The Yellow Wallpaper

This study guide will help you analyse the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. You can also find a summary of the text, as well as inspiration for interpreting it.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was an American writer of fiction and non-fiction. She was one of the most important feminist theoreticians and writers of her time. Her personal and professional life attracted a lot of criticism during her lifetime. One of her most notable non-fiction works is the book Women and Economics where she suggested women should be allowed to work.  “The Yellow Wallpaper” is Gilman's best-known fiction work, and it contains biographical elements, as she used to suffer from post-partum depression.

Below, you can read an excerpt: 

Social setting

The story is set in 19th century society focusing on aspects related to gender roles and the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders.

At that time, it was commonly considered that women were weaker than men, which in turn led to women having very little freedom of choice. They had no right to vote and working was rarely an option. They were expected to marry and tend to domestic life and their husbands and children.

The narrator in the story illustrates such a situation. Having given birth recently, she is most likely suffering from post-partum depression. However, her husband diagnoses her with depression linked to hysteria.  At that time, hysteria was generally thought to be unique to women, and its analysis and treatment were therefore strongly gendered. Hysteria was thought to show the inherent weakness of the female mind and body.

The husband’s attitude is representative of the typical patriarchal attitudes of men during that time. He probably does care for his wife and loves her, but because he considers her the weaker sex, he treats her as such. Being a physician, he presumes to know what’s wrong with his wife and the right treatment for her,the rest cure, even if he does not listen to her.

The rest cure refers to a concept created by S. Weir Mitchell, an American specialist in nerve disorders. The “rest cure” became a typical form of treatment for hysteria and nervous breakdowns in women. This is why the narrator is not allowed to write or to make any effort, and having an imaginative mind was seen as something dangerous for her. The short story is clearly critical of the concept. Charlotte Perkins Gilman believed that subjecting a depressed woman to isolation and retreat can bring nothing good. She believed such a woman does not need to rest and be secluded; she needs to occupy her mind and be active to overcome her state.

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The Yellow Wallpaper

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