The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Virago Modern Classic #50

Such a little book. Just 36 pages in my (earlier) Virago Modern Classics edition.

But what those 36 pages hold is extraordinary.

A nameless woman tells her own story. Her words are sparse but her voice comes through clear and direct.

She and her husband have a short-term lease on a large country house. She has recently given birth and appears to be suffering from what we know to be post-natal depression.

But one hundred years ago it was seen rather differently. She want to move freely, and most of all to write. But her husband, a doctor, prescribes complete rest and isolation in an attic room. A room with an iron bedstead, bars on the window and peeling yellow wallpaper.

Why? Because she cannot play the role of submissive role of wife that society – including her friends and family – has cast her in.

She has no outlet for her intellect. No means of expressing her emotions. And minimal human contact.

She becomes obsessed with the room’s hideously patterned yellow wallpaper. At first she simply dislikes it. But she grows to hate it.Then to fear it. And finally she become fascinated, absorbed by the wallpaper and the lives she within and behind it.

It is a stunning portrait of one woman’s descent into madness. And a clear indictment of a particular society’s oppression of women.

So much has been and could be written about The Yellow Wallpaper. But I feel so deeply for its narrator that I cannot write about her words intellectually.

A compelling and deeply unsettling piece of storytelling.

19 responses

  1. I read this in high school and I thought it was absolutely wonderful. It wasn’t at all what I expected. At the time, I read it as a horror story. It was only until I got to college that I discovered its more feminist implications. I might have to go look for my copy of this for a reread. Great post!

  2. I’ve just read this (thanks to Rachel’s link above) and it was great! I think you are particularly correct about the effect of society’s roles on women and more specifically the isolation it invokes.

  3. Kathy – Yes, it is quite extraordinary. The narrative voice is so strong, and what happens to her is so unsettling.

    J.S. – There’s an awful lot in this little book isn’t there? The story is so compelling that it would be very easy to fly through without thinking too much.

    Verity – It’s definitely my slimmest Virago. But I’m glad really – I think this is a story that needs to stand alone.

    Dominique – It is a very powerful story and so well executed. It really should be better known.

    JoAnn – I imagine it would work very well read aloud – the narrative voice is so clear and distinct.

    Jackie – I hope you track down a copy (or read online) because I’d be very interested to know your views. Yes there were parallels, but the time travel aspect of VCL compared with the stark reality of this one made them very different. I don’t think you’ll find anything silly in The Yellow Wallpaper!

    Rachel – It is extraordinary isn’t it? I really should have read it sooner. and thank you for tracking down the link.

  4. Malcolm – I think we’re taling about the next post up! It’s an old book that I pulled out and it is very charming.

    Stacy – It;s a starting cover, but it does match the contents.

    Mrs B – Hopefully being such a small book it will zip through the postal system. I’ll look out for your thoughts.

    Nicola – It’s definitley not abook that’s going to leave me any time soon. Yes, I think post natal depression is implied, but maybe it wouldn’t have to be that severe – wouldn’t isolation, lack of stimuli and separation from their child would push a lot of women over the edge?

    Carrie – I would love to hear a good reading of this and done right it definitely would be disturbing.

    LeaningSun – Isn’t it extrordinary how the world has changed so much in just a few generations? Isolation is a terrible thing and its hard to understand now why a woman would accept such treatment without protest.

  5. I read this years ago, after I’d seen the movie version and highly recommend both. Unfortunately, there appears to be no video version available!

    It’s true that today you cannot imagine a woman taking that sort of abuse, but then I look at some developing countries and the way women are treated and… well… someone there must be writing a “new” version of this same story.

  6. Pingback: The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman « Leaning Toward the Sun

  7. I saw this book in a bookstore and wanted to pick it up, but haven’t. I’ll try to do the pdf! A book I just recently read and reviewed, Wish Her Safe at Home, also deals with mental illness in women, and was so so so good to read! I think, based on your review, you would like it. I loved it!

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