“The Yellow Wallpaper” is generally considered an important work in American feminist literature, describing the treatment of a woman in late 19th century America suffering postpartum depression. That treatment is known as the rest cure; the patient must simply do nothing all day. Of course, when the treatment for a mental illness would itself drive most people crazy, we can predict that the results aren’t so hot for the woman involved.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is an interesting enough story. The first person narrator descends into madness as the account continues over an unclear period of time, in which she is confined to a room with strange and ugly yellow wallpaper. Gilman is able to depict this well; in fact, the story is at least semi-autobiographical, so this is not surprising. Still, while attitudes toward women are definitely a factor in the story, I consider it more interesting from a mental health perspective than from a simple feminist one.
The rest of Gilman’s work is less compelling (in my edition, the stories “Three Thanksgivings,” “The Cottagette,” “Turned,” “Making a Change,” “If I Were a Man,” and “Mr. Peebles’ Heart”). I have seen her described as a “Utopian feminist,” and this certainly seems apt. Two of the stories are of independent women using sheer ingenuity and female camaraderie to make the best of a bad situation, and make some money while they’re at it. In “The Cottagette” a woman thinks the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but in the end when he proposes he kindly asks her to stop cooking and cleaning so she can spend more time on her work, which is much more important. Poor Ms. Gilman; that just felt so Pollyanna-ish!
From a literary point of view the rest of the stories are lacking as well. “The Yellow Wallpaper”‘s main recommendation is its narration, but the women in the other tales (which are mostly third person, also), while strong, are bland. The stories end up coming off as didactic, overly optimistic, preachy-but-silly, and a little bit boring. They are probably worth reading for their historical value, especially for those with an interest in feminist literature. And the title story is quite chilling—because we know how real it is. Unfortunately the promise of that first story in the collection is just not lived up to by the rest.