The Lesser Known Life Behind’The Yellow Wallpaper’
Charlotte Perkins Gilman Wasn't Known for Fiction During Her Lifetime
“The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.”
“There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.”
“But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.”
No other wallpaper, fictional or factual, has ever gotten quite so much attention as the titular wall covering in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”.
Thanks to its ubiquity on high school and college syllabi, “The Yellow Wallpaper” has a readership that’s surely hundreds of thousands, if not millions, strong. These readers might even know that Gilman’s own near-catastrophic experience with the “rest cure” under physician Silas Weir Mitchell inspired her to write the story. But it’s far less common to teach Gilman’s extensive nonfiction writing, and accordingly, most readers only know the story of one story. In her day Gilman was far better known as a lecturer than a fiction writer. She faded from public consciousness after her death. When the 1960s and 1970s saw more attention paid to Gilman’s work, feminists shaped her rediscovered canon, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” “acquired a cult status as an early feminist manifesto.”
Fiction and nonfiction both have the power to inform, to move, to stir. So why does “The Yellow Wallpaper” endure in a way that Gilman’s first-hand accounts on the same subject matter have not?
Is it because the short story itself is so clear, so simple? Narrator gets terrible advice from her physician husband and brother on how to manage her depression; follows it; loses her grip on sanity. It’s an easy text to teach, and students everywhere can quickly grasp how the narrator’s voice shifts from breezy wit to fully unhinged psychosis, from “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer” to “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”
Gilman herself was rather more complex. After the postpartum psychosis and resultant institutionalization that inspired “The Yellow Wallpaper,” she separated from her husband—nearly unheard-of in 1888—and supported herself and her daughter as a single mother with her writing. She moved to California and lived with fellow writer Adeline Knapp, almost certainly as lovers. A few years later, she both divorced her husband and sent her daughter to live with him and his new wife. In 1900, she married her first cousin. Thirty-five years later, after a terminal breast cancer diagnosis, she intentionally took a fatal dose of chloroform to end her life. She had long been an advocate for euthanasia, and in this case, practiced what she preached.
Taken together, her choices form a clear picture of a woman ahead of her time. Except that in other ways, she was all too typical of white feminists of her day. She accused non-white immigrants of “diluting” the racial purity of America and advocated for a government-run, slavery-adjacent system of forced labor, which she called “enlistment,” for black Americans.
In her day it was her progressive attitudes that might have made potential readers uncomfortable; today, it’s her regressive ones that give us pause.
I ran across the broader, more complex reality of Gilman and her writing almost by accident. While researching first-hand accounts of women institutionalized in insane asylums and sanatoriums in 19th-century America for my novel Woman 99, I dove deep into Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945. Gilman’s account is among those collected. Yet the readership for these accounts, powerful as they may be, certainly pales in comparison to that of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Fiction has the power to change minds. Does it also, by filtering facts through the lens of a created narrative, make unpleasant truths more palatable? Books like Ellen Marie Wiseman’s What She Left Behind and The Address by Fiona Davis draw from the harsh realities of how women were treated in 19th-century asylums, but set these stories in a larger fictional context with a clear, closed arc. It’s possible that many readers will pick up a fictional account more readily, that “something bad happened” is easier to handle than “something bad happened to me.”
As a fiction writer, I appreciate and embrace the ways that fiction blends education and entertainment. Historical novelists are time-travelers, magicians, magpies. Both fiction and nonfiction rise and fall on the selection of telling detail; fiction writers have a lot more freedom in where those details come from and how they fit together to form a cohesive, satisfying narrative.
But there is an authenticity to first-hand accounts that resonates with modern readers, and powerful nonfiction accounts are also on the rise. Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire and Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy were New York Times bestsellers, reaching readers with first-hand insight on the experience of diagnosis, treatment, and living with mental illness. Just last month, Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias joined their ranks, debuting on the NYT list at #3. As we honor the right of too-often silenced voices to be heard, and work to destigmatize mental illness, these accounts make particularly powerful tools for empathy.
So why fiction for Charlotte Perkins Gilman? In a 1913 issue of The Forerunner, she recounted that after going back to work following her institutionalization, she was “naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape,” writing a story about the experience and “sen[ding] a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad.” Though Mitchell did not reply to her directly, she heard through the grapevine that “the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading “’The Yellow Wallpaper.’”
She wrote it to change one man’s mind. She succeeded.
“It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy,” said Gilman, “and it worked.”