Favourite Short Stories: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow 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.’

I first read The Yellow Wallpaper in an anthology called Daughters of Decadence, Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siecle, edited by Elaine Showalter, as a lone story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Not long afterwards, I purchased two copies of Gilman’s books with the same, lucid title: one was a slim, alluring volume with a bold illustration of sulphur-yellow wallpaper as its front cover; while the other was less bold and more beautiful, containing her selected writings.

At the same time as reading this story, I was taking my first steps onto feminist territory, which I came to realise, written in 1890, was simply the vital, feminist voice within everyone’s territory. It was the desperate desire for gender equality and for an escape from extreme, Victorian repression. This was serious: here was a story that exhibited the surface world, then peeled it back, using the metaphor of women within wallpaper, women within the Domestic, and then it began to peel it from the inside, out. It moved towards what writers such as Virginia Woolf would begin to do with stream-of-consciousness narration in the twentieth century, unravelling characters’ dreams, desires and fears for us to hear about, in the leftover repression of a post-Victorian era.

Here was a woman, unpeeling the psyche of her own gender, through the tools she was given by man, which, in Gilman’s case, were thankfully, literature, and typically, domestic experience. You might say that if you could speak from a place, you were closer to finding your way out of it, and if you said it out loud, you were closer to helping others out of it, too, yet Gilman states,  ‘I don’t know why I should write this. ‘

By directly addressing the reader, we are provided with a reliable narrator who is so infantilised that she is convinced to be more unreliable than she is. We, however, are not convinced; we see right through her enforced passivity, to a woman placed in a room and trapped from expression by the ‘rest cure’; a tragic, counterproductive treatment for what reads to be for her, a misunderstood post-natal depression. Her stealth writing displays to us her instinctual need to protect herself, not  a demonstration of, as her husband calls them, ‘fancies’, and so we follow her observations of the wavering wallpaper so much, that we understand what is happening before the narrator does. Gilman cleverly provides us with the voice of reason.

The protagonist’s husband, a physician, is the personification of stifling, smothering advice, opposing all of her wishes. Although he is not presented to be an entirely careless or unloving man, he takes control, fitting comfortably within the framework of the patriarchal world of their time. There is continual justification for his wife’s thought and feeling, in a too-confined space and sadly, much defeatism, as she eventually begins to lose herself within the only place she is allowed to; trapped behind the barred windows of an old nursery, just like the women she envisions in the wallpaper. It is even suggested that writing, her only way of expression, has caused her sickness.

This is an important story to consider today, not only with regards to gender equality, but to mental health awareness and the stigma that still surrounds it. Reading it once again, The Yellow Wallpaper still echoes our present, as our patriarchal society says that acknowledgement of condition is bad. The story’s mention of the ‘rest cure’ brings to mind more modern texts such as Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth as we question whether the fashion that media pressures women into being a part of, is only another version of repressing our very capabilities and preventing us from pursuing our dreams.

It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others’  is another description of the wallpaper, which to me, resembles the colour of a weeping or already-wept wound, and in this case, the house is an eerie stranger familiar to more than one woman in history. The Yellow Wallpaper was one of those stories that upon my reading, made it truly frightening to immerse myself in the past, which gave much more meaning to the saying, ‘if walls could speak’, because after all, it was the truth. Again, ‘I don’t know why I should write this’ wrote Gilman, but aren’t we glad she did? I have since read, years later, in an article written by Gilman in the 1913 The Forerunner, that she posted a copy of her story to a physician who suggested the rest cure to her not long before she wrote it. Shortly after, he allegedly altered his medical practices. What power a short story can have.