BOOK 158: THE YELLOW WALLPAPER: CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN
The Yellow Wallpaper (original title: "The Yellow Wall-paper. A Story") is a 6,000-word short story by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine. It is regarded as an important early work of American feminist literature, illustrating attitudes in the 19th century toward women's health, both physical and mental.
Gilman used her writing to explore the role of women in America at the time. She explored issues such as the lack of a life outside the home and the oppressive forces of the patriarchal society. Through her work Gilman paved the way for writers such as Alice Walker and Sylvia Plath.
In The Yellow Wallpaper Gilman portrays the narrator's insanity as a way to protest the medical and professional oppression against women at the time. While under the impression that husbands and male doctors were acting with their best interests in mind, women were depicted as mentally weak and fragile. At the time women’s rights advocates believed that the outbreak of women being diagnosed as mentally ill was the manifestation of their setbacks regarding the roles they were allowed to play in a male-dominated society. Women were even discouraged from writing, because their writing would ultimately create an identity and become a form of defiance for them. Gilman realized that writing became one of the only forms of existence for women at a time where they had very few rights.
Gilman explained that the idea for the story originated in her own experience as a patient: "the real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways"
She had suffered years of depression and consulted a well-known specialist physician who prescribed a "rest cure" which required her to "live as domestic a life as possible". She was forbidden to touch pen, pencil, or brush, and was allowed only two hours of mental stimulation a day.
After three months and almost desperate, Gilman decided to contravene her diagnosis and started to work again. After realizing how close she had come to complete mental breakdown, she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper with additions and exaggerations to illustrate her own misdiagnosis complaint. She sent a copy to Mitchell but never received a response.
She added that The Yellow Wallpaper was "not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked". Gilman claimed that many years later she learned that Mitchell had changed his treatment methods, but literary historian Julie Bates Dock has discredited this. Mitchell continued his methods, and as late as 1908 – 16 years after "The Yellow Wallpaper" was published – was interested in creating entire hospitals devoted to the "rest cure" so that his treatments would be more widely accessible.
The Yellow Wallpaper is sometimes referred to as an example of Gothic literature for its treatment of madness and powerlessness. Alan Ryan, for example, introduced the story by writing: "quite apart from its origins [it] is one of the finest, and strongest, tales of horror ever written. It may be a ghost story. Worse yet, it may not." Pioneering horror author H. P. Lovecraft writes in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) that "The Yellow Wall Paper rises to a classic level in subtly delineating the madness which crawls over a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined."
Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, in her book Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper", concludes that "the story was a cri de coeur against [Gilman's first husband, artist Charles Walter] Stetson and the traditional marriage he had demanded." Gilman was attempting to deflect blame to protect Gilman's daughter Katharine and her step-mother, Gilman's friend Grace Channing.
Anglican Archbishop Peter Carnley used the story as a reference and a metaphor for the situation of women in the church in his sermon at the ordination of the first women priests in Australia on 7 March 1992 in St George's Cathedral, Perth.
Sari Edelstein has argued that The Yellow Wallpaper is an allegory for Gilman's hatred of the emerging yellow journalism. Having created The Forerunner in November 1909, Gilman made it clear she wished the press to be more insightful and not rely upon exaggerated stories and flashy headlines. Gilman was often scandalised in the media and resented the sensationalism of the media. The relationship between the narrator and the wallpaper within the story parallels Gilman's relationship to the press. The narrator describes the wallpaper as having "sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin". Edelstein argues that given Gilman’s distaste for the Yellow Press, this can also be seen as a description of tabloid newspapers of the day.
In Paula A. Treichler's article "Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in 'The Yellow Wallpaper'", she places her focus on the relationship portrayed in the short story between women and writing. Rather than write about the feminist themes which view the wallpaper as something along the lines of "...the 'pattern' which underlies sexual inequality, the external manifestation of neurasthenia, the narrator's unconscious, the narrator's situation within patriarchy," Treichler instead explains that the wallpaper can be a symbol to represent discourse and the fact that the narrator is alienated from the world in which she previously could somewhat express herself. Treichler illustrates that through this discussion of language and writing, in the story Charlotte Perkins Gilman is defying the "...sentence that the structure of patriarchal language imposes." While Treichler accepts the legitimacy of strictly feminist claims, she writes that a closer look at the text suggests that the wallpaper could be interpreted as women's language and discourse, and the woman found in the wallpaper could be the "...representation of women that becomes possible only after women obtain the right to speak." In making this claim, it suggests that the new struggle found within the text is between two forms of writing; one rather old and traditional, and the other new and exciting. This is supported in the fact that John, the narrator's husband, does not like his wife to write anything, which is the reason her journal containing the story is kept a secret and thus is known only by the narrator and reader. A look at the text shows that as the relationship between the narrator and the wallpaper grows stronger, so too does her language in her journal as she begins to increasingly write of her frustration and desperation.
An episode of The Twilight Zone — "Something in the Walls" (1989) — is a variation on Gilman's story, in which a woman commits herself to a mental institution and insists on plain white walls and no patterns within her hospital room, after having seen faces in the patterns of her bedroom's yellow wallpaper and hearing ominous voices from those faces.
The TV series Pretty Little Liars (2010) uses the original book cover as a wallpaper design in Aria Montgomerys bedroom.
The TV series American Horror Story season 1 (2011) references The Yellow Wallpaper in the eighth episode.
(Information from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Yellow_Wallpaper )