Driving through the golden, locust-infested centre of New South Wales on Sunday, Radio National broadcast The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilmer. It was first published in 1892 in the New England Magazine.
The story is a series of journal entries told in first person by the narrator, a woman locked in a room, after being diagnosed as ‘nervously depressed’ by both her husband and brother, physicians. The journal entries describe her descent into psychosis with the wallpaper, and toys with the reader and notions of the ‘female condition’, ‘hysteria’ and ‘freedom’. The ending of the story oozes a sort of oxymoronic yet feminist triumph.
I was struck by the performance of this story, which I think was more evocative being read by Alice Parkinson than if I had read it myself. It was a cathartic experience: seeing her wallpaper, empathising with her ‘mental illness, feeling her insight from writing it all down. Particularly seeing she was in a ‘room of her own’, which Virginia Woolf fought for 30 years later.
If you’ve read it or heard the broadcast, I would be interested in what you think. See, I, having been called depressed and psychotic, did not agree with those who told me this. I do not discount mental illness, but am fascinated by the fine line between sanity and insanity, and the complex question about madness versus one’s own interpretation. This interpretation is often left to those who are employed by the status quo. In the narrator’s case, her husband’s profession demands that she is sick.
So I was really engaged in this text. The gross, infantile treatment from John, the bars on the windows and the sickening suppression of her spirit make for both horror and deep sadness. I think the narrator was trapped behind the wallpaper and the diagnosis from her husband, whom she believed is acting out of ‘love’, but she eventually manifested her own freedom, even if it was seen as psychotic.
Perkins Gilmer is not in the canon with Woolf, Mansfield, Plath, Walker – why?