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Home Reviews Book Reviews Writing Lessons: Charlotte Perkins Gilmore gives a master class in horror and irony

Writing Lessons: Charlotte Perkins Gilmore gives a master class in horror and irony

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Even though I  majored in English and took several short story courses, I had never heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) until a Labor Day weekend road trip.

I caught an audio version of “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” her most famous short story, on XM’s Book Radio just outside Texarkana.

Written in 1890, the story revolves around a young woman who is obviously suffering from postpartum depression. Her physician husband, the  baby and her sister-in-law take a summer lease on a large house in the country so the new mother can recover.

The story is told solely from the woman’s point of view which is, in the beginning, cheery and full of hope, even though she must be cautious because her husband frowns on her putting her thoughts in a journal – “He hates for me to write a word.”

“It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral hall for the summer.

“A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity – but that would be asking too much of fate!

“Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.”

The husband believes there is nothing the matter with his wife, other than “temporary nervous depression.”

While the sister-in-law and baby take rooms downstairs, the narrator and her husband are secluded in an upstairs bedroom with “the worse [wall] paper ... one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. ... The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow ... lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.”

The wall-paper (as Gilman spells it) becomes the young wife’s obsession as she sinks deeper and deeper into depression.

“But there is something else about that paper – the smell! ... It creeps all over the house. I find it hovering in the dining room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs. ... It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house – to reach the smell.”

Although the story is only 19 pages long, it is at once terrifying and educational.

It’s educational because it gives the reader a glimpse into the restrictions put on women in that era.

They were thought of as fragile and prone to nervous conditions. They weren’t allowed to work or think for themselves, really. They were expected to bow to their husband’s wishes and devote themselves solely to their domestic lives. There was no outlet for their creativity and talent, save their home, husband and offspring.

Clearly, the young woman in Gilman’s story had thoughts of her own and she wanted to develop her writing skills, even though her overprotective husband discouraged her at every turn.

The young woman’s final descent into madness is as frightening as anything Stephen King has put on paper. And Gilman did it in 1890.

Irony and gothic themes almost drip from the pages of the rest of Gilman’s stories, especially in “The Unnatural Mother,” written in 1895, which details a town’s disdain for a woman who dares to live outside the lines of proper, conventional mores.

“A Surplus Woman,” written in 1916, details the devastation in England after World War I. With so many of the men dead or disabled, it fell to the women to pool their resources to bring the country back and to help widows and “surplus” (unmarried) women survive.

After reading Gilman's biography in the front of The Oxford World Classic edition, it’s clear that Gilman herself experienced periods of depression and frustration with society’s rules. She was the niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), Catherine Beecher and Isabel Beecher, “three of the most influential American reformers of the nineteenth century.”

Although she married and had a child, she chafed under the constrictions of conventional marriage and frequently left her home in the East and headed to California where she enjoyed a freer lifestyle.

She also divorced her first husband, married a distant cousin, and earned money as a writer, literary magazine editor and lecturer later in life.

After her husband died and she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, she took her own life, making her own rules until the very end.

In “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman writes a horrific tale of madness and mayhem without any special effects, save her tremendous talent.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Stories
Oxford World’s Classics. $12.95. 332 pp.
Five out of five stars




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