The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman: Summary and Review

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Imagine a room.

Now imagine living there for a long time without having anything to do. For those of you who are millennials – Imagine a world without phones or any electronic devices.

If you are one of those very social people – your knee-jerk reaction would be, “No way in hell am I going to do that!”

But say, you have no choice and you just have to – how long before you think you are going to start imagining things?

Enter Yellow WallPaper!

The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story by the American writer Charlotte Gilman, first published in New England Magazine in the late 19th century.

The story, written as a series of diary entries, captures social perceptions and attitudes toward the mental and physical health of women at that time, and is widely regarded as one of the early feminist literary works, inspiring literary heavyweights such as Sylvia Plath and Alice Walker.

The story revolves around a woman – a young mother suffering from postpartum depression, and her relationship with her husband. Known for her recent hysterical proclivities following the birth of her son, her doctor husband believes it best for her to be removed from an active social scene in order to calm her nerves.

The woman finds the house generally strange, but cannot help noticing the strange wallpaper in the nursery, which has been removed in places. She is disgusted by patterns that the botched wallpaper creates in the room and experiences various emotional reactions to it over the course of time.

The second diary entry describes her feeling of failure and the threat of depression, that she felt that she could not function as well as she was expected to.

It is soon revealed through her diary entries that it was not the first occasion that she had let the inanimate objects get better of her- as a child she had been terrified and entertained by things as plain as blank walls, door knobs and chairs.

She was obsessed with the wallpaper – the color, the shapes, the pattern – all of that. So much so that most of her waking hours and even the hours she was half asleep, were spent thinking about it.

Her fixation with the wallpaper introduced the much needed excitement in her life. She ate better and was quieter. Her husband even mistook it to be her recovery inspite of the wallpaper, rather than because of it.

Now I know from the beginning that it is not your typical horror story, but the devil is in the details. The more I read it, the more spooky it got.

Here is the seemingly normal woman who expresses her reservations about a beautiful house being offered cheaply because it is a sign of something fishy:

I will proudly declare that there is something wrong with it. Else why would it be let so cheaply? And Why would it have stood so long untenanted?

Here is the same woman transforming suddenly to a wife and a mother..

John laughs at me of course, but one expects that in marriage.

I never thought of it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all, I can stand it so much easier than a baby you see.

Of course, I don’t mention it to them anymore – I am too wise – but I keep a watch of it all the same.

Could be any random married woman you know, right?

And..

There is one comfort , the baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy the nursery with a horrid wallpaper.

Could be any doting mother that dearly loves her child?

It would be a next door mom/wife had it ended there but No.

The same woman also thinks to herself –

Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch. I really do eat better, and am more quiet than I was.

You can sense that the woman feels empty and craves any sort of drive in her life, this is when she jumps head first into her pattern hunt, finding that invigorating rather than being creeped out by it like she was before.

Her obsession with the inanimate also accelerates her paranoia.

He asked me all sorts of questions and pretended to be very loving and kind.

As if I could not see through him!

Which ultimately drives her to insanity

I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be an admirable exercise, but the bars are too high to try.

You will see that clues of her illness are scattered all across the story

I cry at nothing, I cry most of the times.

It is great effort for me to think straight,.. nervous weakness I suppose.

Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able, – to dress, to entertain , to order things.

Her husband seems to be a reasonable, loving and caring person, but she does not seem to feel heard by him and feels trapped in her life, which is why she wants the woman to flee from the wallpaper. In her mind, she is doing that imaginary creature, a service. A service noone she knows is ready to do for her. To set her free.

Gilman’s haunting portrayal has come to life in many film adaptations, and for good reason.

The story being as old as it is, makes me realize something: society’s attitudes to mental health issues have barely changed in the last century.

They were taboo then.

They are taboo now. .

Are we really free?

2 thoughts on “The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman: Summary and Review

    1. Agreed. It is, very much so. It might be me imagining things but given Gilman’s struggles with her depression, its a very scary peek into her own mind. The thought that the story could have been semi autobiographical freaks me out even more.

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