In 1887, Charlotte Perkins Gilman went to see a specialist in the hope of curing her recurring nervous breakdowns. The specialist recommended a "rest cure," which consisted of lying in bed all day and engaging in intellectual activity for only two hours a day. After three months, Gilman says, she was "near the borderline of utter mental ruin." (See "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper")
In due time, Gilman disregarded the specialist’s advice and wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" to demonstrate the kind of madness produced by the popular "rest cure." It was published in 1891 in New England Magazine . For the first decade of its life, "The Yellow Wallpaper" was read as a piece of horror fiction firmly situated in the Gothic genre. Since the 1960s, however, it has been anthologized as a piece of the women’s movement illustrating 19th century attitudes towards women’s physical and mental health. (See our discussion of "Genre" for more on this.) According to Gilman, the short story was never intended as a Gothic horror, but rather as a cautionary tale about what supposed "rest cures" could do to the mental stability of patients. In her own words, Gilman wrote: "It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked." She sent a copy to the physician who had recommended a rest cure, and he subsequently changed his medical practices.
Remember how, when you were a kid and you were being maybe a little obnoxious and your parents sent you to your room or gave you a timeout? Remember when you had to sit still or stay inside, when all your friends were playing and you weren't allowed to join them, the time seemed to streeeetch on forever? Maybe your mind started to waver and wander, and perhaps you started to imagine, we don't know – something along the lines of the wallpaper in your room coming alive? There's a reason people in movies freak out in solitary confinement: having nothing to do for hours on end makes you a little nuts.
The thing is, Charlotte Perkins Gilman is counting on the fact that you, the reader, have at some time in your life been sent to bed without supper or been stuck inside when you wanted to go out. She's counting on the fact that you know something about claustrophobia or resentment so that you can sympathize with the narrator of this short story in her slow trajectory towards madness.
Gilman doesn't want to create some clinical study of insanity here; she wants you to feel every crawling inch of craziness. She knows you've got an imagination, that you can guess, from your experiences of a couple of hours of tedium, what a whole summer of solitary confinement would be like – and we're gambling that she's right. It's tough to read this story without wondering if, under similar circumstances circumstances, you yourself might start crawling out of the yellow wallpaper.
Maybe the specific injustices Gilman fights in this story – issues like men's excessive power over their wives and doctors' excessive power over their patients – seem like they belong more to the 1890s than to the current millennium. But we still read "The Yellow Wallpaper" even so, because the story's language is powerful enough to reach out of the page and make you feel like maybe you're cracking up. Gilman relies on the reader's own enduring (and often ugly) human feelings to give you a deeply disturbing snapshot of what you might be like after something as simple as a summer inside – and that snapshot is no pretty picture.