In 1890 the American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a remarkable short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a woman–genteel, educated, with more than a casual taste for intellectual life–who is suffering from an indefinable malady, a nervous complaint. Her husband, a kind, intelligent doctor, has brought her to a beautiful country house for three months of the complete rest he knows will lead to recovery. The room to which he guides our narrator is a third-floor nursery with lovely views, bars on the windows and, on its walls, a peeling, figured yellow wallpaper that the woman hates on sight: the color a sickly hue, odious to her, the design repellent.
The days and nights pass without purpose or occupation. Instead of getting better, the narrator seems to be getting worse. She suggests that perhaps if she could visit some stimulating friends or have congenial work she would progress. No, her husband insists, exactly the opposite. All the famous doctors of the time are agreed on this question: There is nothing worse for someone in her condition than stimulation.
Against her will, the narrator’s attention is drawn, repeatedly and obsessively, to the hateful yellow wallpaper. She soon concludes that there are two layers of paper, and at night the upper one moves. Then she sees the figure of a woman trapped between the layers. The upper layer is moving because she is shaking it, as though in an effort to release herself.
In time, the narrator becomes convinced that during the day the woman inside the paper is actually creeping about, bent low to the ground–but at night she is back inside her wallpaper prison. She determines to free the woman behind the wallpaper and begins tearing at it, removing it in long, narrow strips. Then, suddenly, she makes common cause with her, and with great cunning and secrecy, the narrator herself takes to creeping about the old nursery into which she has now locked herself. At the very last, when the husband breaks in on her, the narrator is crawling about on all fours–irredeemably mad.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” was published in 1892 in The New England Magazine, and then later reprinted in 1920 by William Dean Howells in The Great Modern American Stories. On both occasions, it was damned by moral uplifters, praised by lovers of literary grotesquerie and said by medical doctors to constitute an accurate account of incipient insanity. Today, we read the story as a metaphor for nineteenth-century marriage for a woman, and it is experienced almost universally as a minor masterpiece. Never before and never again was its prolific author to produce another piece of literary writing to equal it.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in Connecticut in 1860. Her father, a great-nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe, deserted the family when she was 9, and the Perkins children grew up in poverty and social exclusion. But Charlotte read voraciously, had artistic talent and educated herself sufficiently to study for two years at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1884 she married a fellow artist, Charles Stetson, and quickly became pregnant and bore a child, after which she fell into the kind of depression her famous story details. Within a few years she had divorced her husband, urged him to marry her closest friend and announced that it was best that they raise the child; she herself was going west. In California she began to think, lecture and write the steady stream of work that poured out of her for the rest of her life–novels, stories, and a vast amount of social criticism on economics, religion, education and equality for women. In 1900 she married her first cousin, George Gilman, a New York lawyer; in 1909 she founded her own monthly, The Forerunner. In 1935, suffering from incurable cancer, she committed suicide. Today, she is almost entirely unknown except to feminists, and aside from the celebrated story, all that work (except for the scholarly Women and Economics) long forgotten.