Book/Author and Year Published: “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) and “Turned” (1911) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Age/Genre: Adult Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment: These stories are pretty short – great for a commute or reading in a waiting room.
Reading Accoutrements: I really enjoyed a glass of wine with these stories – it helped me not rage quite as hard.
Content Notes: Sexism, Ableism
I’ve been seeing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s name and books on a lot of lists lately, and I know a few people who have read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” so I decided it was time to check her out. I found an ebook called The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories for less than a dollar on Kindle (yay old books!). Unfortunately, there were no other stories. It was just “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which is about a thirty minute read. I enjoyed it a lot, but I wanted to review more than just one of Gilman’s short stories.
As I was lamenting to my husband about this, he said he was pretty sure there’s a section on Gilman in one of his Norton Anthologies (American Literature, Seventh edition, volume C for those who are curious) from college. Sure enough, there was! Not only that, but this version of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is formatted much better than the cheap ebook I bought, separating sections from each other, and including some useful annotations. The Norton Anthology also has a couple of Gilman’s poems, as well as “Turned,” another short story which I will be reviewing here.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” follows a woman who has just had a baby and is staying in a country home with her family in order to recover from “nervousness.” Her husband, John, a well-respected doctor, is sure that she is perfectly healthy, she just needs rest, and not to dwell on her mental health. She spends the summer in a room with hideous yellow wallpaper, the pattern of which she becomes obsessed with.
This story is definitely worth reading, and I don’t want to go too far into it, because I really believe you should read it yourself. However, there is a ton to talk about in this piece. For one, it’s clearly laid out that John ignores his wife’s concerns and minimizes them because of her gender. We see things from her point of view, which is necessarily limited, but it makes me wonder why he spends so much time away from home.
Besides gender dynamics, the other main message of this story concerns mental health. In the Norton Anthology, there is a short letter from Gilman about why she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.” She was recommended to one of the physicians she briefly calls out in her story, and his prescription of rest, work avoidance, and avoiding intellectual pursuits nearly drove her mad. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the character becomes more and more obsessed with the wallpaper, hallucinating women in the walls, trapped by the paper. Since she is discouraged from writing, from keeping company, and pretty much all activities, all she has to focus on is the pattern on the walls. When she tries to bring up her mental health to her husband, he immediately shuts her down and says that talking or dwelling on it will make it worse. To him, and prominent doctors of the day, if there was no physical reason for an ailment, then there was no real problem, and it was all in the patient’s head.
We’ve come a long way since 1892, but I still think “The Yellow Wallpaper” has vital messages about mental health treatment. If you experience depression and anxiety, trying to ignore it won’t help. There are a lot of tools out there to help cope with mental stress, both behavioral and medicinal. The main character in “The Yellow Wallpaper” at first doubts her husband’s convictions, but in the end goes with them because she doubts herself more; she wants to be a good wife, and she doesn’t really have a lot of options outside of listening to her husband. Also, the fact that this is taking place after she’s given birth makes a strong case that she is experiencing postpartum depression, which didn’t have a name yet, but has been documented since Ancient Greece.
“Turned” is super short, so I will not be discussing a lot of its plot, but it starts out with two women in the same home, crying on their respective beds. In this piece, we see how women are pitted against each other by men without their best interests in mind. We also get a clear example of how people can discern the real source of strife and address it instead of lashing out at the most convenient target. I feel like this is a great analogy for politics. A lot of political discourse focuses on turning people against each other for problems created by a more privileged group of people. In “Turned,” we see a man react to facing the consequences of his actions, primarily with deflection and defensiveness. This is a super clear picture of how people convince themselves they’ve done nothing wrong, and I think it is a useful read for anyone who wants to encourage introspection in themselves.
I’ve been really interested in feminist literature from the past recently, mainly because I’ve been reading a lot of newer feminist literature, and it’s nice to see how the subject has evolved. The messages of both “Turned” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” are very applicable to people today, and while that can be discouraging because the messages are still necessary, it also shows that human rights aren’t a passing fad. I’ve seen a lot of dismissive criticism of both fiction and nonfiction feminist writers today: calling them whiners, saying they’re inventing problems, etc. But Gilman received similar critiques, with some critics purposefully misconstruing “The Yellow Wallpaper” as encouraging mental anguish rather than showing how harmful the recommended treatment of the time was. Her work held up, and her ideas are reflected in the medical field today. Of course, there is still a lot of social stigma around mental health, which is why I think the piece is still so important. Seeing the progress that has been made and analyzing what still must be done renewed some of my convictions and gave me a useful lens to view modern feminist works.
So, read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” read “Turned,” and check out more of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s work, because I know I will be. Herland from 1915 is next on my list (also a cheap e-book): a utopian novel about a land where there are only women. Of course, men discover this land, and the reader gets to see a variety of sexist views illustrated and challenged. I’m super excited to read this one, and will be reviewing it in the future.
What’s a book from over one hundred years ago that you feel is still relevant today? Let us know in the comments!