“The Yellow Wallpaper” and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“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.

4 comments to “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

  • This is helpful, I’d considered picking this book up a few times but never did. It sounds like, although a little disappointing, it might be worth a read one day. And I’m interested in her poetry and her novels – have you read any of those?

  • I’d say worth a read. It is super short so we’re not talking a large opportunity cost. I haven’t read anything else by her, but I would definitely consider it. Her stories didn’t seem very poetic, so it would be interesting to see that side.

  • Britt

    i’d definately say this short story is worth a try. just look it up online and you’ll easily find it. this story of hers made my heart practically stop. it scared me.. but i think it’s wonderfully interesting that words can do that. give it a go.

  • Helen Mamrosh

    The author shows a lot of empathy towards the woman regarding mental illness. He lets us see deep through imagery how the illness progresses. The woman should be helped in a better fashion and listened to and understood more. Rest will not cure a person nor make the situations in their life go away. I just admire the way this was written. The yellow wallpaper consumed her and in reality mental illness can consume somebody.