The Yellow Wallpaper / A Review

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.

– Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I found this book through the Masterclass given by Carol Oates and I just went to it on Apple Books to see if I happen to have downloaded it, and then I just went to read a few pages but it hooked me; I had to read it ’til the end.

It’s astonishing how she can keep on going about the wallpaper without it beginning to bore you. I gave it a bit of thought and I concluded that it was because the wallpaper is a living thing – it starts out as ugly wallpaper, but as the weeks, months, go by, the narrator (some people argue its Jane, some say its a misprint of Jennie) starts to see that the lines in the wallpaper move and shake and then there are ‘bulbous eyes’ staring at her and then heads stuck in bars of the wallpaper who try to come out. Gilman does such a good job of describing this process. Without ever saying that ‘then she became crazy’ or ‘she knew it wasn’t real’ – the narrator (let’s call her Jane) truly believes that what she’s seeing is real, even when she starts to notice this ‘creeping woman behind the lines’. (When I read it for the first time, I had goosebumps. I imagined this grudge-like person staring at her and creeping.) It’s an unnecessary statement that Gilman is a good writer, but what she’s done in this book is beyond belief. The way she can describe Jane’s thoughts in such a believable way shows true skill.

I thought about it after and I thought what it would be like to write this story. You would have to ‘climb’ into this personage, be her, and then see and write through her eyes, and it seemed to me an unbelievably hard task. How can you imagine what someone like Jane is thinking, seeing? Then I found out (searching online) that it’s almost an autobiography; it’s inspired by the hardship of marriage and the struggles of depression she experienced in her first marriage. John, the husband in the story, starts out to ‘have the best interests for her’, by locking her up in a ‘haunted’ house, in the nursery where she’s hardly allowed to leave or do anything (?). She needs bed rest, and absolutely should she not write! As the story unfolds, you start to notice that John is not that nice at all.

How the book emphasises the struggles of marriage seeps through the prose in sentences like: “He (John) is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction” and “John laughs at me, of course, but one can expect that of marriage.” The book is being considered as a feminist, where Jane tries to be cut loose from the restrictions of marriage, and manages so, by literally breaking free from the lines/bars of the yellow wallpaper. In the end, she tears the wallpaper down, creeps around the room and shouts:

“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”

The Yellow Wallpaper
The Yellow Wallpaper

I initially interpreted that sentence as her being finally free of her mental struggle (in the book she has a nervous breakdown, but nowadays it would be considered as a postpartum depression/psychosis because she gave birth to a baby just before her lockdown). But readers interpret this also as her being liberated from her husband and ‘that she ain’t going back to his sorry ass!’ Good on her.

The Yellow Wallpaper is written as a diary without chapters, and the days melt into each other because of that. There’s no clear indication when Jane stops writing and when she begins, besides the occasional clue of passing time. I think that’s a very clever way because it adds to the tension build-up, and to the understanding of Jane’s mental problems. Besides the story being inspired by her first husband, it’s also a response to her doctor who treated her for depression by putting her on ‘rest cure’. I can imagine that anyone who has to lay in bed for a long, long time, and stare to the walls will start to see things move. I love that Gilman sends her doctor a copy.

Although Gilman’s mental issues are a thread that keeps coming back throughout her life, she’s shown a tremendous will and intelligence in her writing (and the impressive amount of pieces she’s produced). I am a fan, and I will definitely recommend this book to others. It’s given me inspiration on how to write about feelings of my main characters and how they can perceive them as true and real, even though they might not be so.

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