So I finally read “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a short story about a woman confined to a room by her doctor husband who feels it best that she engage in complete passivity because of her delicate mental condition. The story follows her decent into madness as the awful yellow wallpaper that covers the walls of her room becomes the focus of her everyday.
And apparently I am the only person who had never read this story before.
(In case you haven’t read it either, you can download a copy for free at Project Gutenburg.)
I think during the segment in school when most people read this story, I instead read “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner, another excellent and delightfully creepy story about a madness of sorts.
But the fact that it took me so long to finally read “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a travesty because it is an excellent work of fiction.
It reminded me a great deal of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson in that the summer home where the couple is staying seems to have other-worldly qualities, unsettling for those inside, and the main character is classified as a “weak-minded woman” who is easily corrupted by the house.
What is more interesting about “The Yellow Wallpaper,” however, is that it expertly demonstrates the historical reality of how women with potential mental instabilities were shut off and shunned by their husbands, and their problems ignored by doctors. The poor narrator in the story must write in her journal in secret while her husband is away because he is convinced that she will only get better if she just sleeps all day or sits in the room with the windows open, lounging about. Even if this poor woman wasn’t mentally unstable, that kind of inactivity would drive anyone mad.
This woman’s clear and desperate needs are so evident to the reader, but the husband just writes it off as her being hysterical or fatigued. It’s one of those stories that is painful to read because you feel so sorry for the narrator, but you can’t look away because her decent into madness over the ugly wallpaper is fascinating.
What’s more, the narrator seems to know that a change is occurring in her mind and in her behavior, and that it is also evident to her husband, but like any mentally unstable person, she doesn’t seem to realize that she is losing touch with reality.
The prose of the story is beautiful and touching, but unsettling all the same. My favorite is Gilman’s use of the word “creep” throughout the work. Things are always creeping around the room and the narrator seems inspired to “creep” about herself. Somehow, using creep as a verb is much more unsettling than using it as an adjective, and I love it.
Everyone I ask about this story has not only read it, but vividly remembers how unsettling and well-written it is. It’s like this story gets stuck in your mind and stays with you forever, not unlike the yellow wallpaper from the story.