125 years ago, in 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published The Yellow Wallpaper in The New England Magazine.
At first it was seen as a piece of Gothic horror fiction, but since the 1960s it has firmly taken its place within the 19th century women’s movement, condemning the treatment of women’s physical and mental health at the time.
The short story was published five years after Gilman visited a specialist in the hope of finding a cure for her “severe and continuous nervousness breakdown tending to melancholia”, for lack of a better diagnosis at the time. The cure he offered was ‘the rest cure’ which consisted of isolation, no more than ‘two hours intellectual life a day’ and no painting or writing. This was the most common treatment for women’s mental illness at the time and, like many of the women it was prescribed to, Gilman was driven to the edge of ‘utter mental ruin’.
After abandoning the harmful rest cure, Gilman picked up the pen again in the hopes that she would be able to save others from what she had been through.
The Yellow Wallpaper tells the story of a woman whose husband, a doctor, has prescribed the same rest cure Gilman was a victim of. As it begins, the woman is vaguely uncomfortable with her surroundings, especially the yellow wallpaper in the room she is basically confined to. This discomfort builds to insanity throughout, as she begins to see a woman trapped in the wallpaper. This woman, she believes, must be freed, and so she tears at the wallpaper. Her husband enters the room and faints with shock as the woman announces her freedom, and continues to creep, ghoulishly, around the room she had been confined to.
Through this unnerving tale, said to inspire a touch of madness in its readers, Gilman presents the idea of what would have happened to her if she had not been able to free herself from the rest cure. Although the story was sent to, and ignored by, her physician, it saved at least one woman, whose family was so terrified by the story that they released her back into normal life. But ‘”the best result”, Gilman says, is that the “great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper“.
This story shows exactly how art can have a real effect on the world around it as by writing about her experience, albeit with some alterations for dramatic effect, Gilman was able to save many women from the fate of madness she was so near to suffering.
Check out the trailer for the most recent adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper below: