The first time I ever picked up “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was in my eleventh-grade English Comp class. This was a new, fresh experience for me, as the majority of literature I read in high school was written by men- usually pandering on about justice and freedom and the American Revolution. I’m not trying to say I don’t think that part of history is not important, but it bothers me looking back that I hardly ever learned about women’s lives in the 1800s, and additionally, their contributions to the founding of this country. Seriously, I started learning about the Boston Tea Party and the constitution and all those related events starting when I was ten years old, and where I come from, those are the only “American History” subjects I learned about every single subsequent year. I appreciate my English teacher for introducing literature written by African Americans and women, because by the time I reached high school, I was exhausted and bored from hearing about how our country is solely built on rich, white men.
Anyway, this isn’t intended to be a rant on the public school system. This is going to be a different kind of a rant, I suppose, but it is backed by my unwavering love and appreciation for Gilman’s feminist short story. If you haven’t read “The Yellow Wallpaper” before, I’d advise finding a PDF online and giving this important piece of literature a read-through.
First off, let’s talk a little bit about Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself, and how her life experiences ultimately inspired her to write this story. She was born on July 3rd, 1860, into a family of poverty after her father abandoned her mother. Her mother was not affectionate to her children, her schooling was often erratic, and her childhood was ultimately composed of isolation and loneliness. One of the ways Gilman found solace was through her love of literature, and she frequently visited her public library to expand her horizons.
In 1884, Charlotte married and had a child- a girl named Katharine Beecher Stetson. After giving birth, Charlotte suffered from a serious bout of postpartum depression, though her symptoms were scoffed off and not taken seriously. She was ultimately believed to be a weak, fragile woman by her first husband, and thus, her interest in feminist literature was sparked. After separating from her husband (unheard of at the time), she had an extremely awesome lesbian relationship with Adeline Knapp, became active in several feminist organizations, and penned “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1890.
Women’s reproductive rights and sexual health have always faced scrutiny, though perhaps the worst time to be a woman in this country was the 1800s. What we now know as PMS and PMDD was passed off as “hysteria” and “nervous depression”, and the believed remedy back then was to isolate women and confine them to their beds FOR WEEKS. Gilman herself was inspired to write this story after her postpartum depression, during which a male physician advises her a “rest cure” and told her to live “as domestic a life as possible.” After trying to live this way for three months and ultimately getting worse (because, as we know now, that’s not how hormonal-related depression is to be treated), she defied his commands and started to work again. Although “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an exaggerated version of her personal experience, there were certainly many women for who the story rang disturbingly true. Ever the badass, Gilman sent a copy of her story to the physician who initially prescribed her bed rest, but she never heard a reply.
In short, the story is about a woman suffering from mental illness after three months of being isolated and closeted in her room (per her husband’s order, of course). She becomes obsessed with the ugly yellow wallpaper on the wall, and begins to imagine there is a woman on the other side, creeping through the paper, spying on her, and speaking to her. If that makes you feel unsettled, then I’m very glad. Paranoia due to being isolated is a very real thing women in the 19th century suffered as part of their “treatment.”
Charlotte’s story was published by the Feminist Press, and soon became a best-seller through that publication. Her story opened the doors to a new way of thinking- giving women control over their autonomy and thus power over their own physical/emotional well-being. As someone who suffers from hormonal-related depression and anxiety myself (PMDD), I cherish this story for shining a light on the power of women- not painting them in weakness. If you also suffer from severe PMS, PMDD, or have dealt with postpartum depression, you are entitled to a life full of vibrancy and freedom. Take care of yourself, socialize with the people you love, try to stay active, and most importantly, do what you need to do to feel better. Your health is the most important thing you own, so prioritize it and love it!
Read The Yellow Wallpaper here: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/theliteratureofprescription/exhibitionAssets/digitalDocs/The-Yellow-Wall-Paper.pdf
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