Review – The Yellow Wallpaper

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?

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  1. It’s a fine story. One of the best. I can’t understand why Perkins Gilman (and the story itself)isn’t recognised further, though I suspect it might be due to the story being labelled Gothic-Horror by some.

  2. I think the senses in which Woolf & Perkins Gilman use “room” are two very different things – mental health oppression vs the independence and freedom to write without having to worry about making a living. I don’t think Virginia Woolf was campaigning for a room to herself in the way The Yellow Wallpaper means rooms…!

    That said, I loved The Yellow Wallpaper. I read it first year of university and it has inspired me to create things based on it in several different art mediums, as well as being the first story to open my eyes to the potential brilliance of the short story form. If it’s not in the canon it should be. Perhaps neglected because of the general tendency to dismiss works about female-centric mental
    health issues, and because the idea of “hysteria” has been discredited?

  3. I took a literature class called Writing Women at Monash during my undergraduate degree and we studied ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. Those that read it really loved it.

    Our tutor mentioned something about Perkins Gilman potentially being diagnosed post-natal depression, which kind of bugged me, first because I advocate for death-of-the-author reading (a text should stand alone and all that) but also because I rather felt that the “illness” wasn’t really the point – the point was that the narrator was told how she felt and what she was feeling – told the state of her own mind, as you say. She may not have been _happy_ before her husband shut her away, and perhaps even now her state of mind would be considered by medical professionals as something that needed attention, but the confinement and the infantilising of her, the dismissal of her opinions and the removal of opportunities for mental and emotional stimulation are what cause her subsequent psychosis.

    I don’t know, I haven’t made up my mind about mental illness. I tend to think a lot of sadness or lowness or inertia is diagnosed as an illness when it shouldn’t be, when it’s just the natural reaction to circumstances, but I also know there are people who would have been left out in the cold if such things weren’t taken seriously.

    And, well, how can you really know what’s going on in someone else’s head? This one still plagues me. What if you get it wrong? (I don’t ask this expecting to have it answered, just thinking in text, I suppose.)

    By the way, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is available for reading free at Project Gutenberg:

  4. Oddly enough, I just read Cosi by Louis Nowra – I have to teach it to year 12…. What are all these texts trying to tell me???!!!! Am I mad? aaaaaaaaaargh! just joking….

    * So, The Yellow Wallpaper was not on my feminiist literature course at uni – that’s why I assumed it wasn’t in the canon, perhaps it is there hiding somewhere….

    One that we read in the class was an 18th century woman’s account of having her breast removed. Severed under the effect of only swigs of brandy, she describes the sounds, tendons breaking, flesh ripping, gut-wrenching sawing-off of her breast.
    Ugh another moment in literature class, another moment made with words that will remain with me forever.
    The tutor read it to us in the class. I cannot remember the name of the author. Do you know?
    Perhaps this is not in the canon too because its too horrible…. like hysteria and the gothic

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