They destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions

The Yellow Wallpaper and other stories
by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman

This is an astounding collection. It is all the more remarkable when you remember that these stories were written in the 1890s and yet most of them feel like they’re set in the 1950s or even later.

The title story is the best known and probably also the best written in the collection. It’s certainly the most psychologically complex. A married couple rent an old house while their own home is being remodelled. The wife, who narrates the story, takes an instant dislike to the yellow wallpaper in the large room they use for a bedroom. Her health and mental state deteriorate, leading her physician husband to confine her to bed, which she is sure is exacerbating the problem.

“I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The colour is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.”

Like the rest of the stories, this is a feminist tale, though subtly so. Despite his medical knowledge, her husband is ignoring what his wife actually says to him. She is certainly unwell, but he labels it vaguely as “delicate health” where she is clearly suffering mental instability that is worsened by being ignored and shut away. She starts out depressed and gets worse, adding paranoia and delusions, so that it isn’t clear whether there really are manacles on the wall, or strips torn from the paper.

I don’t know if this could possibly have been known in 1892, but while reading it I couldn’t help think that the wallpaper must contain arsenic that is slowly poisoning the narrator. I’m certainly not the first person on the Internet to offer this explanation, and it makes the detail that the room was previously a nursery for another family much more upsetting.

The other stories in the collection are more straightforward and more explicitly feminist. They feature assertive, forward-thinking women who come up against obstacles and overcome them. In “The cottagette” a woman is living an idyllic life in an artists’ colony until she starts changing things to please a man, and realises that every change makes her unhappier. In “Three Thanksgivings”, Mrs Morrison just wants to continue living in the big house she shared with her husband until his death, but she can’t afford to stay for much longer. Her two adult children are both pressing her to move in with them, and Mr Butts keeps repeating his unwanted proposal of marriage. But Mrs Morrison is smart and knows there must be another way. In “Turned” a woman discovers that her husband has got their housemaid pregnant – and she doesn’t respond in the way you might expect.

“As the older, wiser woman forced herself to understand and extenuate the girl’s misdeed and foresee her ruined future, a new feeling rose in her heart, strong, clear and overmastering; a sense of measureless condemnation for the man who had done this thing. He knew. He understood. He could fully foresee and measure the consequences of his act. He appreciated to the full the innocence, the ignorance, the grateful affection, the habitual docility, of which he deliberately took advantage.”

I loved the positivity around the collection, “The yellow wallpaper” aside, but it is a little depressing that women’s lib moved so slowly that these stories could so easily be set 50, 60 or even more years later. “The yellow wallpaper” itself is beautifully written, clever, insightful and invites interpretation – as countless literature courses and study guides will testify.

“The yellow wallpaper” was first published in 1892 in The New England Magazine. The other six stories were also first published in the 1890s.

Source: Amazon.