Short stories are a lost art of fiction. Surprisingly few publishers are open to publishing books of short stories and instead strongly favor novels. Although novels are the preferred form of reading for many people who like staying with the same characters for extended periods of time, there are many excellent works of fiction that are written in short story form and, if extended, would not be nearly as effective. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one such story.
Published in January of 1892, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a 6,000 word short story by American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman and it is regarded as being one of the most important examples of feminist literature. It is also an extremely entertaining and creepy story that chronicles the horrors of madness in startling detail. Although the story is often regarded as decrying the patronizing attitude that most men had towards women in the era, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is far more than feminist literature—it effectively takes the reader inside the mind of a person who is losing theirs and expertly explains the narrator’s journey from sanity to insanity…which may or may not ever be recovered from.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is written in the first-person and reads as if the words have been taken from a dairy. The narrator is an unnamed young woman (probably in her 20s or 30s) who has started to show signs of nervous depression and hysterical tendencies. Her husband is a doctor who responds to her outbursts and upsetting behavior by confining her to the upstairs bedroom of a summerhouse they have rented. The husband insists that the woman stay in the room and rest for her own good even though she soon starts to feel overwhelmed and confided in the room that has bars on the windows and has walls that are incased in horrid yellow wallpaper with odd intricate patterns all over it. Worst still, the stairs are gated so she is effectively imprisoned in the room, escape is not an option.
The husband believes that the woman needs rest so badly that he refuses to allow her to do any work around the house or even go outside. At one point she even claims that she must hide the dairy and the pen from him so he does not see her writing and remove the book. Without anything to do to stimulate her mind or anywhere to go to relax or amuse her, the woman starts to feel caged and even more stressed—soon she starts to descend into psychosis, driven primarily by the sight of the hideous wallpaper.
Over time, the woman starts to believe that other women are “creeping about” in the wallpaper. At first she is shocked and horrified and begs to leave the room and go outside—even for a few minutes—but her husband perceives this as being another outburst caused by mental illness and refuses to release her. Soon, the woman starts to believe that she is one of the women inside the wallpaper and willfully locks herself in the room, unwilling to leave it even after the summer rental time is up. Her husband eventually unlocks the door, finds her, and faints at the sight of her poor condition as she, unmindful, continues to “creep” around the room (described as a form of crawling around on the floor and sliding against the walls). Although the story ends at that point, it is very easy to imagine the fate of the woman: she was likely sent away to a lunatic asylum where she might or might not ever have been released from.
There are various underlying themes in the story. Firstly, it is mentioned that the woman recently gave birth so she might have been suffering from some form of post-partum-depression. Many feminist interpretations suggest that the woman likely did not know her husband well nor love him when she married him (something that was fairly common during that time period). Hence, she felt trapped in the marriage, was not pleased about becoming a mother, and subsequently slipped into depression that resulted in outright madness. This outcome has sometimes been interpreted as the woman’s way of achieving a dubious sort of “victory” since her mental instability effectively released her from the confines of marriage and motherhood which she had previously found herself.
There are many elements to the story that can be mulled over and discussed especially because it is told by an “unreliable narrator” and so there is a lot of room for interpretation and consideration. Although the story was written over a century ago it is still highly entertaining, creepy, and very telling of the societal norms that existed in the 1890s as well as the all-too-present realities of sane people descending into insanity. It also provides some very disturbing mental imagery that horror fans will enjoy (watch the video that comes with this article for an example of modern-day creepy wallpaper topics). For anyone of high school or college age (perhaps even mature middle schoolers, too) this is a must-read and discuss story!
To read “The Yellow Wallpaper” online for free see here: http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/wallpaper.html