Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
First Published: January 1892
Genres: Classics, Feminist Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mental Health Fiction
Source: Prime Reading, Public Domain
In a long-unoccupied mansion, a new mother is confined to what was once a nursery. She is assured by her physician husband that it is a necessary cure to ease her “nervous depression.” Isolated and powerless, she becomes obsessed with the peeling, sickly colored wallpaper. In it, she sees what no one else can: a prisoner desperate to escape its maddening design.
A condemnation of the patriarchy, The Yellow Wallpaper explores with terrifying economy the oppression, grave misunderstanding, and willful dismissal of women in late nineteenth-century society.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a classic short story about a woman suffering from postpartum depression. This story says more than most books in such a short amount of pages and it is a powerful cautionary tale of the dangers of postpartum depression and female oppression.
“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression,—a slight hysterical tendency,—what is one to do?”
The narrator is diagnosed with a temporary hysteria, which was a common diagnosis for women in the 1900s, and is ordered to spend her days in an old summer mansion in relative isolation; she is not allowed to write, work, or socialize. She is allowed walks but nothing that could excite her too much, every part of her day is controlled by her dutiful physician husband John. The physician-patient relationship places a strain on their marriage, creating an uneven power balance that strips away her agency. John does not take her condition seriously, downplaying and laughing about her symptoms.
The room she stays in is covered in yellow wallpaper with bars on the windows. The unstable narrator is left with little else to do other than to stare at the garishly yellow wallpaper, an ugly thing that offends the senses. The narrator becomes paranoid and feels trapped in the room with the yellow wallpaper, her mind, and her marriage. She secretly catalogs her feelings in a journal as her only outlet as her depression turns to psychosis.
“At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.”
The Yellow Wallpaper is a wonderful feminist classic that highlights the oppression and alienation that women endured through the male-dominated medical field. It is semi-autobiographical, the author herself suffered a bout of postpartum depression and was prescribed a rest cure. She wrote this story to highlight the now obsolete practice and to save people from suffering the same fate. This is a fantastic short story that borders on horror and continues to endure decades after its initial publication.