The other day a friend and I were discussing literature. I was recalling works I had read in college that truly impacted me, and I mentioned a short story I read at CU that I have never been able to shake. So, last night before bed I dug out The Heath Introduction to Literature I purchased in 1987, and I reread that story to see if it still would affect me the way it had when I was 19.
The Yellow Wallpaper was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1890. It’s a first person narrative about a woman who is, under the advice of her physician husband, taking a long “rest” at a country home to cure her “temporary nervous depression” and “slight hysterical tendency.” At this estate, her husband keeps her in a room on the second floor that was once a nursery, which makes perfect sense considering the way he infantilizes her, referring to her as if she’s not even in the room and calling her “little girl.” The room has bars on the windows (also quite telling) and an obnoxious, intricately patterned, decaying yellow wallpaper. Writing is her only solace, but her husband discourages it completely. And so, kept from her writing and from conversation with other adults, to occupy her mind the woman starts obsessing over the only detailed thing in her room, the wallpaper. She follows its patterns and tries to make sense of them. With each written entry we see that her mental state is declining rather than improving. I won’t tell you any further details because I don’t want to ruin the story for you. I think every woman should read it at least once in her life.
As I recall, in college I was appalled by the way this clearly intelligent, thinking woman was forced into a treatment she didn’t want because her husband felt it was the best thing for her. I was sickened that she had no say in her own life. For heaven’s sake, we never even learn her name. She’s nearly a non-entity. The protagonist plainly needs mental stimulation, and yet she is denied the very thing that would most likely improve her state. This story stuck with me for decades because the young feminist in me railed against the injustice of this woman’s situation. It was something I swore would never happen to me. I would never allow another person to relieve me of my right to choose for myself. I would never become someone’s property.
Fast forward twenty years and now, reading this after being an indentured servant to two short bosses for nine years, I have a different reaction to this story. I can actually relate to her. I am able envision her mental breakdown. I can understand where it is coming from. She is postpartum and feeling lost. She is bored to frustration by limited interaction with other adults. She fixates on the minute details of something completely insignificant just to occupy her mind. She is trapped and powerless to change her circumstances. It sounds a lot like my life a few years ago. Honestly, it frightens me how much I can empathize with this woman’s downward spiral into madness. I too gave up writing, probably when I most needed it. I hate to admit it, but there was a time in my life when I could easily have become the woman in the room with the yellow wallpaper.
As it turns out, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, also imagined she would become the woman in the yellow wallpaper. Her short story was a response to “rest cure” time she was advised by a well-known physician to take when severe postpartum depression hit her after the birth of her daughter. After an unsuccessful rest stint in a sanitarium, Gilman realized that not writing was causing more harm than good. She left her husband, moved to across country, started writing again, and her mental health improved. When The Yellow Wallpaper was published, she sent a copy of it to her doctor. He didn’t comment, but she later found out that he stopped prescribing rest cures for other people with similar symptoms. Fine vindication, indeed.
And so like Gilman, spurred on by my unwillingness to lose my voice (or my mind), I adventure forth and I write again. Each adventure brings me strength and peace. And, with each day that I spin words onto the world wide web, I find another part of myself that was not long ago tucked away and forgotten. If I spiral out of control and you don’t hear from me for a while, please make sure I am not confined to a room with yellow wallpaper. I am absolutely certain I would get lost in it as well.