Charlotte Perkins Gilman provides a stunning and disturbing account of a women’s decline into madness. Margaret Atwood comments in the Blind Assassin that life is little more than a period of waiting interspersed with a few significant moments. For the nameless women in The Yellow Wallpaper, this is one of those moments. Over a three year period we see in acute and distressingly real detail how her inability to match her identity with the role of submissive wife that late Victorian society demanded leads to a steady, inexorable descent from sagacity to despair. Suffering from some unnamed illness – which modern readers might recognise as post-natal depression – she is confined to a room for rest and sleep. Unable to find any outlet for emotion or intellect, she becomes obsessed with the room’s wallpaper – it’s complex and endless pattern of pointless swirls. At first she just dislikes it, then hatred bordering on fear follows, to be usurped by a semi-dependent fascination and ultimately total identity: she becomes, not so much the wallpaper, but the embodiment of the creeping women who dwell, reluctantly, behind the pattern.
It is a picture of personal despair, of desperate attempts to retain sanity and ultimately of failure. On one level it’s a chilling horror tale reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe. On another it is a clinically precise picture of a mental aberration. But it is more than that. A powerful indictment of the institution of marriage, of the social mores and misguided kindliness of late Victorian middle-class America, and of the treatment of women, Gilman’s story is as timeless as it is authentic.
I would particularly recommend the Virago Modern Classics edition which includes a literary and biographical commentary.
The Yellow Wallpaper was first published in 1892 in the New England Magazine.
Read and reviewed in 2006 (and re-read in 2013)
© Jessica Mulley