Tuesday, June 22, 2010

When Home is... a yellow bedroom

In 1892, a 6000 word story titled The Yellow Wallpaper was published in the New England Magazine, causing much hysteria. Charlotte Perkins Gilman had written a story so powerful that from publication it challenged the 19th century attitudes towards women’s physical and mental health, and it remains today an important early work of feminist literature.

Written in first person, the narrator and her husband are staying in a rented house for the summer. She has recently given birth and is recuperating from what her husband, a doctor, has diagnosed as a ‘temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency’, which we know today would be treated as post natal depression. He keeps her locked in an upstairs bedroom, instructing her to rest and not work, or see her baby or even think: ‘the worst thing I can do’. So, she keeps a journal in spite of him.

Here she sits and writes, in this room decorated with yellow wallpaper, ‘the colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.’ With nothing else to stimulate her, she becomes obsessed by the wallpaper and we, as readers, watch her decline towards psychosis.

Or is it psychosis? The beauty of this little book is that we are peeping into her journal and therefore we are in the hands of the most unreliable narrator. She thinks she is quite sane: ‘This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had! ... I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy store’.

But then she starts to see the swirling patterns of the wallpaper moving and realises there are women creeping around behind, ‘The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.’ And I won’t ruin the ending for you, except to say this. There are a couple of schools of thought on whether this book is a great example of Gothic literature for its illustration of powerlessness and madness, or whether it is, as many feminists read it, an example of a woman triumphing over her husband in the end. He faints, but I won’t tell you why.

I first read The Yellow Wallpaper during my early 20s when I was neither married nor a mother. It is even more heartbreaking and powerful reading it now. It is one of those books that has haunted me all these years (The Women’s Room by Marilyn French being the other) and I am yet to read anything as powerful and clever in so few words. If you get the chance to read this book, do. Afterwards I doubt you’ll ever want to sleep in a room with yellow wallpaper.

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