The Reading List: The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1892

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Book cover with 'The Yellow Wallpaper' in long black text over a yellow and orange art nouveau wallpaper pattenr.

Short but deeply affective feminist story

I’ve been putting off reading this story for ages. I downloaded it to my Kindle app months, maybe even a year ago, but something about the subject matter made me hesitate to start it. It’s the story of a 19th century woman driven insane by the sexist medical practices of her husband, who has locked her in the attic. It just sounds like it’s going to be a really tough read.

How wrong I was! For a start, it is a really short story. I think it took me about half an hour to read. But it is so intriguing and gripping! The closest thing I’ve read to it is Angela Carter’s stories, and it is clear that Carter was picking up on Perkins Gilman’s style. The Yellow Wallpaper is a creeping, dark tale of the patriarchy’s influence on a woman trapped in it. Not only could the whole plot be seen as a microcosm of a patriarchal society, but the woman’s treatment is a direct reflection of the sexist medical practices of its time. Perkins Gilman was inspired to write it after being prescribed the ‘rest cure’ for an episode of post-natal depression. This forbade a woman to really use her mind in any way at all – she was not allowed any mental stimulus, including writing. I love the two-fold way that writing becomes a feminist act in this story. It is told through the woman’s secret diary entries – she rebels and asserts her need to use her mind – and for Perkins Gilman it is an exposé of the damaging effects of sexist medical practice, rooted in a desire to keep women in their place.

Its grounding in historic medical fact is what really makes it scary

Unsurprisingly the story is held as one of the great works of feminist literature, and it has been analysed to the Nth degree. One of its strengths is knowing how much to give away – what details to highlight, and which to obscure. The descriptions of the wallpaper itself, which she is driven to obsessively analyse by the lack of all other stimulation, is rife with potential symbolic meaning. Each reader will focus on different elements, and bring something of their own experience and understanding to the story. You could quite easily read the whole thing as a fantastical horror if you wished, but I think its grounding in historic medical fact is what really makes it scary.

So don’t, like me, be put off by the potentially depressing subject matter. Just put aside half an hour and plunge yourself into a story that will creep you out and radicalise you in equal measure.

What are your favourite feminist books and stories? Are there any short stories that have really caught your imagination? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s