Yesterday I was browsing a charity shop with one of my friends when I came across a very pretty little copy of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A few people have recommended this to me in the past, and its description as a ‘feminist classic’ screamed out : take it home and devour it! Here is a review of what I found to be a harrowing, intelligently satirical and deeply effective novel in, particularly its criticism of marriage, feminine hysteria and the gender roles of the 19th century.
First published in 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper tells the story of a woman and her mental deterioration into insanity. She is confined to a room on the top floor of their ‘colonial mansion’, shortly after giving birth to a child, in order to suffer the resting cure. A method used frequently to treat women’s ‘hysteria’, particularly after emotionally challenging events like child birth or family deaths, Gilman summarises the detrimental effects it can have on a woman. The book concludes that it is not in the woman’s best interests, and ignores not only the real need for mental health treatment, but also the right to choice, something which the patient should be entitled to. In the novel, the narrator demonstrates how this cure can make a woman feel like they are not being listened to and that their rational cries for help are simply being ignored. Like in many novels written by men or diagnoses delivered by male doctors, women’s mental health issues or even women having an awareness of the world is passed off as a female hysteria. Hysteria and emotional reactions have been inherently linked to gender throughout history, and I love that Gilman acknowledges this truth, whilst criticising this particular way that women are treated and dismissed.
The way the book is written can only be described as beautiful and simultaneously terrifying. With every new paragraph, we join the narrator on her spiral down into insanity, which is driven by her obsession and disgust with the yellow wallpaper which encircles her room. The author describes it as :
‘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.’
A focus set in place on the colour yellow :
‘The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.’
The book is often noted as a criticism of the institution of marriage, which I indeed caught on to quite quickly without doing any prior reading around the story. The narrator is an unnamed woman, and her husband John is treating her with the resting cure as a qualified physician. Whilst his profession provides him with somewhat more knowledge about medicine, some might argue that the narrator still has more awareness of her condition. He patronises her and he condescends her with phrases such as ‘bless her little heart!’, which he says in conversation with her !! As if she is not there !! He makes her feel as if nothing is wrong with her, and his ignorance of her awareness and understanding of herself contributes to her loss of sanity. The narrators relationship with husband John symbolises the strict gender roles which controlled marriage in the 19th century, women confined to a ‘domestic’ sphere whilst men were encouraged to progress into intellectual or artistic career paths. I loved how satirical the story is and John’s cringeworthy character, in all his patronising glory, depicts perfectly the message Gilman wanted to deliver. It is society that forces women to be part of an institution which subordinates them. They were aware of their status as second-class citizens, and writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman came into the public sphere to address it and make a change.
I love that even in her presentation of insanity, Gilman captured the sense of entrapment that many women felt as a result of both marriage and archaic practices like the resting cure. In her study of the wallpaper, he visions become more vivid and she begins to see something more sinister amidst the revolting yellow colour :
‘The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern as if she wanted to get out.’
This statement and metaphor stood out to me, accompanied by the conclusion of the novel. In her insanity, she sees a woman trapped, in need of saving. The end of the story (spoiler alert) sees her try and help this image of a woman she can see. She wants to help her, just like she wants to help herself. The contradiction that she becomes more aware of her position and status as a woman the more insane she becomes is an interesting idea to consider, and speaks loudly for the message Gilman wanted to deliver.
Overall, I loved this book and would highly recommend it. Reading about women and their journey from oppression to the (almost) equal modern day society we live in now is one of my favourite things about reading old books, and it was great to read a piece from an author so wise beyond her years.