The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Yellow Wallpaper” was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and first appeared in New England Magazine (Jan. 1892). Gilman (1860-1935) was a novelist, poet, lecturer, artist, and feminist theorist. Today “The Yellow Wallpaper” is usually described as a classic of early feminist writing, and it certainly deserves that status, but it is more than that: it is a story that continues to terrify in the twenty-first century.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is narrated by a nameless woman who is suffering from what her doctor husband, John, says is “temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency.”1 The couple stay in a colonial mansion over one summer so that the narrator can get a rest cure. The woman, does not like the house–she finds something strange about it, despite its beauty–and she feels that she is actually sick, rather than simply high-strung, as her husband believes. She and her husband have different beliefs about a number of things. She believes that the house is odd, and that the yellow wallpaper in the room he has installed her in, a former nursery, is dull and irritating to look at, and that John is not treating her well. John, on the other hand, believes that his wife is only a child, and a mentally sick one at that, who must be treated as a child and whose fanciful complaints must be ignored as a child’s are. As “The Yellow Wallpaper” progresses the narrator’s distrust of her husband increases, as does her own discomfort with the wallpaper. She begins to see that the pattern of the yellow wallpaper is not just wrong (“when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide–plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions”2) but Wrong (“There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will...it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern...the faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out....”3). Toward the end of the story the narrator is convinced that there is a woman trapped inside the pattern, and that at night the woman shakes the pattern, but during the day she gets out and creeps under the trees and the vines by the side of the road near the house. At the end of the story the narrator creeps around her room, to the horror of John and his sister, and tells them, “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”4
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is similar to Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” in a number of ways. Both stories masterfully use ambiguity and a possibly unreliable narrator to leave the reader wondering how much, if anything, should be taken as literally true. Both stories can sustain varied interpretations. And both are equally unnerving, whether read as a supernatural stories or as accounts of deranged minds. However, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the superior of the two stories. Gilman creates what is either a harrowing account of the deterioriation of a mind or the frightening story of a woman by a possibly insane spirit. Whether from authorial incompetence or through a bad writing decision, James’ narration is full of annoying excess. Where James irritates the reader, Gilman arouses the reader’s sympathy, because regardless of the truth of what happens to the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it is clear that she is treated badly by her husband. Every word of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is carefully chosen to produce the cumulative, frightening effect. James undoubtedly was as selective in his word choice as Gilman was, but James deployment of those words results in endless, breathy blather. James’ narrator is either an empty, vain figure modeling herself on the heroines she has read about, a shrill, delusional psychotic, or an unconscious battery of evil. Gilman’s narrator is a sad, sympathetic victim of a heartless, sexist husband, cursed wallpaper, or a sinister supernatural being. James’ presentation of the individual frightening moments of “The Turn of the Screw” in an almost off-handed manner, without any lead-up or warning, dilutes the power of those moments. Gilman builds the mood of scary ambiguity early in the story and sustains it throughout, so that the individually frightening moments are made more frightening.
The feminism of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is obvious. Sadly, Gilman based the story on the rest cure prescribed for her after she grew severely depressed following the birth of her daughter in 1885. “Under the advice of a noted neurologist, S. Weir Mitchell, Gilman undertook a cure consisting largely of bedrest and minimal intellectual stimulation. Not surprisingly, the cure, far from enabling Gilman to recover her emotional equilibrium, further exacerbated her instability.”5 However, it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to believe that the attitudes which Gilman and her narrator character faced from their husbands were common in the 1880s, and that is the truly terrifying aspect of the story.
The reaction to “The Yellow Wallpaper” was for a long time negative because of the all-too-real horrors the story contained:
The editor of the Atlantic Monthly had rejected "The Yellow Wallpaper" because "I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself!"' Even when William Dean Howells reprinted Gilman's story in 1920 he wrote that it was "terrible and too wholly dire," "too terribly good to be printed."6
When the story was brought back into print in 1973, after being out of print for fifty years, the story was seized upon by feminist critics, who saw in its depths a multiplicity of issues to comment upon:
As a tale openly preoccupied with questions of authorship, interpretation, and textuality, 'The Yellow Wallpaper" quickly assumed a place of privilege among rediscovered feminist works, raising basic questions about writing and reading as gendered practices. The narrator's double-voiced discourse–the ironic understatements, asides, hedges, and negations through which she asserts herself against the power of John's voice–came for some critics to represent "women's language" or the "language of the powerless." With its discontinuities and staccato paragraphs, Gilman's narrative raised the controversial question of a female aesthetic; and the "lame uncertain curves," "outrageous angles," and "unheard of contradictions" of the wallpaper came for many critics to symbolize both Gilman's text and, by extension, the particularity of female form. The story also challenged theories of genius that denied the material conditions–social, economic, psychological, and literary–that make writing (im)possible, helping feminists to turn questions like “Where is your Shakespeare?” back upon the questioners. Gilbert and Gubar, for example, saw in the narrator's struggles against censorship “the story that all literary women would tell if they could speak their ‘speechless woe.’”
"The Yellow Wallpaper" has been evoked most frequently, however, to theorize about reading through the lens of a "female" consciousness. Gilman's story has been a particularly congenial medium for such a re-vision not only because the narrator herself engages in a form of feminist interpretation when she tries to read the paper on her wall but also because turn-of-the-century readers seem to have ignored or avoided the connection between the narrator's condition and patriarchal politics, instead praising the story for its keenly accurate "case study" of a presumably inherited insanity.7
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is historically important, superbly crafted, and on the short list of the best horror stories of the nineteenth century.
Print: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland and Selected Stories. New York: Signet, 2014.
1 Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Wikisource, accessed Jan. 17, 2019, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Yellow_Wall_Paper
2 Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
3 Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
4 Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
5 Stone, Les. "Charlotte (Anna) Perkins (Stetson) Gilman." In Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center.
6 Susan S. Lanser, “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America,” Feminist Studies 15, no. 3 (Autumn 1989): 417.
7 Lanser, “Feminist Criticism,” 418.