First published in New England Magazine in January 1892, and reprinted by Small, Maynard and Company as a chapbook (1899), “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s most famous work. Depicting the nervous breakdown of a young wife and mother, the story is a potent example of psychological realism. Based loosely on Gilman’s own experiences in undergoing the rest cure for neurasthenia, the story documents the psychological torment of her fictional first-person narrator.
The narrator’s husband, John, a physician, prescribes isolation and inactivity as treatment for her illness, a “temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency” (10). John forbids her to engage in any kind of labor, including writing. Despite his admonitions, however, the narrator records her impressions in a secret diary.
These diary entries compose the text of the story; they reveal the narrator’s emotional descent. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that she is suffering an acute form of postpartum depression, a condition acknowledged neither by John nor by the late-19th-century medical community. So severe is the narrator’s depression that a nursemaid has assumed care of the new baby. Deprived of the freedom to write openly, which she believes would be therapeutic, the narrator gradually shifts her attention to the yellow wallpaper in the attic nursery where she spends her time. The paper both intrigues and repels her; it becomes the medium on which she symbolically inscribes her “text.” Soon she detects a subpattern in the wallpaper that crystallizes into the image of an imprisoned woman attempting to escape. In the penultimate scene, the narrator’s identity merges with that of the entrapped woman, and together they frantically tear the paper from the walls. In an ironic reversal in the final scene, John breaks into the room and, after witnessing the full measure of his wife’s insanity, faints. Significantly, however, he is still blocking his wife, literally and symbolically obstructing her path so that she has to “creep over him every time!” (36).
Critics disagree over the meaning of the story, variously arguing the significance of everything from linguistic cues, to psychoanalytic interpretations, to historiographical readings. While some critics have hailed the narrator as a feminist heroine, others have seen in her a maternal failure coupled with a morbid fear of female sexuality. Some have viewed the story, with its yellow paper, as an exemplar of the silencing of women writers in 19th-century America; others have focused on its gothic elements.
Since the Feminist Press reissued the story in 1973, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” has been widely anthologized and is now firmly assimilated in the American literary body of work.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wall-paper. Boston: Small, Maynard, & Co., 1899. Reprint, Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1973.
Lanser, Susan A. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies 15, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 415–441.
Shumaker, Conrad. “ ‘Too Terribly Good to Be Printed’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ ” American Literature 57, no. 4 (1985): 588–599.
Veeder, William. “Who Is Jane? The Intricate Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” Arizona Quarterly 44, no. 3 (1988): 40–79.