My Terrifying Introduction to Feminism and Patriarchy: The Yellow Wallpaper

“The Yellow Wallpaper” was “not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy.”
                                        -Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It turns out I was reading feminist literature much earlier than I thought. Lemme ‘splain. My mom was a huge believer in reading (thanks, Mom!), so she kept my room well-stocked with books. I had a huge set of bookshelves that took up nearly an entire wall, crammed full of various tomes. Sometimes, you’d find a fat green volume with 1000 Page Book of Stories stamped on the cover. I say sometimes, because I read that thing until it was brutally battle scarred. I forgot it ever had a dust cover. It was one of my favorite books for probably the better part of a decade.

And right now, I can only remember one story in it.

I mean, I’d probably recognize the others, if I saw their titles. I read them dozens of times. I probably have appreciable parts of them memorized, just waiting for a hint to unlock. But this one never needs a hint. I never forget this story was in it, never forget its details or atmosphere.

Because it bloody terrified me.

I’d get this feeling of dread, every time I re-read the book and came to it.

Image shows the cover for The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories on the right, and a copy of the book open to the first page of the story on the left. The cover of the book is yellow with a floral pattern, but nowhere near as terrifying as the wallpaper described.
Dover edition of The Yellow Wallpaper. Image courtesy Julie Jordan Scott (CC BY 2.0)

Thirty years later, I remember the title, and the dread that title inspired. I remember feeling thoroughly disturbed every time I read it. If you haven’t read “The Yellow Wallpaper” yourself, go read it now. Do you see why pre-teen me, 8 and 10 and 12 year old me, would be made uncomfortable by it? Why I’d sometimes skip it, even though I didn’t really like skipping stories?

And yet, I loved it. Loved that crazy-making wallpaper as much as I despised it. I loved the narrator as much as I feared her. I loved the richness of the details. I loved that she, like me, was a writer. I didn’t like the people keeping her from her writing, though I thought they meant well.

I struggled with that story. I didn’t have the knowledge or the language to comprehend it, but I contended with it. I tried to understand it. I never really did.

I hadn’t read it in almost 30 years. Then I stumbled across this A Mighty Girl post on Facebook. And now, so much of what childhood me couldn’t comprehend is dazzingly clear. Of course that poor woman was suffering postpartum psychosis, made worse by well-meaning but condescending asses like her doctor and husband. Of course that was a feminist story. Of course taking your recovery into your own hands was a revolutionary act for a woman of that time. If you remember from our discussions of a Victorian MRA, women were basically property of the men in their lives. And men not only thought they knew best, they basically had the legal right to act however they wished.

So, I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story again, now as a feminist whose mother suffered psychotic episodes, who has endured her own own struggles against depression. I went in this time knowing how society at that time viewed women. I went in with the tools to recognize problematic and abusive behavior. And I have thoughts.

Firstly: this story is still creepy as shit. In ways, it’s even creepier now that I understand what was happening to the main character, and that there wasn’t actually a woman in the wallpaper (something I’d been convinced was the case as a child).

Secondly: her husband John is a controlling, gaslighting asshole. And yeah, maybe he loved her, but he sure as fuck didn’t respect her. This is the shit women had to put up with, because society was set up to prevent most of them from surviving without a man, and to make divorce nearly impossible.

Thirdly: her brother is also a Grade-A asshole.

Fourthly: the poor woman even gaslights herself. Most of us internalize these terrible messages society sends us about ourselves. Few of us are able to break free of them.

Fifthly, nobody in this story (and in this time period, really) was set up to deal with postpartum depression and psychosis. Nobody ever thought to listen to women, who knew that enforced idleness was often making their conditions worse, and that the fucking wallpaper was exacerbating the problem. No wonder women often came across as hysterical to those dudes. I’d be pretty unstable myself if my intellect was constantly shut down and insulted.

Sixthly, the end of this story, which used to leave me cold and a bit sick with horror, still freaks me out – but that’s tempered by the wicked satisfaction I get from thinking, “Whelp. At least John probably knows there’s a real problem now.”

I’m so glad to know that Charlotte Perkins Gilman survived her own postpartum depression, and thrived, because she told the men in her life to fuck off with their nonsense. I’m glad she took up the forbidden pen and wrote powerful stories for the rest of her days. I only wish my 1000 Page Book of Stories had introduced me to this remarkable woman.

But in a way, I’m glad I got to navigate this story without knowing its whys and wherefores. I’m glad it got a chance to seriously disturb me in inexplicable ways, and thus stay with me after all the other stories have gone.

And someday, I shall pass this story down to other girls, for the strange beauty of it, and for Charlotte, and for those of us who must still fight to break free from the pretty prisons we’re placed in.

We have always fought, I will tell them. Even when almost all power was taken from us, we still found ways to reclaim our power. We have always been far stronger than they’d like us to believe.

And isn’t that a thought to make the Johns of every age faint dead away?

Image is a black and white photo of a woman standing above a crowd of women and men on a city street. A quote from Charlotte Perkins Gilman is superposed: "Here she comes, running out of prison and off the pedestal; chains off, crown off, halo off, just a live woman."

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My Terrifying Introduction to Feminism and Patriarchy: The Yellow Wallpaper

12 thoughts on “My Terrifying Introduction to Feminism and Patriarchy: The Yellow Wallpaper

  1. rq
    2

    I hadn’t read this story. Thank you for pointing me toward it. I love (am creeped out by, but love) the ambiguity as to who has been peeling the paper (initially) and who has been biting the bed (initially) and other similar ambiguities… There’s an increasing sense of dissociation throughout the story (for me). Definitely creepy.
    Yep, her husband is an asshole. Also contradicts himself (no renovations in the bedroom! we can paint the cellar instead!).
    Yep, her brother is, too.
    I am not, however, as confident that John would agree there’s a problem at the end, there. No, scratch that – he would agree, but I’m afraid the idea of his proposed treatments rather terrifies me. I don’t think he would see her condition as a fault in his own actions, but rather her inability to get herself together, and would only prescribe even less stimulus and perhaps a more controlled situation.
    Something about it reminded me of The Turn of the Screw, but I think that’s more due to tone and language than subject matter.
    Anyway. Good story. Way to creep me out. :) And a massive hat-tip to Gilman, before I forget to mention her at all. What an amazing person.

  2. 3

    Fifthly, nobody in this story (and in this time period, really) was set up to deal with postpartum depression and psychosis. Nobody ever thought to listen to women, who knew that enforced idleness was often making their conditions worse, and that the fucking wallpaper was exacerbating the problem. No wonder women often came across as hysterical to those dudes

    That’s why I don’t even see her husband and brother as assholes. They simply cannot comprehend. Their whole “scientific” (for their time) worldview lacks the possibility of dealing with her and her depression.
    To me it demonstrates again how systems of oppression don’t work by some evil white men sitting together in secluded rooms thinking about how they can make life worse for everyone who is not like them. Sure, those people actually do exist, think Wannseekonferenz or the Koch Brothers or the Wedge document, but they’d be powerless if it weren’t for the millions and millions of well intentioned Johns out there who do the actual work.
    I think her husband cares, he’s doing the best he can, and that is the actual problem: the best he can is to actively make matters worse.

  3. 5

    Yes, a lot of my students, the first time they read the story, think the woman in the wallpaper is real, and that this is sort of a ghost story. It’s much, much scarier when you realize there’s nothing supernatural going on at all.

    Except…

    There are several clues in the story that there’s something creepy about the room. She thinks it was a gymnasium for children — bars on the window, rings on the walls, the bed bolted to the floor, and of course that scratched-up wallpaper.

    But if you’re familiar with the “madwoman in the attic,” trope, it all suddenly makes a lot more sense. The narrator isn’t the first woman who’s been confined in this room. Since the Victorian solution to mental illness among the upper and middle classes was “lock her up and drop in a tray of food once a day” a la Mrs. Rochester, this was a very real possibility. It’s also possible, or probable, that what she’s seeing here is her own future — she’ll be confined with and by the wallpaper for the rest of her life.

    Oh, the story is also a great way to teach what we mean when we talk about “style.” Pick a random sentence from the first page of the story, and a random sentence from the last page, and it’s very, very clear how the mental state has changed, just based on things like sentence length and word choice.

    Anyway, the greatest thing about Gilman is that, after the doctor who treated her read this story, he changed his recommendations for similar patients.

  4. 6

    @3:

    That’s why I don’t even see her husband and brother as assholes. They simply cannot comprehend. Their whole “scientific” (for their time) worldview lacks the possibility of dealing with her and her depression.

    Their lack of comprehension is premised upon the fallacy that men and women think fundamentally differently. They would never prescribe this “treatment” to a man.

    It’s easy to say “avoid all excitement and activity” — unless you actually try to imagine the mind-crushing boredom of such a life. The only person who could make such a recommendation would be someone who is empathy-challenged — which is pretty much the definition of what fuels misogyny (hate that which is the Other, rather than empathize which that which is the Same). The great power of literature is that it creates empathy in the empathy-challenged — until we invent the mind-transfer beam, it’s the closest we can get to living in someone else’s skin.

  5. 8

    Of course it is! That’s what I’m trying to say. They are not evil, they did not set out to oppress her, to drive her mad. They cannot comprehend her. Nothing in their lives has taught them to view her as a creature similar to themselves. They cannot have empathy with her because she is not the Same. You need common ground for empathy.
    Their cruelty was not the effect of their malice but of their care.

  6. AMM
    9

    Their cruelty was not the effect of their malice but of their care.

    FSM save me from that kind of “care.” I had enough of it while I was growing up.

    How is this different in kind from the priests in the Middle Ages who tortured heretics to death to save their souls? Or the parents today who subject their children to “conversion therapy” to save them from gayness or transness?

    The woman in this story was clearly getting worse as a result of their treatment, just as I was clearly getting worse as a result of the “education” I was getting at the private school my parents sent me to, yet in both cases, those “loving, caring” people (in the story, the woman’s husband and brother; in my case, my parents and the school) chose to ignore the evidence of their eyes in order to avoid challenging their comfortable beliefs.

    I forgive none of them. At some point, people have to take responsibility for their failure to see through the lies they have been taught.

    (On the bright side, my experiences growing up meant that when I could see that the advice of “experts” was harming my children, I had no trouble telling them where they could stuff their “expertise.”)

  7. 10

    I forgive none of them. At some point, people have to take responsibility for their failure to see through the lies they have been taught.

    And you don’t have to. You’re talking to somebody who was the victim of physical and emotional child abuse by a loving mother. I understand why she did it*. I believe that she always loved me and thought what she was doing was genuinely in my best interest. Doesn’t change the harm she caused and I don’t forgive her either.
    My observation is not about the individual interactions but about systems of oppression. To understand and dismantle them it’s important to understand that they usually are not maintained by people who are consciously cruel and evil but by regular people and that every one of us could be one of them (and is and has been one of them).
    It’s the phenomenon where a person of colour points out that “yo, this is racist” and the person who said/did the thing gets huffy and puffy because they believe that only horrible people who occasionally wear bedsheets commit racism and not ordinary white people who don’t consciously hold any ill will against people of colour.

    *I probably understand it better than she does, because she could never shed the cultural beliefs about mental health she was raised with and therefore never sought mental healthcare. Now she’s finally in Rehab, but on the way she destroyed so much of her brain I doubt she is still able to understand what happened.

  8. 12

    I did not know this was a book. I heard it on the radio very late at night while driving home. I stayed in the car for some time upon arrival to hear it to the end.

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