“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.
Gilman initially had difficulty finding a publisher for “The Yellow Wallpaper”; Horace Scudder of The Atlantic refused to print it, stating, “I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself!” Eventually, “The Yellow Wallpaper” began to attract readers, and William Dean Howells included it in his Great Modern American Stories: An Anthology in 1920. Early reviewers generally classified “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a horror story, with most commenting on Gilman’s use of gothic conventions. It was not until Elaine R. Hedges’s afterword to a 1973 edition of the story that it began receiving scholarly attention. Most modern commentators now interpret the story as a feminist indictment of society’s subjugation of women and praise its compelling characterization, complex symbolism, and thematic depth.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” opens with the musings of an unnamed woman. She, her husband John, their newborn baby, and her sister-in-law have rented a summerhouse. The narrator is suffering from postpartum depression, and her family members hope the summerhouse will function as a place for her to get better. The doctor has prescribed a rest-cure of quiet and solitude, with an emphasis on avoiding any form of mental stimulation, such as reading or writing. The woman notes that the room in which she is staying seems to be geared more for incarceration than rehabilitation. John classifies her merely as “sick,” thereby exhibiting the prevailing attitude of the day that mental illness in women was not real. Following the doctor’s strict orders, he forbids his wife to do any type of work and does not allow her to see their baby. The narrator believes that work, excitement, and change would do her good, but her opinion carries no authority with the others. She would like to write, which is forbidden, and surreptitiously keeping a diary exhausts her, as does trying to oppose her husband. With very little to do, the woman is left to contemplate the ugly yellow wallpaper in the nursery that is coming off the wall in great patches. She begins to trace the pattern of the wallpaper. Her narration ends abruptly because her husband is coming.
The story continues two weeks later when the narrator is able to write again. Even though she feels it might help relieve some of her tension, she generally acquiesces to her husband’s desire that she not write. She has been feeling terribly depressed, but John says her case is not serious. He does not think her suffering amounts to anything more than “nervousness.” He laughs at her hatred for the wallpaper, and though she wants him to repaper the room, he refuses to give in to her “fancies.” When the narrator claims to have seen people walking on the path by the house, he cautions her against allowing her imagination to overexcite her. The woman starts to examine the wallpaper, noticing how the patterns form “eyes” that seem to be staring at her. When the sunlight shines in a certain way, she sees a figure skulking behind the pattern of the wallpaper. Again, the narrator must stop writing, for her sister-in-law Jennie is coming up the stairs.
Because his wife does not seem to be getting better and spends a lot of time crying, John threatens to send her to Mitchell, who believes even more strongly than John does in rest treatments. The narrator has become fond of the room, perhaps because of the wallpaper. She enjoys lying on her bed, following the patterns in the wallpaper and attempting to trace one of the strands to conclusion. Captivated by the wallpaper, she believes that it knows things about her that no one else does. More alarmingly, the figure she sees in the wallpaper has begun to take shape-that of a woman stooping down and creeping behind the pattern.
One night the narrator tells John that she is not getting better and wants to leave the house, but he refuses, insisting the rest-cure will work. She returns to her examination of the wallpaper. Her diligent attention surmises that there is both a front and back pattern, and that at night the front pattern forms bars. The woman in the wallpaper is quiet during the day and more active at night, as is the narrator. The narrator has also grown fearful of John and Jennie, for they seem to be studying the wallpaper as if they want to understand its pattern before she does.
During the last week of their stay, the narrator fakes improved health and spirits when her husband is around, but has become completely obsessed with the wallpaper. She constantly notices new facets of it: the smell of yellow that creeps through the whole house; a streak along the baseboard encircling the room. She discovers that the woman in the wallpaper shakes the bars of the front pattern as she tries, unsuccessfully, to climb through them. Though she has only two days left in the house, the narrator is determined to get the paper off and thus free the woman inside.
When John is away one evening, the narrator locks the door, throws the keys out of the window, and begins peeling the wallpaper. Despite her efforts, however, she cannot remove it all. In her desperation, she considers committing suicide but decides that this would be “improper and might be misconstrued.” She begins circling the room, following the pattern of the wallpaper-in essence, becoming the woman inside, trapped in an endless maze. John breaks open the door to see his wife creeping along the wall and faints. The narrator only laughs. His slumped body is blocking her path, and she is forced to creep over him each time she circles the room.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” did not receive much serious attention until Howells published it in The Great Modern American Stories in 1920. In that volume, he wrote: “Now that I have it in my collection, I shiver over it as much as I did when I first read it in manuscript, though I agree with the editor of The Atlantic of the time that it was too terribly good to be printed.” It was not until 1973, when it was republished after being out of print for years, that the first lengthy analysis of the story was written by Elaine R. Hedges. Writing in the afterword to the volume, she stated that “The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a small literary masterpiece” and a work that “does deserve the widest possible audience.”
Since then, “The Yellow Wallpaper” has received widespread critical attention. Contemporary scholars have interpreted the story in numerous ways, with feminist readings being the most common. Reviewers focus on the relationship between the narrator and her husband, maintaining that John’s treatment of her represents the powerlessness and repression of women during the late 19th century. Hedges concluded that the story is “one of the rare pieces of literature we have by a 19th-century woman which directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship.”
Critics have also commented on the story’s focus on the psyche and its influence as examples of both psychological realism and gothic fiction. It is often considered one of the most detailed and emotionally charged accounts of depression and despair in short fiction because it is told from the vantage point of the person actually suffering a nervous breakdown. Furthermore, Gilman does not romanticize or downplay the realities of mental suffering. “The Yellow Wallpaper” has also been lauded as a preeminent piece of gothic fiction because of its incorporation of such gothic literary elements as horror, suspense, and the supernatural.
The story has been faulted by some critics who claim that it is nothing more than a vehicle through which Gilman explicated her feminist social beliefs. In fact, Gilman once stated that she wrote the story “to preach. If it is literature, that just happened.” However, most reviewers have acknowledged that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is realistic, accessible, and thought provoking, and have called it Gilman’s best work of fiction.