“You see, he does not believe I am sick! […] If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency — what is one to do?”
— Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper
The perfect feminist spooky read for the spooky season! This short story’s protagonist really is the voice, or rather the pen, of mad women in attics. Confined to her bedroom, the upstairs former nursery of a mansion she and her husband rented for the summer, she has nothing left to do but to confide her experience in her journal… and stare at the wallpaper.
A yellow wallpaper, as the title suggests, the only thing to keep her company as long as her husband decides it is best for her to rest upstairs, sleep and avoid writing. The woman disagrees, but “what is one to do” if he has decided this would be the treatment for her temporary nervous depression after giving birth?
Readers powerlessly follow the narrator spiralling downwards, becoming more and more obsessed with the wallpaper’s patterns. What was only an intriguing pattern slowly becomes a threatening element of her decay’s set, hiding mysterious creeping figures.
I will not tell you more to let you discover this short story’s gripping unravelling, but I will insist on its significance. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) drew on her own experience to denounce how women were treated (in both senses of the term) at the turn of the 19th century, as she was herself advised a detrimental “rest cure” following a postnatal depression.
The Yellow Wallpaper was interpreted in many different ways, but it does bear witness to its author’s feminism and is a real outcry against the revolting oppression of women in the name of science. Fiction here is a very efficient means to shine a light on Perkins Gilman’s society’s violence and shortcomings, drawing in readers interested in feminism, but also people only looking for a spooky short story set in a Gothic and slightly chilling setting – before discovering that there is more behind it.
With its atmosphere reminding of Daphné du Maurier’s Rebecca, The Yellow Wallpaper is shorter but much more impactful than Victoria Mas’s Mad’s Women Ball, which also deals with women’s so-called “hysteria”. A great way to start getting into feminist fiction without even realising it.
But when such treatments are applied, who really is the hysteric, if such a word can and should be used at all?
Publisher: first published in The New England Magazine, it is available online for free thanks to Project Gutenberg
Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Publication date: 1892