The Yellow Wallpaper | Study Guide

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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The Yellow Wallpaper | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 story "The Yellow Wallpaper" tells of a woman who has been prescribed a treatment of bed rest following a "temporary nervous depression." Confined to a single room in an old mansion, the unnamed woman is forbidden to work and mentally stimulate herself, but she secretly keeps a journal. Through her journal entries, her descent into insanity is slowly revealed.

Gilman said of her best-known work, "I wrote it to preach. If it is literature, that just happened." Indeed, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is now regarded as one of the most important works of early American feminist literature. It criticized 19th-century attitudes toward mental illness in women and the prevailing belief that a woman's place was in the home.

Since its publication, the story has been frequent fodder for feminist literary critics—who still argue over the meaning of the story's ending—and a popular selection in American literature and gender studies courses.

1. "The Yellow Wallpaper" was inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman's own mental illness.

In 1913 Gilman published an article in her magazine The Forerunner in which she shared her experiences with postpartum depression:

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia—and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to "live as domestic a life as far as possible," to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again" as long as I lived. This was in 1887. I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

2. Gilman wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" to convince her physician of the error of his ways.

The physician who sentenced Gilman to months of inactivity was the influential American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell, who is perhaps best known for developing the "rest cure." This treatment, which was more often prescribed to women, usually consisted of six to eight weeks of bed rest, isolation from friends and family, and sometimes forced feeding. According to Gilman, "The real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways. I sent him a copy as soon as it came out, but got no response."

3. "The Yellow Wallpaper" helped save other women from insanity.

Perkins explained of "The Yellow Wallpaper":

It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.

She was told of a woman whose situation was surprisingly similar to that of the story's narrator. Allegedly, when this woman's family read "The Yellow Wallpaper," they were driven to change her treatment—and her wallpaper!—with much success.

4. "The Yellow Wallpaper" was rejected by the Atlantic Monthly as too depressing.

The editor wrote in his rejection letter, "I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself!" Charlotte Perkins Gilman dryly remarked, "I suppose he would have sent back one of Poe's on the same ground."

5. Hysteria was a common diagnosis for women in the 19th century.

The narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is introduced as suffering from a "temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency." The medical establishment at the time often misdiagnosed all manner of female mental health issues as "female hysteria." In the late 19th century, a physician wrote a list of possible symptoms of hysteria that ran for 75 pages—and acknowledged that it was still incomplete.

6. Some feminist critics see the story's ending as a victory for the narrator.

While many claim the narrator descends irreversibly into madness at the end of the story, some critics have taken a more optimistic approach, arguing that the narrator finally asserts agency when she crawls over her husband's unconscious body. According to one literary critic,

Her experience should finally be viewed not as a final catastrophe but as a terrifying, necessary stage in her progress toward self-identity and personal achievement.

7. "The Yellow Wallpaper" was influenced by the idea that there are "separate spheres" for men and women.

In the early to mid-19th century, the idea that there are separate spheres for men and women predominated American society. According to this model, a woman's place was in the home—the "private domain"—and a man's place was in work, government, and economics—the "public domain." In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman shows the potentially disastrous effects of restricting women to the home.

8. One shocked reader thought "The Yellow Wallpaper" shouldn't have been allowed in print.

Though most responses to "The Yellow Wallpaper" were positive, Gilman did receive some hate mail for it. One critic wrote, "It certainly seems open to serious question if such literature should be permitted in print," adding, "Such literature contains deadly peril."

9. Gilman was never paid for the initial publication of "The Yellow Wallpaper."

After waiting months for some form of payment, Gilman wrote to the New England Magazine: "Since you do not pay on receipt of ms., nor on publication, nor within six months of publication, may I ask if you pay at all, and if so at what rates?" The magazine claimed that they had paid $40 to her agent, but her agent denied having received it. Gilman never received a cent for "The Yellow Wallpaper" until it was later published as a book.

10. Gilman testified before Congress in favor of woman suffrage.

"The Yellow Wallpaper"—lauded by suffragists for criticizing antiquated gender roles—made Gilman a feminist icon of sorts in the 19th century. Seeming to evoke the situation of the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman declared at the 1896 Hearing of the National American Woman Suffrage Association:

Every kind of creature is developed by the exercise of its functions. If denied the exercise of its functions, it can not develop in the fullest degree.

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