In which a woman recovering from postpartum depression encounters an unhealthy distraction.
First published in 1892
Anthologized in The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories
In his editor’s notes for a 1988 collection entitled Haunting Women, the anthologist Alan Ryan wrote this about “The Yellow Wallpaper:”
“It may be a ghost story. Worse yet, it may not.”
The uncertainty that Ryan alludes to is a key element in this story, but only a part of what makes it so outstanding. Gilman takes subject matter that another writer might have treated naturalistically (or even in essay form) and fuses it with an ambiguous Gothic narrative that Robert Aickman would’ve been proud of. The end result is a powerful mixture of social criticism and the macabre. Few authors have been able to carry such a thing off.
Let’s deal with the social aspect of “The Yellow Wallpaper” first. Gilman has something crucial and specific to say about the infantilization of women. In “Wallpaper,” the nameless main character is suffering from depression after the birth of her baby. The “cure” proscribed by her martinet physician husband is to be kept away from all possible sources of “agitation” and “excitement,” including the company of her own child. He also disregards or glosses over everything she has to say.
This mirrors Gilman’s own experiences as a patient of the prominent physician Silas Weir Mitchell. She had been suffering from melancholia, which was Mitchell’s area of expertise, especially in women. As Gilman described it in a 1913 essay, his plan of treatment was counter-intuitive, to say the least:
“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.”
Gilman was luckier than her protagonist, who’s forced to convalesce in a sinister former nursery. Located on the top floor of a rental house the couple is occupying for a few months, the nursery is described as a place of menace from the first: the windows are barred, the bed is nailed to the floor, and the room has damage that seems to indicate past violence. Then there’s that wallpaper:
“The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off — the paper — in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.
“One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
“It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide — plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.
“The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
“It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
“No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.”
As time passes, she contemplates the wallpaper more and more, finding more and more complexities in its design:
“There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.”
It’s after this point that she begins to realize that their are human figures behind the foreground pattern, dimly descried women who seem to be trying to get out of the paper. Then she realizes that there’s a long discolored streak running around the room…
The rest of the story I leave to you to read. I will say that the paper is as much of a character as the protagonist; we come to know it, learning what it feels like, how it smells, and how it looks under all lighting conditions. These sensory-rich descriptions show what an advantage writing has over film or any other graphic art: the yellow wallpaper we imagine seems more real than any visual depiction of it could be.
What’s not clear is whether the narrator’s strange experiences are anything other than subjective. Of course, it’s legitimate to interpret “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a description of a woman’s descent into madness, and that alone. Still, there are enigmatic elements in the story, and I’m sure they aren’t there by accident. These include:
- The protagonist’s declaration, prior to her confinement, that she feels there’s something strange about the house
- The damage done to the nursery by former tenants, seemingly beyond that which could be caused by children alone
- The ominous streak on the wall, circling the room
It would be easy enough to ignore these parts of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” to see it as strictly about the onset of psychosis. It’s clear, however, that Gilman wanted to give us another option: to read it as a tale about a malign presence. The brilliance of this is that neither the natural nor the supernatural interpretation undercuts the critical point that she’s making — the narrator should not have been confined to that room.
One last thing: while I was writing this, I wondered what it would be like to interview the main character of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Wouldn’t she claim that her experiences was real, not the product of a mental disorder? Of course she would. So if we dismiss out of hand the possibility that some sinister agency was involved, aren’t we being being a bit like her husband?