THE YELLOW WALLPAPER
By Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Background: Published in 1892, this short story is not only a wonderful example of Gothic literature but also an early work of feminist literature. The epistolary story, written as first-person journal entries, is from the point of view of a woman suffering “temporary nervous depression,” according to her physician husband. “The Yellow Wallpaper” came about after Gilman’s own experience as a depression patient whose condition deteriorated after she went on “rest-cure.” Her response was this story, which she said was “not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”
What it’s about: A woman on “rest-cure” at a new house for the summer is confined to the upstairs room with queer yellow wallpaper, which seems to change and rub off on her when she brushes against it. She believes that the room used to be a nursery, and the children hated the wallpaper as much as she does. As she descends further into psychosis, she beings to believe that there is a woman trapped behind the wallpaper, creeping around on all fours as she tries to escape.
Obsessing over the wallpaper, she decides to free the woman. She locks herself in the room to peel off the wallpaper and let the woman out. But when her husband finally manages to get into the room, he finds her creeping around in circles along the walls. “I’ve got out at last,” she says, “And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”
Why it will keep you up at night: There are several interpretations of the end of this story that leave my skin crawling. One suggests that the narrator has hung herself in the room: “I am securely fastened now by my well-hidden rope,” and the physical descriptions of her “creeping” over her fainted husband are really her body swinging back and forth above him. Whether or not this interpretation is true, her madness as she begins to believe that she is the woman trapped behind the wallpaper is visceral from the first-person perspective, and the images are terribly unsettling.