Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper was first published in the New England Magazine in 1891. It is a classic short story that, when I first read it, totally and completely freaked me out. I have thought about it often over the years and decided to revisit it this week.
I found a copy of the story included in In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe: Classic Tales of Horror 1816-1914 edited by Leslie S. Klinger. Should this story really be classified as horror? At first I want to say no. It’s a classic short story, nothing more than that, right? And yet it really is a form of psychological horror that, I think, will give most readers a scare. As such, I think its inclusion in this book is fitting.
I think the main reason that The Yellow Wallpaper is so terrifying is that it is so realistic. Severe anxiety and depression are real, and so is the patriarchy which is clearly also playing an active role in this story.
What could be more scary than being told that you are sick and unstable and that the only cure is to stop thinking about things and to lay in a room, alone with your thoughts, secluded from the world, essentially trapping you in your own mind? That is no way for anyone to live, and especially for those with anxiety or depression, similar to what the main character suffers from, it would be absolute torture. What happens to her is shocking and saddening and to think that it is based on real events makes it even worse.
I was eager to see this book included an article written by Gilman in 1913 in which she addresses the story, primarily the question of why she wrote it in the first place. She herself suffered from “a severe and continuous nervous breakdown” for over three years and was given much the same guidelines by her doctor that her main character is given by her husband who is a physician: to abstain from any sort of work, have only “two hours’ intellectual life a day” and to “live as domestic a life as possible.” She did this for about three months and approached “utter mental ruin” before finally deciding to ignore the doctor’s advice and live her life the way she wanted to. She says that work gave her a sense of purpose and allowed her to regain a sense of power over herself.
Of The Yellow Wallpaper she says…
“It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”
-Charlotte Perkins Gilman
If you haven’t yet read this classic story, I would highly recommend it.
*quotes from in the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe: Classic Tales of Horror 1816-1914 edited by Leslie S. Klinger*