The Yellow Wallpaper

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The Yellow Wallpaper (Virago modern classics), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, book reviewHave you ever noticed that some of the shortest books are also the saddest? It’s almost as if we need multiple words to express joy and barely a few to plunge the depths of human misery. Such is the case in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s tiny book The Yellow Wallpaper which was published in 1892. It’s also hard to imagine that in modern times anyone would be able to get a story of just 28 pages published, unless it were one of the shorter contributions to a book of short stories. The Yellow Wallpaper despite its brevity is hailed as a ‘Literary Masterpiece’ – at least that’s what it says on the cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition in its 2002 reprint.

The Yellow Wallpaper took me a very short time to read – half a bath to be precise. The other half polished off the ‘Afterword’, an essay about the book which is longer than the tale itself. Reviewing it takes longer than reading it and the thoughts it stirs up last much longer than the actual act of reading.

The story is told entirely in the first person by a young mother whose husband, a doctor, has hired a run down country house for her to spend a summer convalescing after a case of what we’d probably now identify as a blend of post-natal depression and an overwhelming sense of the pointlessness of the life of a comfortably off woman in the late 1800s in the USA. Both her husband and other medical advisers want the woman to engage in total rest, banning her from any kind of work, including her writing. However in order to afford the rental of the house, her husband goes away to work every day leaving her with only household staff and a nanny for her child. Every decision with which she disagrees is dismissed as being ‘for your own good’ and so she finds herself incarcerated in the attic nursery of the house, rather than in a bright, breezy, pretty room she prefers on the ground floor where the window is trimmed with roses.

Despite being told not to work, the woman rebels and scratches out her story secretly against doctors orders. She becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in the room, an ugly pattern in which she feels sure she could wrestle back some control of her life is only she could follow and order the pattern. The colour reminds her of all the bad yellow things that she has ever seen rather than the heart-lifting brightness of flowers or sunshine. The patterns of the paper and the mouldy shadows convince her that there is a woman trapped behind the paper who comes out at night and creeps around the room and the garden. Then there are more women – there must be, she can see them and as time passes the fantasies of the wall paper build in her troubled mind until she finally completes her descent into madness, precipitated by the room.

If you choose to take it all at face value, this could be a horror story of Edgar Allen Poe proportions. Taken literally perhaps there ARE women behind the paper, perhaps she will be the next to be eaten by the walls like a character in an episode of Dr Who. But most will see this as a less supernatural story of mental decline and madness.

“…I’m glad to have read it and spent time thinking about both how far we have come as women since the 1890s…”

If you wish, you can of course stop when the book ends and skip the afterword and there are arguments that suggest that any book that takes more pages to explain itself than to tell its tale has failed somewhere along the line. However, I did feel I ought to read the afterword if only the justify the price of the book which would otherwise run at about 18p per page. The slightly heavy academic treatment of Elaine R Hedges’ attempt to report on the author’s life, the significance of the work and the way in which it captures the dis-empowered role of the wife of a professional man is interesting but contrasts sharply with the book itself in which the main delivers its message so clearly that explanation is superfluous. I suspect the afterword is more for the benefit of generations of earnest young American women students dissecting the text for deeper meanings and arguments about women’s suffering and loss of sense of self.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was – we are told – one of the most commanding feminists of her time. Who knew? OK, lots of Americans students of feminist literature perhaps but not me. She married, had a daughter and separated from her husband. She wrote, edited, lectured and taught and it’s assumed that The Yellow Wallpaper, published a few years after her separation, drew on her stifling experience of motherhood and her first marriage. Obviously she didn’t descend into the insanity of her narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper but did commit suicide 4 decades later, not through depression but as a result of a conscious decision brought on by the death of her second husband and her own incurable breast cancer.

It’s hard to know whether to recommend the book or even to remember where I got it from but I’m glad to have read it and spent time thinking about both how far we have come as women since the 1890s and how much better mental health is now understood yet at the same time, how many of the problems of the mental health of young mothers are still not taken as seriously as they perhaps need to be.


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Yellow Wallpaper, The
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Written by koshkha
koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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