by Colleen White
Review of the short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Have you ever found yourself occupied by some grim, strange, or troubling idea and thought, “That’s crazy!”…but find yourself unable to keep from picking at it?
It wriggles and twists its way into your brain and you find your imagination poking at it like a tongue probing a loose tooth, until finally you shake it from your subconscious minutes or hours later.
But what if you couldn’t shake it loose?
Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper allows you to peer into the mind of a woman as she descends into madness, her mind constantly picking and poking and spinning around the titular yellow wallpaper that wraps around the room where she is convalescing.
For such a short story (no more than an hour’s read, and that’s if you’re really taking time to enjoy the language), it does a remarkable job getting under your skin. Perhaps it’s the way we hear the narrator slipping away from sanity, told in her own voice through a series of diary entries. Perhaps it’s the many ways we see where she could be saved (adequate medical care, engagement with former hobbies and interests, a goddamn change of scenery).
But most of all, the strength in The Yellow Wallpaper comes with the creepy, skin-crawly descriptions of, you guessed it, the wallpaper. As the narrator’s mind begins to slip, we begin to see what ought to be just ugly room decor become a sinister presence, and an entirely new character in the story.
A quick side note – it’s no wonder this has become a modern classic of feminist literature. The version I read included an entire series of essays and reviews that gave a historical context to the work and offers a fascinating insight to Gilman’s criticism of medical care and women’s changing role in late-nineteenth-century society.
The Yellow Wallpaper won’t keep you up at night, unless the idea of hideous interior design is particularly troubling, but it will give you pause when those passing dark thoughts pop into your mind. What if you didn’t have the power to control them? What if they had the power to control you?