Friday, January 8, 2010

Review: The Yellow Wallpaper (Short Story)

The Yellow Wallpaper
Title:  The Yellow Wallpaper

Author:  Charlotte Perkins Gilman

First Published in 1899

Plot Summary:
A young family goes to a country home in a small American town for the summer.  The husband is a physician who hopes that being in the country will help his wife over her currently unhappy state.  The wife has just recently given birth to a son and is probably suffering from what we would today call postpartum depression.  She feels sad and tired often, and her physician husband's cure for this is to isolate her in the attic of their rented home.  The attic has barred windows, a bed nailed to the floor, and hideously yellow wallpaper.  As time moves on, we see the woman, who narrates the story, become more and more enthralled with the wallpaper- first she sees it as ugly, then she sees patterns and shapes in it and finally she sees that there is a woman trapped behind it, trying desperately to get out.  And she decides to help this poor woman.

After reading Wish Her Safe at Home late last year and loving it, I heard a lot about this short story, The Yellow Wallpaper.  It is very short- I read it in two "longest" DailyLit installments.  This is also the first e-story I've ever read.  I highly recommend clicking the link on the title above and reading the story!

In Wish Her Safe at Home, we also had a woman narrator who is slowly going insane, but in a completely different situation.  The narrator in that story chose to go insane, and live out the life she always wanted for herself.  In The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator asks her husband multiple times to let her out and to allow her to socialize and write and enjoy her life, but he refuses, citing her health as his reason.  As the narrator says, her husband "is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction."  Thus, isolated as she is and suffering from what starts as a seemingly mild form of mental illness, the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper descends into insanity and no one even notices until it is too late.

I think this is a very important story when one considers women's health and the coddling way in which women were (and still often are) treated.  Here is a story of a woman who tried to stand up for herself, but was told to just relax by her dear, sweet husband who always knows and wants what is best for her.  The narrator's thoughts on the yellow wallpaper also morph and change with her mental state and her own feelings.  What begins as ugly wallpaper turns to moldy and smelly paper and then finally becomes a prison for a woman stuck behind it, yearning to break out.  And the narrator tries to help this imprisoned woman get out, in much the way she herself wants to escape her room and her life.  And much the way the narrator of Wish Her Safe at Home wants to escape.

A theme in women's fiction of the early 20th century is often escape.  You see the same happen in Kate Chopin's short story, The Awakening.  Women take extreme measures to get out of their traditional roles, often ending in madness or death or unhappiness.

Even though this story is so short, I am still counting it for the Women Unbound challenge.  I think it conveys a great deal in a very limited amount of space.  It's also a very important work for its time- it sheds light on both mental illness and the role and rights of a woman in a family.  It really makes clear just how unhappy women were in some circumstances and, just as Kate Chopin shows in the longer story The Awakening and just as Stephen Benatar did so brilliantly in his novel Wish Her Safe at Home, Gilman proves in her short story that unhappiness can lead us all to commit desperate acts.  Whether to gain love, or freedom, or just to remove herself from horrible circumstances, a woman will leave her person and personality behind to escape her reality.

I am really enjoying the Women Unbound Challenge!  It's really interesting to read women's literature, particularly, through the ages and see how much has and has not changed, and what issues are relevant at a certain time.  I'm really enjoying everyone else's reviews, too!

25 comments:

  1. I just reviewed the Yellow Paper quite recently. Here's the link:
    http://theliterarystew.blogspot.com/2009/12/yellow-wallpaper-and-my-other-viragos.html

    I think it's a great choice for Women Unbond. The Awakening is also a book I'm keen to read.

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  2. I am so glad that women are no longer treated that way for post natal depression. I am glad that it is finally considered an illness, rather than all in the mind. This sounds like a really good story and an important one at that. I haven't heard of the The Awakening, but I feel it may be one I would enjoy.

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  3. I've heard so many great things about The Yellow Wallpaper. But I admit to being afraid to read it, because it sounds not only depressing but infuriating!

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  4. I need to read this again. I read it in college but didn't really get it at the time. I didn't like the person who insisted on me reading it. :D

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  5. This short story is on my Women Unbound to-read list as well. I'm really looking forward to it. Thanks for your review.

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  6. I LOVED this when I read it a couple years ago, and you've made me want to reread it. Isn't it amazing?!

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  7. Mrs. B- After seeing your review, Viragos are now with Persephones on my "buy the next one you see" list!

    Vivienne- I don't know if I liked The Awakening so much when I read it, but looking back now on the story's message, I think I'd love it. Maybe I should reread it, too!

    Rhapsody- It's really not depressing. That is, it's depressing at the end, but the story itself is fascinating to read. It's only about 20 pages in a book format, I'd guess- give it a go!

    Amanda- I know that feeling ;-) Disliking the messenger!

    Bookshelf Monstrosity- Yay! I look forward to seeing your thoughts on it as well.

    Eva- Yes, it IS amazing! So much packed in so little space. If you liked it so much, you really SHOULD read, ahem, Wish Her Safe at Home!

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  8. I love the yellow wallpaper. I had my seniors read it late last year and they really liked it too. They thought it was weird but once we discussed it they thought it was great. I used it for Women Unbound as well, I think it is such an important woman's issue. Wish Her Safe at Home sounds really intriguing as well.

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  9. Zee, I saw your fantastic review before! Maybe that's what made me want to read it. I like that you shared it with your students. I often think girls in high school don't really know how hard it can be to be a girl, until they get out and start being an adult.

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  10. I read this a couple of times in college, but that was like 10 years ago, so I'm thinking it's time for a re-read. It would be neat to see what I think of it now that I've gone through the experience of birth.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  11. I read The Yellow Wallpaper last year or the year before and found it fascinating.

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  12. I remember being angry when I read this story. The ignorance people had over Postpartum depression sickened me.

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  13. I have got to read both this and The Awakening soon! I can't believe I never have. And as they're both online, I have no excuse. Loved your review, Aarti.

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  14. Good review. I am adding it to my TBR!

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  15. The author's name is not ringing any bells, but this story sounds so familiar to me. I'm curious about this husband -- how is isolating your wife in an attic supposed to help her alleviate her sadness?

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  16. This is one of my favorite short stories - unreliable narrators can be tricky, but Gilman pulls it off beautifully here. I get shivers every time I read it.

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  17. I think this is a great choice for Women Unbound - I read it for the first time in a feminist lit class in college, and thought it was powerful. Maybe I'll have to dig out my copy and read it again.

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  18. But that's awful. To be locked away like that is the things of nightmares and even I claiming to be made of sterner stuff would not last above a month in such a room without going out my mind.
    Another brilliant review.
    You have a lovely weekend.

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  19. I just printed the story out to read. It sounds really good. Thanks for the link!

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  20. I've read this short story twice as required reading, once as a high school freshman and again as a college sophomore. As a freshman just entering high school I didn't quite get it, but am glad I read it again in college and saw so much more. I'm glad you enjoyed it and I agree it is an important work.

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  21. The Yellow Wallpaper has been recommended to me several times by a friend who is a sociologist. I haven't picked it up yet. Thank you for your terrific review.

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  22. I have heard so much about this story, but never knew what it was really about. It sounds terrifying. I followed your advice and clicked on the link and will be starting it tomorrow. Sorry to seem like such a reading stalker! I am just having such a tough time finding reads for the Women Unbound challenge that I really perked up when you mentioned this story's suitability. I liked this review very much as well, it's really cool to me how your reading of late has all dealt with different aspects of the same themes.

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  23. Thank you for this review; I'm glad to find an online version.

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  24. I'm glad I could revisit this story via your thoughtful review. I read it back in college.

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  25. great review-I just posted my review of the story a day or so ago-I linked to your review-it is great people can read this story for free on Daily.lit.com

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