Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Study Guides on Works and Writers
New England Magazine, 5 (January 1892): 647-656
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), born Charlotte Anna Perkins, was descended from a distinguished family of American rhetoricians, advocates, and writers. Her great-aunt was Harriet Beecher Stowe, with whom Gilman spent time as a child. Gilman’s father, Frederick Beecher Perkins, was a rare presence after a physician instructed Gilman’s mother to have no more children. Her parents permanently separated in 1869. Gilman, her mother, and her brother were left destitute and largely dependent upon the charity of relatives. Gilman received only four years of formal education, but she read prolifically and largely educated herself. Frederick Perkins learned that his daughter had some talent for drawing and paid for Gilman to attend the Rhode Island School of Design where she became skilled enough to support herself financially. Throughout her childhood and early adulthood, Gilman had enjoyed a great degree of independence.
On 2 May 1884, Gilman, despite her reservations, married Charles Walter Stetson. The ensuing mundane domestic routine caused her mental anguish, and shortly after the birth of their daughter Katherine, Gilman suffered a mental breakdown. She was treated by S. Weir Mitchell, who championed a rest cure in order to treat nervous disorders or “neurasthenia.” Mitchell advocated six to eight weeks of complete bedrest whereby the patient could not sit up, feed herself, read, or write. She was also to be completely isolated from familiar human contact, including her family. The patient was to be fed excessively, especially on milk. Finally, she was to receive massages and electricity in order to keep her muscles from atrophying. Freud approved of this regimen, and Virginia Woolf underwent its strictures. Mitchell also treated Jane Addams, Edith Wharton, and Winifred Howells, daughter of William Dean Howells.
Some women benefited from the validation and respite that Mitchell’s diagnosis brought. Gilman, however, needed to give expression to her inner life. Mitchell allowed her to engage in only two hours of intellectual work a day, which almost caused her to go completely insane. In 1913 Gilman published an article entitled “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper” in which she explains that her tale was intended to convince Mitchell to change his treatment of nervous disorders.
Gilman had some difficulty getting “The Yellow Wallpaper” published. She sent a copy to Scribner’s, which rejected it. She sent the story to Howells, who forwarded it to Horace Scudder, editor of the Atlantic Monthly. In his cover letter, Howells called the tale “strong, blood curdling, and worth reading.” Scudder, however, rejected the piece due to its troubling content. Gilman was not discouraged by the lack of interest. She hired a literary agent, who placed it with the New England Magazine. Howells may have also had a hand in its publication, although Julie Bates Dock surmises that it was actually Edward Everett Hale, Gilman’s uncle by marriage, who made the story’s publication possible. “The Yellow Wallpaper” finally appeared in January 1892. Though Gilman published the equivalent of two dozen volumes during her career, the story remained her best-known fictional work at her death in 1935.
Although “The Yellow Wallpaper” was republished at least twenty-two times prior to 1973, it largely escaped scholarly attention until that year, when it appeared in a Feminist Press edition. This publication included an afterword by Elaine Hedges, who decried the story’s neglect. Since then, it has been elevated to the canon, republished throughout the world, and adapted to opera, film, and television.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. Elaine Hedges, along with other scholars, views “The Yellow Wallpaper” as autobiographical. Gary Scharnhorst notes that Gilman warned against such a reading due to discrepancies between her experiences and those of her protagonist, who is named Jane. Gilman’s story can also be understood as an example of American Realism. Gilman stated that the tale was about a woman’s “nervous breakdown.” Loralee MacPike examines the story as an example of Realist symbolism. The room’s wallpaper represents the state of Jane’s mind as a result of her imprisonment in a nursery that works to keep her in a state of childish dependence. Beate Schopp-Schilling praises the tale for its realistic documentation of Jane’s decline into mental illness. Hedges calls it a true account of the sexual politics between men and women. Denise Knight concludes that the story is a psychologically accurate portrayal of the effects of the rest cure and inequitable marriages. Knight also posits that the narrator may not be insane but rebelling as a result of the tremendous anger that she feels toward John.
- 2. “The Yellow Wallpaper” incorporates Gothic elements. In her autobiography, Gilman speculates that Scudder rejected her story because it was similar to the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Juliann Fleenor argues that the Gothic has long been a genre by which women voice rebellion and anger at their second class status. According to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the disturbed doppelganger helps the female protagonist escape from male-dominated houses and texts in order to imagine what health and freedom would be like.
- 3. Important contributions have been made in recent years to a better understanding of the story. Susan Lanser incorporates cultural fears of racial impurity to explain it. The yellowness of the wallpaper is evocative of the “yellow peril” and represents societal anxieties about race, class, and ethnicity. Leading intellectuals, including Gilman, were not impervious to such fears. Knight compares “Through This” with “The Yellow Wallpaper” and connects the two tales, the former being a comment upon the latter. The Jane of “Through This” experiences firsthand the dismal life of women who sacrifice their lives entirely to the care of others. Catherine Golden believes that the dual texts within the story operate to depict the wallpaper as palimpsest. According to Golden, Jane’s actions comprise the dominant text while her journals operate as a muted text. The subversive journal allows Gilman’s protagonist to fictionalize herself as the audience of her own story. Paula Treichler observes that the male linguistic order imprisons women, and the wallpaper represents feminine linguistic innovation. Judith Fetterley argues that Gilman’s tale exposes the pernicious implications of male textual control. This dominance is a primary cause of madness in women. The feminine becomes a fictitious construct, whereby women are forced to deny their own reality.
The Living of Charlotte Perkins: An Autobiography (1935; reprinted, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).
Based on Gilman’s diaries.
Julie Bates Dock, ed., Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the History of Its Publication and Reception: A Critical Edition and Documentary Casebook (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).
Provides a detailed historical account of Gilman’s story. This study includes details surrounding the tale’s publication history, changes that it underwent with each new printing, the correspondence related to the story, its initial reviews, and a catalogue of the reprinting history.
Gary Scharnhorst, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Bibliography (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985).
Provides a reliable and comprehensive listing of Gilman’s publications, and a selected list of biographical sources and criticism.
Mary A. Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist I860— 1869 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980).
Charts the early evolution of Gilman’s feminism.
Ann J. Lane, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: Pantheon, 1990).
Concentrates on the development of Gilman’s inner life through the central personal attachments that shaped her personality.
Elizabeth Ammons, “Writing Silence: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” in The Yellow Wallpaper: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Thomas L. Erskine and Connie L. Richards (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993), pp. 257-276.
Postulates that Gilman’s protagonist achieves agency as she writes her body on the walls of the nursery. Gilman anticipates Helene Cixous’s arguments for women to write themselves into the world and history.
Juliann E. Fleenor, “The Gothic Prism: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Gothic Stories and Her Autobiography,” in her The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden, 1983), pp. 227-241.
Observes that the Gothic has been used to voice rebellion and anger over the status of women.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).
Argues that the “mad double” is a recurring theme in fiction by women, whereby the writer works to escape male houses and texts.
Catherine Golden, ed., The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper (New York: Feminist Press, 1992).
An essential anthology for a comprehensive understanding of the story and its ensuing body of scholarship. In two sections Golden treats the story’s background material and subsequent critical canon.
Janice Haney-Peritz, “Monumental Feminism and Literature’s Ancestral House: Another Look at ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” Women’s Studies, 12 (1986): 113-128.
Argues that the reader should feel sympathy for Jane and not identification with her. Identification has the consequence of making feminism purely imaginary. Gilman, as active social reformer, is the appropriate feminist model.
Elaine Hedges, “Afterword” to The Yellow Wallpaper (New York: Feminist Press, 1973), pp. 37-63.
Asserts that Gilman’s story is autobiographical and directly confronts the “sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship.”
Denise Knight, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York: Twayne, 1997).
Provides an account of Gilman’s sources of influence, an extended discussion of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman’s own reflections on her famous story, and some critical approaches to this and some of her other works.
Knight, “‘I am getting angry enough to do something desperate’: The Question of Female ‘Madness,’” in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Dual-Text Critical Edition, edited by Shawn St. Jean (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006), pp. 73-87.
Argues that the narrator’s behavior may not be insanity but an act of rebellion brought about by the rage that she feels toward her husband.
Knight, “The Reincarnation of Jane: ‘Through This’—Gilman’s Companion to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” Women’s Studies, 20 (1992): 287-302.
Argues that the Jane of “Through This,” the alter ego of Jane in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is a warning about what happens to obedient women who devote their strengths solely to domestic concerns.
Knight and Cynthia J. Davis, eds., Approaches to Teaching Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Herland (New York: MLA, 2003).
Reminds teachers of Gilman’s didacticism and guides pedagogical approaches to “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Herland.
Annette Kolodny, “A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,” in New Feminist Criticisms: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, edited by Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985), pp. 144-167.
Argues that the exclusion of “The Yellow Wallpaper” from the canon meant that generations of women could not, in accord with Harold Bloom’s dialectical theory of influence, revise and perfect the ideas contained within the story.
Loralee MacPike, “Environment as Psychopathological Symbolism in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” American Literary Realism, 8 (1975): 286-288.
Illuminates the story as an example of Realist symbolism. The room that the narrator inhabits represents her status in society, and the wallpaper contained therein represents the state of her mind.
Gary Scharnhorst, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Boston: Twayne, 1985).
Integrates Gilman’s life and work into a chronological and thematic narrative. The text is interwoven with relevant poetry, aiding the reader’s empathic response to the events of Gilman’s life.
Beate Schopp-Schilling, “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Rediscovered ‘Realistic’ Story,” American Literary Realism, 8 (1975): 284-286.
Uses Adlerian depth-psychology to interpret “The Yellow Wallpaper” as an example of psychological Realism.
Conrad Shumaker, “Too Terribly Good To Be Printed: Charlotte Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” Arizona Quarterly, 47 (Spring 1991): 81-93.
Argues that through her main characters, Gilman illumines how and why the fear of the female imagination has been institutionalized though assigned gender roles.
Paula A. Treichler, “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 3 (Spring-Fall 1984): 61-77.
Postulates that the story is a metaphor for women’s linguistic innovation in a phallocentric symbolic order.
—Heidi M. Silcox