Monday Review: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This is one of my favorite (long) short stories to teach in high school. Though my Monday book reviews normally focus on full-length books, this short story is a great work to study as a horror writer. Gilman wrote the story as a result of her own mental breakdown. It was written in the late 1800’s when things like depression and postpartum depression were not understood. A popular cure was known as “the rest cure.” Women were given a strict schedule, mostly consisting of rest away from family and familiar surroundings, but also containing a detailed schedule of food and drink, rest, mild activities. Even the women’s sexual activities were sometimes scheduled and enforced.

Gilman wrote this story to show the world that “the rest cure” was actually doing more damage than good. In the story, a woman slowly loses her mind while forced to spend three months in a house that her husband (a doctor) rented to allow her sufficient rest to overcome her mental ailments. During her time in the house, the woman is denied visits to family, mental or physical stimulation, and the freedom to discuss her feelings.

The most spooky, captivating, and awesome element of the story is its first-person point of view. The narrator is writing the account in her journal, something she must do only when no one else is around. Her journal begins with descriptions of mundane trivialities, but it becomes increasingly more disturbing. The narrator is locked in the nursery on the top floor of the house. The room’s most distinguishing feature is its yellow wallpaper, which features a dizzyingly-horrendous pattern. In the wallpaper, the narrator begins to see manifestations of her own self—a woman trapped and trying to get out.

From a writer’s point of view, Gilman’s use of first-person point of view can be used to study the building of suspense. Gilman provided just enough details for us to put together the pieces of the narrator’s growing madness (and its causes) without over-explaining and thus ruining the suspense. Gilman packs this short story with content, and I suggest reading it more than once—after learning the ending, you’ll pick up more and more details each time.

A final interesting note: Gilman admitted to writing the story for the purpose of informing the world of the dangers of “the rest cure.” In her day, she received evidence that she had saved at least one woman’s life as a result of the story, and at least one doctor modified his treatment after reading her story. It just goes to show the power of words, and the reason I continue to write.