When I first read “The Yellow Wall-Paper” years ago, before I knew anything about its author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, I loved it. I loved the unnerving, sarcastic tone, the creepy ending, the clarity of its critique of the popular nineteenth-century “rest cure”—essentially an extended time-out for depressed women. The story had irony, urgency, anger. On the last day of the treatment, the narrator is completely mad. She thinks she’s a creature who has emerged from the wallpaper.
The rest cure caused the illness it claimed to eliminate. Beautifully clear.
The unnamed first-person narrator goes through a mental dance I knew well—the circularity and claustrophobia of an increasing depression, the sinking feeling that something wasn’t being told straight. Reading “The Yellow Wall-Paper” felt like a mix of voyeurism and recognition, morphing into horror. It was genuinely chilling. It felt haunted.
The story is based on Gilman’s experiences with Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, late-nineteenth-century physician to the stars. Mitchell administered this cure of extended bed rest and isolation to intellectual, active white women of high social standing. Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Jane Addams all took the cure, which could last for weeks, sometimes months. Gilman was clearly disgusted with her experience, and her disgust is palpable.
“The Yellow Wall-Paper” was not iconic during its own time, and was initially rejected, in 1892, by Atlantic Monthly editor Horace Scudder, with this note: “I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself [by reading this].” During her lifetime, Gilman was instead known for her politics, and gained popularity with a series of satirical poems featuring animals. The well-loved “Similar Cases” describes prehistoric animals bragging about what animals they will evolve into, while their friends mock them for their hubris. Another, “A Conservative,” describes Gilman as a kind of cracked Darwinian in her garden, screaming at a confused, crying baby butterfly. “Similar Cases” was considered to be among “the best satirical verses of modern times” (American author Floyd Dell). It sounds like this:
There was once a little animal,
No bigger than a fox,
And on five toes he scampered
Over Tertiary rocks.
And so on.
Gilman is best known for “The Yellow Wall-Paper” now, due to Elaine Ryan Hedges, scholar and founding member of the National Women’s Studies Association, who resurrected Gilman from obscurity. In 1973, the Feminist Press released a chapbook of “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” with an afterword by Hedges, who called it “a small literary masterpiece” and Gilman “one of the most commanding feminists of her time” though Gilman never saw herself as a feminist (in fact, from her letters: “I abominate being called a feminist”). Nor did she consider her work literature. In the introduction to the copy I received, Gilman was quoted as saying she wrote to “preach … If it is literature, that just happened.” She considered her writing a tool for promoting her politics, and herself a one-woman propaganda machine. Hedges notes in her afterword that Gilman wrote “twenty-one thousand words per month” while working on her self-published political magazine, The Forerunner.
Rereading “The Yellow Wall-Paper” in the spring of 2020, when I was asked to write this essay, I was still impressed by its urgency and humor and its eerie quality. It felt deeper and more symbolic than I’d remembered, as if it were about more than it seemed. I hadn’t remembered that the yellow room was a former nursery with bars on the windows.
I was intrigued to find that Gilman had written a collection of essays called Concerning Children (1902, dedicated to her daughter Katharine “who has taught me much of what is written here”). The first essay in Concerning Children is disorienting: the torture and dismemberment of guinea pigs, the printing press, “nerve-energy,” foreclosures, the hypothetical market value of babies, are all examples summoned and threaded through with this ideology:
There are degrees of humanness … If you were buying babies, investing in young human stock as you would in colts or calves, for the value of the beast, a sturdy English baby would be worth more than an equally vigorous young Fuegian. With the same training and care, you could develop higher faculties in the English specimen than in the Fuegian specimen, because it was better bred. The savage baby would excel in some points, but the qualities of the modern baby are those dominant to-day.
The “if” is a chilling, willful blind spot, considering the history of the United States, and that Gilman, as the niece of the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, almost certainly believed herself to be of this better “stock.” I also think it’s clear that by dominant “modern baby,” Gilman means white baby. This should put all of Gilman’s quests for modernization into very stark light. Looking again, the “if ” seems not blind, so much as shockingly coy.
The majority of Gilman’s short fiction centers around the economic liberation of white women. The main path to security for Gilman’s women was finding, and keeping, a good husband—no matter the sacrifice. Her characters have inherited debts from their husbands, sacrificed their artistic ambitions for their children, been nearly forced out of their homes in widowhood, are in peril of disgrace. Society as it stands in these fables offers no good solutions to these problems. Live with your ungrateful children, leave your home, turn your husband’s mistress to the streets to save your social standing, forget the piano, et cetera. It’s a suffocating world, and Gilman describes its effects with compassion. But unlike, say, Edith Wharton (or even “The Yellow Wall-Paper”), Gilman attempts to offer solutions. Her protagonists work together, forming day cares, opening their homes to women’s clubs, taking on boarders, empathizing with each other, unprivatizing their homes and lives, making and saving their own money, and working together in harmony. The stories show a smooth, almost comically conflict-free path to solving social problems.
An interesting example of Gilman’s “problem-solved” format is “If I Were a Man.” Mollie (the ideal wife) wishes to become a man at the start of the story, and has her wish granted immediately. À la Being John Malkovich, she is absorbed into the consciousness of her husband on his commute to work. As she becomes more and more male, she sees the world differently.
While she’s rhapsodizing over how amazing men’s shoes, pockets, and pants are, Mollie, as a man, sees a woman for the first time and is shocked by the absurdity of women’s hats. “Never in all her life had she imagined that this idolized millinery could look … like the decorations of an insane monkey.”
And then in the next moment, when Mollie, as her husband, gets tickled by the feather on a cute woman’s hat (“he felt a sense of sudden pleasure at the intimate tickling touch”), she realizes that all hats are made by men for men’s titillation. A great misdeed, a great unfairness, has been done to her when men scold her for wanting hats that they themselves have designed and told her to want.
By the end of the story, Mollie and her husband exist in a balance of shared temperaments, each learning from the other, and as a result, growing more virtuous.
I like this story well enough (who among us has not, I guess, marveled at men’s pockets), but it’s tough to swallow. The ease of the solutions in much of her political fiction feels off. The men don’t mind the new order, once they consult their reason. The women are happy to join in, always have been. These are Gilman’s fantasies of the world, as it could be for her and others like her. Describing these clean solutions seems to be her obsession, and she does it over and over.
In her collection of essays Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, Gilman again lays out her ideas for liberating women. The key step is recognizing marriage as a sexuo-economic bargain, and ridding the culture of the myth of marriage as necessarily natural and born of love. As Gilman sees it, selfishness and stupidity are inherent to the existing household model. The man goes out to make money to bring back to the wife, who is taught to want stupid baubles with no conception of the labor that went into their making, and has no productive or creative outlet of her own. This degrades the mother. The children inherit her degradation both genetically and by observation, and the perpetuation of this cycle is what is keeping “the race” back. The goal is to financially liberate women so they can exercise their breeding power. Concerningly, Gilman’s proposed liberation goes hand in hand with eugenics. Her fixation on breeding and genetics runs through her fiction as well.
Herland, Gilman’s sci-fi novel about a land free of men, is an example of this. The inhabitants of Herland have no crime, no hunger, no conflict (also, notably, no sex, no art). They exist together in dreamlike harmony. Held one way, Herland is a gentle, maternal paradise, and the novel itself is a plea for allowing these feminine qualities to take part in the societal structure. Held another, we see how firmly their equality is based in their homogeneity. The novel’s twist is that the inhabitants of Herland are considering whether or not it would benefit them to reintroduce male qualities into their society, by way of sexual reproduction. Herland is a tale of the fully realized potential of eugenics, and for Gilman, it’s a utopia.
All of this is especially troubling when you consider that Gilman was a staunch and self-described nativist, rather than a self-described feminist, as the texts surrounding her rediscovery imply. Nativists believed in protecting the interests of native-born (or “established”) inhabitants above the interests of immigrants, and that mental capacities are innate, rather than teachable. Put bluntly, she was a Victorian white nationalist. When Gilman is described as a social reformer and activist, part of this was advocating for compulsory, militaristic labor camps for Black Americans (“A Suggestion on the Negro Problem,” 1908). Part of this is pleading for racial purity and stricter border policies, as in the sequel to Herland, or for sterilization and even death for the genetically inferior, as in her other serialized Forerunner novel, Moving the Mountain.
These ideas of Gilman’s are hard to reconcile with our current conception of her as a brave advocate against systems of oppression—a political hero with a few, forgivable flaws.
I lie here on this great immovable bed—it is nailed down, I believe—and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we’ll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.
This is the narrator of “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” She’s looking for her blind spots, searching for a conclusion, as her eyes trace the pattern of the wallpaper over and over, on a nailed-down bed in a derelict mansion. What does it mean? Does it simply condemn the patriarchy? If the story is deeply symbolic, and a meditation on hidden patterns, what are they? We know this story as a condemnation of the barbaric practice of the rest cure, but when we scan it, what else?
An attempt: The bed is nailed to the floor—the narrator has no control over her role in reproduction. The ancestral home, as a symbol for genetic inheritance (a theme Gilman uses in both her essays and fiction), is in disrepair, because of it. The narrator is lost because her husband won’t listen to her—without collaboration between men and women, the mother is lost, and the cycle of disrepair (she becomes the shredded wallpaper) continues. And as for the yellow wallpaper itself ? She wants it whitewashed.
It’s common to separate out “The Yellow Wall-Paper” from the rest of Gilman’s work, to place distance between it and her racism and passion for eugenics: it was just the time she lived in. Yes, the time she lived in was squeamish to publish a short story critical of patriarchy, and eager to embrace a cute poem about eugenics. But what about now? What makes us squeamish is an important study.
“The Yellow Wall-Paper” is a story about hypocrisy, oppression, and legacy. It’s a story about patterns hidden beneath patterns. The wallpaper oppresses the narrator until she starts to see herself in it, to identify with it. She becomes the woman in the wallpaper, becomes the wallpaper itself, and then she escapes, barely—and deeply tainted. If we can learn from the story’s enduring literary idea (the idea that, according to Gilman, “just happened”), it’s that a half-truth is not an answer. What’s hidden is dangerous. Motives are important. For anyone who has thought of Gilman as a hero of early feminism, I would urge another look. You will find patterns of humanity here, but it won’t be as simple as it seemed.
Halle Butler is a writer from the Midwest. Her first novel, Jillian, is a brief account of a medical secretary’s drunken social blunders and callous treatment of her coworker. Her second novel, The New Me, is a brief account of a depressed temp worker. She is a Granta Best Young American Novelist and a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Honoree.
Introduction by Halle Butler from a new edition of the book The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Writings, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Introduction copyright © 2021 by Halle Butler. Published by Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.