The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Penguin’s Little Black Classic version of The Yellow Wall-Paper contains three Charlotte Perkins Gilman short stories: the highly influential “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” along with “The Rocking-Chair,” and “Old Water.”

“The Yellow Wall-Paper” is told through an unnamed woman’s perspective. She is ill with what her physician husband and brother diagnosed as “temporary nervous depression.” She is “absolutely forbidden to work until [she is] well again.”

To accelerate her health, husband John rents a beautiful colonial mansion for the summer so his wife can rest. And rest. And rest some more.

Against her wishes, our narrator’s bedroom is placed in an old nursery with hideous yellow wallpaper she finds objectionable. Left with nothing to do, however, the wallpaper starts to consume her life. She begins to imagine a trapped woman behind those yellow walls, trying to break free. She becomes obsessed, convinced that she must try to rescue this imprisoned woman.

In many respects, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is an excellent short story, deserving of its classic status. The text is rich and dense, encompassing many themes. Published in 1982, it is far ahead of its time. It’s a feminist manifesto, a horror yarn, an observation on mental health struggles, all at once. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is hailed as a seminal feminist text and is widely taught as such. I am more intrigued by the theme of mental health in this story; I think it particularly timely.

Much ink has been spilled over “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and I’d like to devote some more Internet space to an analysis of the themes of feminism and mental health as part of booksandstripsFemme Friday project. Some points are really worth discussing, I think. For now, I’ll talk about “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as a horror story and its pacing.

The first section of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” gave me the chills. Its horrors are tangible, palpable. It’s very easy to slip into our narrator’s skin and watch our every opinion disregarded, our wishes scoffed at.

And isn’t that a basic human fear? To have no agency. To feel smothered by the people around you. To feel as though you don’t matter.

Unfortunately, the second half lost its pacing. The narrator’s descent to madness happened too quickly. I would have appreciated a slower setting and more detailed, atmospheric description. This is one short story I wish were a novella to give it justice.

***

“The Rocking-Chair” is the lone dud of the three Gilman stories. A standard, reasonably well-written, and entirely forgettable Gothic horror.

Best friends Maurice and Hal are looking for rooms to rent when they halt at a shabby guesthouse, enchanted by the golden hair of a strange and beautiful girl in a rocking chair. The men pay for the rooms and supernatural events begin to happen. The rocking chair moves. The golden-haired girl shows from afar and disappears up close like a mirage. Both men grow obsessed with the girl, gradually destroying their relationship in the process as they accuse each other of rocking with her on the chair.

Like “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” the pacing of this short story’s second half is a bit off. The disintegration of Maurice and Hal’s relationship is a bit abrupt, which renders it unbelievable.

***

I feel like “Old Water” is a story many won’t appreciate because I can see a lot of people finding it dull and pointless, but I really enjoyed its themes. The story itself has a slight subtle feel I admired.

“Old Water” follows the exploits of a mother, her daughter, and a poet. Mother and daughter are night and day. The mother is romantic and cultured, her daughter is athletic and sensible. When she was young, the mother was married off to a man with a stable job and good prospects. But she longed and longed for romantic passion – and now desires to give her daughter what she never had by foisting a young handsome poet to her daughter. Some supernatural happenings infuse the short story, but the tone of “Old Water” is quite comic.

Essentially, “Old Water” is a story about a mother’s love. A mother’s flawed love. Ignore the poet. He is as one note as they come. He doesn’t matter. It’s the mother-daughter relationship that does.

Despite its light touch, I found “Old Water” rather tragic. The mother wants her daughter to have what she never had, yet the tragedy here is that her daughter doesn’t want what her mother never had. She is happy with the status quo. The tragedy is: love needs to be supported by listening and understanding. We may love fiercely, but sometimes we forget the gentleness to stop and listen.

I found it hilarious that the comic-tragic aspect of the mother’s love bled into the daughter’s relationship with the poet. Is there a relationship more tragicomic? I don’t know who is more persistent, the mother or the poet. Or who is more dense, for that matter.

***

Bottom line: “The Yellow Wall-Paper” deserves its status in the literary canon. Yet I also understand why critics rarely rate Gilman’s other stories. “The Rocking-Chair” is as average as they come and while I really, really liked “Old Water,” I don’t think it is for everyone.

“The Yellow Wall-Paper” is readily available to read for free online. Here’s an example link. “Old Water” is, unfortunately, more difficult to come across.

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8 thoughts on “The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

  1. Interesting how our reactions To Yellow Wallpaper were different. It didn’t grab my attention initially but the further I read into it the more chilling it became. I didn’t have any issue with the pace towards the end.

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    1. It’s so funny how our opinions on the same words on the same text differ, isn’t it? I recently uploaded a very glowing review of a novel, commenting on its nuance — only to have a fellow blogger I trust say she found the author’s overall tone judgmental.

      I’d love to read more about reader response. Must be a very fascinating topic.

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  2. Don’t you love Penguin? At university in the late 1980’s we were force-fed feminist manifestos all the time. Life for men and women is so much more complex than my professors had us believe. Women AND men are the victims of the nature of life–which is basically tragic with moments of joy to keep us going. It’s funny that the husband took charge of her healing (I’m sure with the best of intentions). men want to fix things. Women have often dreamed of princes rescuing them. I have compassion for both sexes. Except for the rare few in life, most people struggle. I admire the people who refuse to see themselves as victims. I obviously wasn’t a fan of Gilman or Kate Chopin. Give me George Eliot any day of the week. Middlemarch captures the human plight with compassion, depth and humor.

    BTW, glad to meet you! 🙂

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    1. Haha, well, I consider myself a feminist who wants equality between the sexes. Some feminist texts are duds, though,
      I concur. Some lack nuance and I dislike it when the tone is overly preachy. But then again, any writing can be unsubtle and histrionic, it’s not limited to feminist writing.

      I do agree with your philosophy. All of us, male and female, are bravely living life day by day, despite the human tragedy and challenges that we encounter.

      It has been a while since I read the Gilman collection, but one of the reasons why I liked it a lot in the review is because the terror and frustration felt by the protagonist was quite relatable, in my mind. I’m sure her husband had the best of intentions and access to the best medical practice at the time. But what was communicated is that the protagonist had her own desires and ideas of what would be good for her health and all of them were summarily dismissed by her husband. I think this is a very universal fear, being treated as though your yearnings and thoughts don’t matter. I think the desire to be validated transcends gender, and I thought Gilman captured the frustrations when you aren’t validated really well 🙂

      Of course, the above are my own, subjective thoughts. Would love to hear more from you.

      I’m always so daunted by George Eliot and the length of her novels haha. I think I do want to read one of her works one day just to see what it is all about but I’m not sure when that day will come. Tell me more about Middlemarch!

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      1. So true about the terror of not being validated. As a semi-recovering people-pleaser this is ever present in my mind. LOL

        I’m going to admit that there were a few parts (only a tiny few) where Eliot talked about the politics of the day. I was a little shaky on the subject so felt out of my depth but the characters drew me in right from the start. Dorothea is a perfectionist who tries REALLY hard to be virtuous. Eliot writes about peoples’ flaws is such a compassionate and amusing ways.

        Middlemarch is big but it’s because she follows a few sets of interrelated characters as they go about making mistakes. It ends really well (in my opinion). The book is about relationships. It’s just great. 🙂

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      2. Haha, I am a people pleaser as well. Much better at managing and balancing it now, though. I like making people happy, after all.

        I am intrigued by a perfectionist who tries really hard to be virtuous. Sounds like my kind of protagonist 🙂 — And I do like character/relationship-driven stories. Haha, I’m still intimidated by the sheer size of Middlemarch but I guess I am more interested now.

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