Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a prominent social critic and feminist writer in the United States of the period from the 1890s through the 1930s. In The Yellow Wallpaper, originally published in 1892, she presents the internal dialogue of a woman diagnosed with hysteria and for whom total rest has been prescribed. In the short fiction, the patient is slowly driven mad by her cure, cut off from any intellectual pursuits whatsoever.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is remarkable even now for its depiction of the downward spiral of depression, loss of control and competence, feelings of worthlessness, leading to greater depression and further dysfunction. Also brought to the fore are considerations of how male physicians may treat their female patients, and of the complexity which can ensue when physicians treat their own family members.

Although "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a work of fiction, it was based on Gilman's own experience after being diagnosed as an hysteric and prescribed a "rest cure" which prohibited her writing and labelled her feminism and social critique as symptoms of uterine illness. Gilman recovered from her "cure," and went on to write influential social theses, including Women and Economics (1898), and a feminist utopian novel, Herland (1915), which has become a classic of American women's literature.

Upon completing "The Yellow Wallpaper" in 1891, Gilman sent it to William Dean Howells, who forwarded it for possible publication to the Atlantic Monthly. She received the following reply from the editor:

        Dear Madam,

        Mr. Howells has handed me this story.
        I could not forgive myself if I make others as miserable as I have made myself.

        Sincerely yours,
        H.E. Scudder

When the story was finally published in The New England Magazine a year later, it drew a mixed response. It was difficult for some readers to like the story because it had no moral uplift at its ending, but others thought it compared to the best stories of Hawthorne and Poe and called it a ghost or gothic horror story. Others saw it as a descriptively cautionary tale or a woman's descent into madness. But despite Gilman's widely known credentials as a feminist thinker, author, and speaker of her day, "The Yellow Wallpaper" was not approached as a feminist work until the 1970s. Any ideas why?  Because of its reception, Gilman followed up, approximately ten years later, with "Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper."  Does her response answer your questions?

What about this story is distinctly feminist (about or concerning women)? How are gender lines drawn here?  Compare "internal" (female) and "external" (male) spaces in the story. What is Gilman saying about each as places for both women and men to live?  What is Gilman's view of motherhood as presented in this work?  How does this work reflect the challenges to the Cult of Domesticity put forward by First Wave feminists?

Setting is very important in this story. Note the careful detail. How does this affect the reader? How does it affect the narrative?

Consider the journal form? How does this affect how the story is told? what we are told? our response to what is happening? Compare the first sentence to the last? What has changed? What is the effect of the short, one-sentence paragraphs?  Why is the narrator unnamed?  What is the effect?  Who is Jane (at the end of the novel?)

What is the theme? What is the area of protest?  What did hysteria mean, and why were women diagnosed as hysterical? What sorts of behaviors led to a diagnosis of  hysteria? What were the common treatments hysterics received?  Imbedded within Gilman's story is her critique of the role and place of women in Western cultures. What does Gilman see as the lot of women in her own society? What is the cost to women of being consigned to that lot?

For a working bibliography (a selected list of articles and books) on "The Yellow Wallpaper" click here.

Return to Women Writers page