Title: The Yellow Wallpaper
Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Release Date: 1892
It is singularly difficult to pin down why it is that The Yellow Wallpaper remains such a powerful piece of writing. It is difficult because the story does pretty much everything right. Written as a disturbingly up-beat first-person narrative, the story is presented as a series of journal entries written by a woman sequestered in a large country house while recovering from some unspecified illness.
The story begins with the narrator stressing not only her love of the huge house but also the love she feels for her physician husband John. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that not all is well. Indeed, John’s desire to care for his wife seems to stray over the line and into a rather unpleasant desire to control her every action while suffocating any attempts the narrator might make at either self-expression or self-discovery. Whenever the narrator questions her husband, her concerns are rejected out of hand with a chilling air of condescension : she is “a blessed little goose” who is “his darling and his comfort”. Forever positive and grateful, the narrator struggles to criticise her husband’s misogynistic attitude and so she begins to project her negative feelings onto the yellow wallpaper in the bedroom where she is kept sequestered. This wallpaper is described as “repellent”, “revolting” and as “committing every artistic sin” and yet it dominates the narrator’s thoughts. In fact, the wallpaper so dominates the narrator’s thoughts that eventually she starts seeing things in the pattern. At first these are simply shapes but as the story progresses these hallucinations become more and more elaborate and less and less distinguishable from reality as the narrator comes to believe that she too is a part of the pattern in the hideous yellow wallpaper.
While The Yellow Wallpaper functions both as a vicious critique of lamentably enduring attitudes towards women and mental illness and as a viscerally unsettling examination of one woman’s slow descent into psychosis, what makes the story so powerful despite its advancing years is the way in which these different aspects of the story feed upon each other. Indeed, the narrator’s husband treats her as a piece of furniture so is it any surprise that she comes to imagine that she is a part of the furniture? Tone, pacing, language and subtext, Perkins Gilman gets them all absolutely spot on.