Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
First published in America in The New England Magazine in 1892.

How I got this book:
Bought from a charity shop

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

'Presented in the first person, the story is a collection of journal entries written by a woman whose physician husband (John) has rented an old mansion for the summer. Foregoing other rooms in the house, the couple moves into the upstairs nursery. As a form of treatment she is forbidden from working, and is encouraged to eat well and get plenty of exercise and air, so she can recuperate from what he calls a "temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency", a diagnosis common to women in that period. She hides her journal from her husband and his sister the housekeeper, fearful of being reproached for overworking herself. The room's windows are barred to prevent children from climbing through them, and there is a gate across the top of the stairs, though she and her husband have access to the rest of the house and its adjoining estate. The story depicts the effect of under-stimulation on the narrator's mental health and her descent into psychosis. With nothing to stimulate her, she becomes obsessed by the pattern and color of the wallpaper.'

Hot on the heels of another classic of 'women's mental health' fiction - The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath which I read and reviewed two weeks ago - I was excited to spot a disintegrating Virago edition of The Yellow Wallpaper on the Rowcroft Hospice charity book table in Torquay Indoor Market. I had read discussions of this story on the Goodreads-Bookcrossing Decade Challenge forums last year, but had not previously read the work itself.

At only twenty-eight pages, The Yellow Wallpaper is a quick read and a strangely powerful one. I was horrified at the thought of this woman who seemed obviously to be suffering post-natal depression being effectively shut away in solitary confinement. And this was considered a cure! Her patronising husband angered me intensely although I know that such ignorant attitudes were the norm until relatively recently. Being aware of the truthful basis to the story only increases its atmosphere and I loved how Gilman paces her reveal for maximum impact. I think The Yellow Wallpaper is a deserved classic on several fronts: as a short horror story, as feminist literature, and as a compelling evocation of mental breakdown.

Etsy Find!
by Kath Anderson Design in
Liverpool, England

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Books by Charlotte Perkins Gilman / Short stories / Books from America

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