Anna Kelly On:
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The opening sentence is the perfect beginning for a traditional ghost story. And yet The Yellow Wallpaper is much more than this – and almost 125 years since it was published, it’s probably the work Charlotte Perkins-Gilman is most famous for, far more remembered than her many other full-length works.
The first-person narrator of the story has recently had a baby and is suffering from a mysterious illness. Her physician husband calls it ‘temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency’; post-natal depression is the diagnosis a twenty-first century reader reaches for. Her husband has taken her to a remote house for the summer, seeming to believe she’ll be cured if she does nothing but rest and eat and strictly avoid any work – especially writing. But she disobeys, in secret, and the words we are reading are her forbidden diary. The house is beautiful and she obediently tries to recover, but the room she is sleeping in is covered with a bizarrely patterned yellow wallpaper that begins to preoccupy her, disturb her and then obsess her.
Only 6,000 words, set all in one room, this claustrophobic little story explores big themes – the stifling institution of Victorian marriage, the prison of nineteenth-century gender roles, mental illness, writing and the imagination. There are tiny, terrifying details; a skilful ability to show the reader both what the narrator sees, and beyond that; and a clever, subtle development of the voice, from the strained brightness of the opening lines to the ending – which is every bit as scary as the first line seemed to promise, but a lot more thought-provoking too.