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 booksandstrips’ Femme 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.