The Yellow Wall Paper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I decided that since I’m reading Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, I would read Gilman’s best-known piece of fiction, the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” This is one of the few short stories included in the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (the others mostly being by Edgar Allan Poe). 

The main character is a young wife and mother who is taken by her affectionate husband to a summer home so that she could rest from her “nervous” behavior for a while. Her husband wanted her to rest as much as possible–not to exert herself by writing, reading, taking care of her baby, or doing any other sort of wifely work. She was kept in a room with viciously ugly yellow wallpaper. At first, she wanted to be free of the wallpaper, but her husband affectionately refused to move her to another room. As the story continues, she (in the boredom of “rest”) becomes more and more fascinated by the wall-paper and is eventually driven to madness. Her descent into madness is so eerie that this work was classified as “horror” before it was brandished as a feminist gem. 

Gilman describes the descent into madness with the naked honesty that can only come from a semi-autobiographical story. In fact, this story was a dire warning to herself, and to the world. Gilman became deeply depressed after giving birth to her own daughter. Her affectionate husband sent her to the well-known neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, who was a specialist in “women’s disorders.” Mitchell’s famous cure involved a regimen of rest–the woman would give up all work and simply gain back her health by bed-rest and isolation. Gilman was forbidden to write or paint, and was only allowed to read for 2 hours a day. Such treatment is enough to drive anyone crazy in my opinion! As Gilman got worse and worse, she made the difficult decision to leave her affectionate husband and find her health by other means. She never fully recovered, and she suffered from the world’s censure for leaving an affectionate husband–this was in the late 1800’s when such a divorce was a scandal. She wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a warning to herself that she would have gone mad had she stayed with her husband. She wrote it as a warning to the doctors who supported Mitchell’s cure–she even sent a copy of the story to Mitchell himself. And she wrote it as a warning to young women who might be suffering from similar “cures.” Gilman never suffered from hallucinations herself, but the description of the descent into madness clearly bore her soul, making the story frighteningly realistic. 

14 thoughts on “The Yellow Wall Paper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

  1. Yes, this is a powerful story. Some years ago PBS produced this as well.

    I heard that her doctor was so shocked by her story that he changed his treatment for “hysterical” women.


  2. There's a rumor that Dr. Mitchell told a friend that he'd changed his therapy after reading “The Yellow Wallpaper”…I'd like to believe the rumor is true, but it's also possible that it's false. The story was very powerful, but sometimes a doctor's ego is more powerful. 😉 I imagine it DID have a strong impact on some doctors, though. But scientists and doctors tend to hang on to their pet theories long past the point where they've been proven wrong.


  3. I wasn't too impressed with Herland as a story. Interesting & intriguing as an anthropological/philosophical experiment.
    But in doing a little research I've come across plenty of references to her other works that sound like they'd make great reading.


  4. The forward of The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader said that most fans of Gilman don't like her fiction. It said that she wrote quickly in order to make a point, and tended to rely heavily on plot devices that were popular at the time. The Yellow Wallpaper was the exception because it was a semi-autobiographical story which came from the soul. I didn't try reading any of her other stories after I read that in the intro. 😀 I probably would have if I hadn't read that. haha

    As for Herland, I'm still struggling through it. I find the dialog a bit annoying…I finally decided to read it as if it were a social satire instead of a serious attempt to point out the differences between men and women. I'm enjoying it a little better with that in mind. I don't know if that's what she intended, though.


  5. I remember some people reading this last year for RIP and I also remember that it sounded really good. And it still does reading your review. More sad and horrifying given its underpinnings of truth.


  6. Carl: Glad you approve. I wasn't VERY sure that this book really belonged in the RIP challenge, but it seemed scary enough to me–because of the realistic nature most of all.

    Fay: Thanks! I'll finish it some time this week. I checked out your blog by the way and really liked it!


  7. I remember someone mentioning this story to me years ago. Probably over a decade ago. The internet being then not what it is now, I didn't find a copy of it before I forgot about it. Good to finally read it. And, wow, what a read it is!


  8. I love your review. You make it sounds like a great story and I am intrigued. Not sure if I can find it but I'll keep my eyes open.

    I agree with you that madness is sometimes frightening


  9. Katenread: I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    Novroz: It's available for free on the internet. There should be a hyperlink to the ebook copy when you click on the name of the story (in my blog).


  10. I read this over the summer and was incredibly impressed by it. Not just the descent into insanity but the outrage of the suppression, the benevolent suppression! What a nightmare.

    If anyone has a Kindle of any ilk, this story is out of copyright and available for free via Amazon, fyi.

    Great review. Happy reading!


  11. I agree, the benevolent suppression was part of what made the story so disturbing…(I was about to expound, but I guess I should leave SOME details to the reader…so I'll just agree and move on.) 🙂

    If you don't have a Kindle, the ebook version that my link (in the blog) leads to can be downloaded for anything that takes epub OR Kindle. I love University of Adelaide format. 🙂


  12. Definitely agree with the creepiness being tied to the biographical nature of the story; that's why it reminded me so much of A Bell Jar. I read that in high school and almost felt like I was going crazy myself! Definitely think stories like this are worth reading, though, especially for women. They remind you sometimes you need to fight for your own sanity.


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