Behind “The Yellow Wallpaper” | Haute Macabre

Behind “The Yellow Wallpaper”

As Haute Macabre readers, I expect many, if not most of you are already well acquainted with a certain late 19th century short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman entitled “The Yellow Wallpaper.” However if that title is unfamiliar to you, before you read further, I urge you to take a few moments to experience an unforgettable tale of a woman’s solitary descent into madness that’s as vividly haunting and singularly unsettling as it is a powerful work of early feminist literature. You can order it for your personal library, but it’s also right here in scanned form.

If my brief description isn’t enough to entice you, H. P. Lovecraft once cited the story as proof that the literature of cosmic fear has always existed, describing how Gilman rose “to a classic level in subtly delineating the madness which crawls over a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined.”

Now that we’re all on the same page, join us as we marvel at “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s fascinating explanation of her motivations behind writing this famous story, originally published in the October 1913 issue of The Forerunner. I already knew that “The Yellow Wallpaper” was salient commentary on 19th century attitudes about and treatment of women’s physical and mental health.

What I didn’t know, what currently has my jaw on the floor, is that the story is based on Gilman’s very personal experiences and was written specifically for her doctor. She wanted to demonstrate how his “specialist” treatment actually mistreated her and to prevent other women from suffering the same fallacious care. And she succeeded.

Many and many a reader has asked that. When the story first came out, in the New England Magazine about 1891, a Boston physician made protest in The Transcript. Such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.

Another physician, in Kansas I think, wrote to say that it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen, and–begging my pardon–had I been there?

Now the story of the story is this:

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia–and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again” as long as I lived. This was in 1887.

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again–work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite–ultimately recovering some measure of power.

Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.

The little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate–so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.

But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.

It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.

[via /r/WeirdLit, “The Yellow Wallpaper I” illustration by hyperphagia]