated and obsessed with it until she cannot distinguish reality and imagination. This story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman has always been known for its eeriness, as well as for multiple interpretations that can be given to it. Whether the book is viewed as an unsettling horror story, a mental illness case study or a purely feminist text to highlight the plight of woman at the turn of the century, it still remains a compelling and thought-provoking read. 

At the beginning of the story, it becomes clear that the narrator is not well. She may be suffering from a post-natal depression, but the medical knowledge at that time will probably refer to it as some form of a “female hysteria” or an attack of the nerves. Upon encountering the yellow wallpaper in one of the rooms in the cottage that her husband rented, the narrator takes an immediate dislike to it. That dislike soon grows to become something unimaginable, and the narrator’s vicious, gradual hatred for the wallpaper is intoxicating. “The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight” [1892: 43], writes our narrator in her diary, continuing that “it is dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others” [1892: 43]. Later on, there is also a statement: “the colour is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing” [1892: 51].

Later, it becomes hard to define the narrator’s mental condition. She is confused and does not understand the nature of her condition. There is even an element of an obsessive compulsive disorder because she criticises the wallpaper for not being orderly. Our narrator is also implicitly compared to her husband: if she is imaginative and prone to fancies, he is a reasonable physician who likes to use his common sense and scientific judgement. Then, the story reminded me of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw [1898], which is also open to multiple interpretations. In both, we as readers may be instinctively drawn to the narrator’s side or believe the narrator because she bears her soul, fear and trauma to us in her writing, seeking our sympathy. Therefore, there is an element of doubt in the story. In the beginning, we may wonder if, perhaps, John, the narrator’s husband, is not so innocent in this situation of the confinement of one woman to one room. The narrator does say at one point “I am getting a little afraid of John” [1892: 52], and before that also “he hates to have me write a word” [1892: 44]. John does seem overprotective and restrictive, and the narrator appears misunderstood. There is uncertainty about what is going on, and because the narrator is frightened, we become uneasy too.

We become more sceptical about the narrator’s version of events as the story moves forward, and can be frankly shocked about where the narrator’s trail of thoughts takes her in the days to come. I would have personally liked this story to remain more enigmatic throughout, and it does have a rather abrupt ending, but that does not diminish feelings of claustrophobia and horror that the story induces. There is another question arising – does the yellow wallpaper stands for something in this story? Perhaps, it symbolises something. The yellow wallpaper in this story was interpreted to stand for a repressed sexual desire, violence happened in the past and now “confining” the narrator, an unfulfilled literary career, and even for “modern” anxieties about foreign migration. Another theory (for example, one by Tom Lutz) is that the yellow wallpaper is linked to arsenic and its use in the late nineteenth century in wall-paper making. The narrator does refer to the uncomfortable smell emanating from the wallpaper, and clearly she senses the danger within.

The Yellow Wallpaper may be a story of only eight or nine pages, but it has a distinct voice that takes the reader on one uncomfortable journey illuminating the paranoia and horror that stems from one disturbed mind. Clearly, Charlotte Perkins Gilman highlighted the monotony and boredom of women’s world at the end of the nineteenth century, as well as the distrust that men had for women who talked about their imagination and intellectual pursuits. It is astonishing how such an ordinary thing as wallpaper may become an object of horror in the story, but the author’s style is persuasive and The Yellow Wallpaper is really a story not easily forgotten.  


16 thoughts on “Review: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

    1. I am a bit jealous that people studied these texts in school. Odd, but I think I would have enjoyed that 🙂 I agree it is memorable.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Oh, yes, a beautifully creepy story! I read it way back when I was pretty young and really didn’t spot the subtexts at the time – I just saw it as a pure horror story. I’m often tempted to re-read it now that I’ve seen it hailed so often as a feminist text, but part of me doesn’t want to destroy the impression left by that simpler, less mature, reading of it. Maybe one day!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is an excellent review. I’ve never read this before but I do enjoy a book where it causes me to examine the mental stability of the characters. The fact that it could have been initially post partem that seems to be sent out of control or fueled by the wallpaper. Well it looks like I’m going to see if I can find this myself.

    I’m also looking up The Color Coded Reading challenge…

    Liked by 1 person

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