July 13, 2011

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Review

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Either this wallpaper goes, or I do. -Oscar Wilde

That's how the protagonist of The Yellow Wallpaper feels about the decor of her room. The lady of the story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is stuck in what sounds to me like the ugliest room in the world. The wallpaper eventually drives her insane and I probably would end up right there with her.

I really want to talk about this story and since it's only 15 pages long and free, I think you all can go and read it so I don't spoil it for you. Go now.... No, really... I'm waiting...

Are you ready? Let's go!

Was that a freaky story or what? I just sneaks up on you.

The Yellow Wallpaper is told as a diary of a woman recovering from childbirth but appears to be suffering from postpartum depression. She doesn't even want to be with her baby. Her husband, a physician, thinks he knows what's best for her and prescribes the "rest cure." Basically, she has to stay alone in a room all day "resting." Unsurprisingly, this doesn't work. She becomes fixated on the ugly yellow wallpaper in the room. She sees faces and eventually convinces herself that a woman is trapped behind it. That's really telling isn't it? A woman (her) is trapped in the room. This woman ends up creeping out of the wall at night.

He is very careful and loving and hardly lets me stir without special direction.
Can I just say what a jerk the husband is? He doesn't listen to her when she says she might be fine physically but mentally she is not. He doesn't want to hear it. Is this the Tom Cruise method of dealing with lady problems? Can't she express how she feels and tell the ass guy that his solution isn't working? He just gives her a lecture and pats her on the head. It's striking how little say a woman had over her own health in 1891. At one point he calls her his "little girl" which gave me the creeps. He patronizes her and infantizes her. He hovers over her when he's not ignoring her.

She tamps down her feelings but they end up coming out in strange ways. She tears at the wallpaper trying to let the woman out. A shadowy woman she imagines creeping out of the wall and escaping out the window. Soon there are several women in the wallpaper and she believes she is one of them. By the end, she's gone completely batty and locks herself in the room. Did you notice the references to suicide- the rope, the chair, jumping out the window- and how even at this point she doesn't speak of them directly? She's still trying to be the 'good woman' who wouldn't do something like that.

So how about that wallpaper, huh? I was surprised at how visual the story is. It's almost cinematic. You can almost see those bulging eyes watching you and imagine the shadow women creeping around behind it. It freaked me out. I wondered about that wallpaper though. Would she have been driven mad without it? What had the previous occupants seen that made them tear at it?

From what I've read The Yellow Wallpaper was considered 'lost' until it started showing up in universities in the 1970s. Understandable, considering its heavy feminist theme. I wish I had read it in my university days. I also wonder how I would have reacted to this story if I had read it just after having a baby. I never had any serious issues with postpartum depression (though I did have anxiety) but it was always something that was on my mind. I warned my husband to get me to a doctor if he found me doing anything 'weird.' We're so aware of it now. The rest cure would have made things worse. Charlotte suffered from it herself and was given that prescription. It nearly did her in. What did they know about hormones in 1891? The husband in the story is unable to believe in anything he can't see and since he can't see what is going on within her body the problem doesn't exist.

I loved this story not just for the gothic elements but because of how it made me think and sympathize with the protagonist. The Yellow Wallpaper is also part of a collection of Charlotte Perkins Gilman stories by Penguin titled Herland and Selected Stories. I must get a copy!

Highly recommended.

Ratings:

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17 comments :

  1. I liked this book, too! I originally read it in university, but I just reread it recently and was effected by it all over again!

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  2. It's so interesting to see how far we've come in women's health in the last fifty years or so. And in mental health. This story features a little bit of both and the failures on both counts. Definitely a telling story - and a haunting one. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  3. yeah, i can't imagine putting up with that situation. I'd go crazy too. And yes, it's somewhat autobiographical given that's what her husband did to her after childbirth. It really puts her attitudes to women/motherhood in HERLAND into perspective. Have you read Herland yet? Can't remember.

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  4. I read this in undergrad and wrote a whole paper on how it represents "the personal is the political". Lots of interesting themes in it, that's for sure!

    And gah, that attic room is so creepy with the bars and everything.

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  5. I'm a fan of Ms. Perkins Gilman myself. The Yellow Wallpaper is probably her best work, but the other stories and Herland are all interesting. I guess The Yellow Wallpaper must have something of a dual history. As I understand it, the story has long been considered a classic in the horror genre. It can be read strictly as a horror story and seen as a descendant of Edgar Allen Poe. Think Tell-tale Heart. Perkins Gilman was rediscovered, as you say, by feminist critics in the late 20th century. They see the story as a psychological critique of women's position in late Victorian society.

    Either way it's a darn good story.

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  6. I remember what an impact this one had when I read it in college!

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  7. I remember reading this in high school and I remember being terrified. I hadn't thought of it in years, but I think I will re-read it!

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  8. I'll read it!

    In the meantime, it made me think of Napoleon's wallpaper.

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  9. I really loved this one as well. So much to think about.

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  10. I enjoyed this story as well. It is sad and a little scary, but I can imagine that being trapped in a room like that would do it to you. I wonder if the protagonist in Room has any similar feelings (that is on my to-read list :) ).

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  11. Kelly- It's the kind of book that would create different reactions depending on the point in your life, I think.

    Julie- Hopefully we'll keep making improvements.

    Rebecca- Herland is on my TBR list!

    Ashley- It must have been an interesting topic.

    CB- Yes, it is and I could see reading this for Halloween. It would suit the season.

    Col- Excellent!

    John- Wow, that would put a new spin on it.

    Bookworm- Oh yes Room would be a good pairing. I haven't read that yet either.

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  12. I have this downloaded...looks like I'm reading it tonight! I just read The Victorian Chaise-Longue, a Persephone Book a couple of weeks ago, and it's somewhat similar. You might like that one, and although it's not as short as The Yellow Wallpaper, it's still short at 99 pages!

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  13. Natalie- I really want to read that one, I just have to find it.

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  14. I read The Yellow Wallpaper last night and reviewed it today. I am freaked out and annoyed with the husband as well.

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  15. "Is this the Tom Cruise method..."
    LOVE it! I am saving this for October, because I am going to have a creepy reading month. Glad you enjoyed it.

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  16. This is the second review of this book that I am reading this week. I am definitely intrigued. I've seen this over at DailyLit quite a few times but I've been hesitant. I'll check it now.

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