‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Much has been written about The Yellow Wallpaper since its first publication in 1892. It was unprecedented, and made it possible—and indeed is still making it possible—for women to talk and write about the treatment, shame and stigma of what was then called hysteria. I don’t know what my reaction would’ve been had I read it as a very young woman, but when I first read it as a mother of young children, I recognised immediately the peculiarly listless anxiety and increasing detachment of the post-partum woman. It’s a brilliant, terrifying, devastating read.

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, (which seems to be linked in my mind to the later, and equally terrifying, The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski) taught me that writing can be a fluid state. I took from it the idea that within my own writing, feelings and objects could be interchangeable, replaceable and transferable, and that my perception of a room, for example, or the contents of that room, could be instantly transposed elsewhere; to a different time, a different place, a different state of mind. Nothing is what it appears and everything could mean something else. Most things I’ve written since have included this fluidity in some way or another.

First published in The New England Magazine in 1892. You can read the version published by Small & Maynard in 1899 in the CUNY archives here.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

And even before that mother-as-subject, mother-as-madwoman in the attic had been portrayed in The Yellow Wallpaper. The first sentence – “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer” – prefaces a tale in which this ordinariness becomes increasingly and disturbingly deranged. I read it when I was a teenager, and I read it then as a narrative of hysteria. Written at the end of the Nineteenth Century, it’s certainly of that era, the epidemic of hysteria, of Charcot and the Salpêtrière, and the narrator’s own “hysterical tendency” is mentioned on the second page. It’s only now, on rereading as a mother, that I recognise it as an explicit tale of the post-partum condition. While the absent baby is only mentioned three times in the whole story, it’s the wallpaper that absorbs the new mother’s gaze:
The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.
You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down and tramples upon you. It’s like a bad dream.
The outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus. If you can imagine a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions – why, that is something like it.
It is not the baby but the wallpaper that is the object of her attention, that keeps her up at night, and with which her own self increasingly blurs: the story ends when she has switched places with the woman creeping in the wall paper: “It is so pleasant … to creep around as I please.”
First published in 1892, my copy is Virago, 1997

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

My first thought is anyone who’s ever read this story would surely put it in their personal anthology. I know things are subjective, but I can’t see how anyone wouldn’t.

There was a room in my grandparents’ bungalow that I’d sleep in, there was rose patterned wallpaper, white and pink and green and ugly. There were faces in it, and the room was cold, like a pantry. I’d lie in the dark, touching the tassels of the bedside lamp, trying not to look at all the faces in the petals, missing my mum, thinking of the faces staring at me. When I read this story, I remembered all this, and more.

I remember the first time I read it, too, holding my breath and not really being aware of my physicality from beginning to end, and yet being totally aware of it too – the claustrophobic way there were not enough pages and not enough words and yet exactly the right amount of everything. This story is words as secrets, as saviour, as desperation, as confession. I was seventeen when I first read it and I wanted to talk about it all the time. it is perfection, and I go back to it again and again.

It has everything. Powerlessness, condescension to the point of imprisonment, gaslighting, disapproval, and the bright-faced utter rebellion of it. The tone, so light, so bright, at first, then the hurtling towards despair and ESCAPE, in its own way, in the only way possible. So much said, in so few words.

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.
 It’s terrifying, and brilliant, and everyone should read it.
First published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine. My current version is the Vintage Classics, 2015