Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, to Frederick Beecher Perkins, a noted librarian and magazine editor, and his wife, Mary Fritch Perkins. Although Gilman’s father frequently left the family for long periods during her childhood and eventually divorced his wife in 1869, he directed Gilman’s early education, emphasizing study in the sciences and history. During his absences, Perkins left his wife and children with his relatives, thus bringing Gilman into frequent contact with her independent and reform-minded great aunts: Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Catherine Beecher, a prominent advocate of “domestic feminism”; and Isabella Beecher Hooker, an ardent suffragist. Their influence-and the example of her mother’s own self-reliance-were instrumental in developing Gilman’s feminist convictions and desire to effect social reform. Early in her life, Gilman displayed the independence she later advocated for women: she insisted on remuneration for her household chores, and later she paid her mother room and board, supporting herself as a teacher and a commercial artist.
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” first published in 1892 in the New England Magazine, is largely considered Gilman’s best work of short fiction. The story is a first-person account of a young mother’s mental deterioration and is based on Gilman’s own experiences with postpartum depression. Like Gilman, the unnamed protagonist of the story is advised-in accordance with the theories of S. Weir Mitchell-to abstain from any and all physical activity and intellectual stimulation. She is not allowed to read, to write, or even to see her new baby. To carry out this treatment, the woman’s husband takes her to a country house where she is kept in a former nursery decorated with yellow wallpaper.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” takes place in a country house located about three miles from the nearest village. Although the large house is surrounded by hedges, a garden, and servants’ quarters, the narrator notes that the house and its grounds have fallen into a state of minor disrepair. At the beginning of the story, the narrator is interested in the surrounding scenery as well as the other rooms in the house. As the story progresses, however, she becomes fixated on the nursery and its wallpaper. The Setting has the appearance of tranquility, but is actually a place of confinement-there are bars on the windows of the nursery, and the bed is secured to the floor. The isolated location of the house, its somewhat neglected condition, and her further isolation in the fortress-like nursery, symbolize the narrator’s mental condition.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” examines the role of women in 19th-century American society, including the relationship between husbands and wives, the economic and social dependence of women on men, and the repression of female individuality and sexuality. The Victorian era had a profound impact on social values in the United States, stressing that women were to behave demurely and remain within the domestic sphere. Suffering from postpartum depression after the birth of her son, the protagonist is advised by her husband and doctor to get complete bed rest, despite her suggestions that she write and read. While she does secretly write in a journal, it is made clear that her husband is the final decision maker and that her role is to be a charming wife and competent mother. In fact, John often treats her like a child, calling her his “little girl” and “blessed little goose.” When the narrator has a “real earnest reasonable talk” with John, during which she asks him if she can visit some relatives, he does not allow her to go.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is an example of a first-person narrative because it is told exclusively from the viewpoint of the unnamed protagonist, and the reader is given access only to her thoughts and emotions. However, since she is suffering a mental breakdown, she is also considered an unreliable narrator, as the reader cannot be certain if she is accurately relating the events of the story. This adds emotional impact to the narrative because the reader is given an intimate account of the protagonist’s growing feelings of despair and confusion.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” was written and published in 1892. The last three decades of the 19th century comprised a period of growth, development, and expansion for the United States. Following the Civil War, which ended in 1865, the United States entered the era of ReConstruction, which lasted until 1877. There were many social and cultural changes during this time. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) expounded his theory of evolution, and further incited controversy over women’s roles and issues. His theory of evolution flouted conventional wisdom, contending that women were actually more hardy and therefore more necessary than males because they were able to preserve the species. Because women were mothers, they were vital to survival. Darwin’s theory was used to promote both sides of what came to be known as the “Woman Question.” Some scientists argued that because women were physiologically robust, they were capable of being both mothers and professionals. Others contended that Darwin’s theory proved that motherhood was necessary to women and that it should retain a supreme priority in a woman’s life.
1. Imagine how you would respond to the rest-cure. What would be the most difficult aspect of it? Why?
1. Research literature on hysteria and other “women’s problems” published at the end of the 1800s and relate them to “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
In her nonfiction work Women and Economics (1898), Gilman argues that men and women are more similar than different, and that women should have the same social and economic freedoms as men, including the right to work.