Study Guide

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper Introduction

Word association time, y'all. What do you think of when we say the words "psychological treatment"?

If you're anything like most denizens of the 21st Century, you probably thought of counselors' offices. Prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication. Talking it out with a shrink. Equine therapy. Breathing exercises. Maybe a soothing yoga routine.

You probably didn't hear the words "psychological treatment" and think "Oooh, oooh: I know—being forced to lie in bed and do literally nothing for weeks!"

And that's because you don't live in the 1880's, a.k.a. the Dark Ages of psychological treatment.

But way back 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." (Check out the epic—and epically terrifying— "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper" for more.)

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 decades of its life, "The Yellow Wallpaper" was read as a piece of horror fiction firmly situated in the Gothic genre.  And we're not terribly shocked by this: the story is about a woman who, when given the rest cure, ends up seeing a woman crawling out of her wallpaper.

It's serious pee-your-pants (or at least reconsider-wallpapering-your-bedroom) stuff.

But 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. (She sent a copy to the physician who had recommended a rest cure, and he subsequently changed his medical practices.)

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. (Source)

And, since Women's Movement of the 1960's, "The Yellow Wallpaper" been anthologized as a piece  illustrating 19th Century attitudes towards women’s physical and mental health.

Yup: this bit of horror Lit got reclassified as something akin to realism...which, paradoxically, is an even better reason to break out in a cold sweat.

What is The Yellow Wallpaper About and Why Should I Care?

It's easy to read "The Yellow Wallpaper" and feel a little smug. After all, you're living in the 21st Century. Thing like leaving a someone alone for most of the day without any mental stimulation just doesn't happen these days, right? And if it does, it's certainly not done in someone's best interest, right?

Right?

Um, the answer is "yes" and "no." We don't package it as a "rest cure," but solitary confinement still happens at an astonishing rate.

The narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" spends a summer languishing mostly alone on a bed nailed down to the floor. And she does this on the orders of a well-meaning husband and a well-meaning doctor (who, um, happen to be the same man). Being essentially locked into a room with nothing to do was seen as the very best treatment against mental illness. And, as we see in this story, the treatment actually made its patients more unstable, not less.

And even though the "rest cure" has gone the way of the velociraptor (good riddance), there's still a cousin of the rest cure being used around the country, even today. We're talking about solitary confinement in prisons.

Like in "The Yellow Wallpaper," prison solitary confinement is supposed to be good for the inmate. It's supposed to "foster personal redemption through habits of meditation and penitence" but it ends up "irreparably harming the human psyche." (Source)

Check out the following quote from a Wired article on the psychology of solitary confinement:

For 23 hours or more per day, in what’s euphemistically called “administrative segregation” or “special housing,” prisoners are kept in bathroom-sized cells, under fluorescent lights that never shut off. Video surveillance is constant. Social contact is restricted to rare glimpses of other prisoners, encounters with guards, and brief video conferences with friends or family.

For stimulation, prisoners might have a few books; often they don’t have television, or even a radio. [...] As one Florida teenager described in a report on solitary confinement in juvenile prisoners, “The only thing left to do is go crazy.” (Source)

Sound familiar? We thought so.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is famous as a text that addresses sexism and the stigmatizing of the mentally ill. And you should certainly read it with those themes in mind—they're super-important, and the world is in dire need of gender equality and acceptance of mental illness.

But the "Yellow Wallpaper" is also famous for its gut-wrenching descriptions of the effects of being holed up and left alone and we live in a world where, as of 2016, an estimated 80,000-100,000 inmates are held in isolated confinement. (Source) That's 80,000-100,000 people who risk serious mental injury as a result of isolation, guys.

Barack Obama called solitary confinement "an affront to our common humanity," and we think, after reading "The Yellow Wallpaper," you'll definitely agree.

(We also think you'll never be able to look at wallpaper the same way again, but hey: most wallpaper is pretty hideous anyway.)

The Yellow Wallpaper Resources

Movie or TV Productions

The Yellow Wallpaper (1977)
Short film adaptation produced by Marie Ashton.

The Yellow Wallpaper (1989)
BBC mini-series directed by John Clive.

The Yellow Wallpaper (2008)
The storyline of this movie is altered and lengthened so that the narrator believes her dead daughter is the one trapped in the wallpaper.

Audios

Sample from the Audio Book
A sample from the audio book narrated by Margaret Wooster.

Images

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Photo of the author.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Another photo of the author.

Documents

"Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper"
An article written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1913.

Other

The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Society
An organization dedicated to encouraging an interest in Gilman and her work.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A great resource with biography, bibliography, other kinds of –ography, links to critical essays, etc.

Silas Weir Mitchell
A link to information on the physician who treated Gilman and helped inspire "The Yellow Wallpaper."