Short Story Saturday: “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Welcome back! This week, I’ve opted to take a look at Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

It’s about a woman’s slow descent into madness! Yay!

The story is told in first person, in the form of journal entries from an unnamed narrator. Said narrator is a woman who’s been ordered to take a “rest cure” to treat some form of temporary mental illness that is strongly hinted to be post-partum depression, or at leat what we would call post-partum depression today. I think at the time this story was written, the official diagnosis was “bitches be crazy.”

Anyway, said rest cure was ordered by the narrator’s husband John, who is a physician. Though he’s clearly not a very good one, since she has some concerns that he brushes aside constantly. Oh, and he’s also orderd her to stop writing, which means that she has to write these journal entries in secret. In case you couldn’t tell, we’re not really supposed to sympathize with John all that much here.

So, yeah, this isn’t really doing anything to help her mental state. Also not helping is her room’s absolutely hideous wallpaper, which is this horrid, sickly shade of yellow. The wallpaper also has some rather odd patterns running through it, in which she starts to see the figure of a woman.

Eventually, things start to get to bad that the narrator starts to see the woman moving, shaking the wallpaper as if she’s trying to get out. All the while, her husband is praising her for her improvement, clearly missing that his wife is slowly losing it. Because, again, he doesn’t listen to her.

Things escalate until, on the last night of their stay at the house they’d been renting, the narrator locks herself in the room in order to tear down all the wallpaper. John, who was in town on an errand, comes back to this, and tells his wife to let him in. She refuses, and he goes to find the key. Unlocking the door, he’s super creeped out to find his wife crawling along the floor.

And here’s how this particular story ends:

“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”

Now why should the man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!

So, yeah, things get so bad that the narrator believes herself to be the woman in the wallpaper.

That was a delightfully creepy romp. The story, in fact, is often considered to be one of the jewels of Gothic horror, and famed horror author and horrible racist H P Lovecraft was reportedly a fan. The horror of the story goes a little bit depper than the obvious, however.

See, it’s actually somewhat autobiographical. Gilman, after the birth of her daughter Katharine, suffered from horrible post-partum depression. And guess what her then-husband Charles Walter Stetson and her doctor ordered. That’s right, a rest cure! Which basically means she was confined to a bed for a period and kept from writing!

Yeah, she eventually divorced Stetson, which was a pretty boss move in the late 1800s. Also a boss move: she sent the doctor, Silas Weir Mitchell, a copy of the story as a giant “fuck you” to him.

The story was essentially Gilman railing against how the medical establishment treated women at the time, and how that treatment was actually detrimental to women’s mental wellbeing. This isn’t particularly surprising, as Gilman was very much a part of the feminist movement of the time, and wrote quite a bit on the subject, both fiction and non-fiction.

Just don’t look up her views on race, because there’s some yikes there. Let’s just say she and Lovecraft would’ve gotten along just fine. Which is not exactly a ringing endorsment.

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