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What is "the Yellow Wallpaper"?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated May 23, 2024
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"The Yellow Wallpaper" is a famous short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892. Today, it is often taught in high school and college courses as an early example of feminist literature. The story is seen as a critique of the notion of women's "hysteria" and of medical practices of the time.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is narrated by a female speaker who has been confined to a bed after the birth of her child, due to her supposed "temporary nervous depression." Her doctor claims that, to return to health, she must lie in bed for weeks at a time, with no mental or physical stimulation of any sort. All she has to look at is the yellow wallpaper in the room.

The story consists of a series of journal entries, in which the speaker meditates on her situation, and soon begins to obsess over the yellow wallpaper. As the story continues, her journal entries become stranger and stranger, until she begins to describe a woman inside the wallpaper print, trapped inside the wall. At the conclusion of "The Yellow Wallpaper," the speaker believes that she herself has escaped from the wallpaper, and no longer remembers who she is; in the story's final scene, her husband passes out on the floor, and she steps over his prone body to continue pacing through the room.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" was based on the personal experiences of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who suffered from a severe nervous breakdown and depression. Her doctor's advice was a "rest cure," in which she should never again touch a pen, pencil, or paintbrush, forbidden from all academic or creative pursuits. Gilman followed the doctor's advice for three months, but realized that the treatment was causing her even more psychological pain. After giving up the treatment, she wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper." She sent a copy of the story to her doctor, but he never responded.

Gilman has written that "The Yellow Wallpaper" was "not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked." Many years later, she discovered that her doctor had stopped prescribing bed rest as a treatment for women, as did many others. Today, Gilman's story is seen as a manifesto, both for women and for the mentally ill.

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Discussion Comments
By sherlock87 — On Jan 14, 2011

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, like many women writers in the early 20th century, was unfortunately very disturbed. She was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer in her 70s and "chose chloroform over cancer"; in other words, she committed suicide.

While she was ahead of her time in her approval of assisted suicide, and likely would have had a painful end otherwise, I find her ending sad because it shows that she spent both the earlier part of her life, before writing "The Yellow Wallpaper", and also her later years, suffering from pain and difficulties.

By mitchell14 — On Jan 13, 2011

I first read this story in high school, and it was very disturbing for me. We also watched a movie version, and in that The Yellow Wallpaper setting was even creepier. She had many visions of an actual woman, even more so than in the story, and it seemed more like a horror film than anything.

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