Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Kindle)



Months ago I downloaded "The Yellow Wallpaper" on my Kindle at the suggestion of Nymeth @ Things Mean Alot. It sounded creepy and gothic, and is often mentioned in the same breath as "Affinity" by Sarah Waters. What more do I need to hear? (Honestly, I have considered having a reading challenge one of these years, where I read everything Nymeth reads. She has amazing, eclectic taste and I trust her implicitly!) So I was stuck somewhere recently without a book, and decided that was a perfect time to pull up this short story on my phone.

Synopsis: First published in 1892 in The New England Magazine, we meet a young woman via her first-person journal. She has been diagnosed by her doctor husband as having a "temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency", and has been confined to a room at a country rental estate over the summer to rest. Her husband believes that any use of creativity aggravates her condition, so she must sneak to write in her journal.

What begins with a mild annoyance with the ugly yellow wallpaper in her room turns into a descent into total madness. She imagines she sees a woman creeping around behind the pattern of the wallpaper trying to escape, and soon enough, the woman is not only in the wallpaper, but outside in the bushes. She begins to tear at the wallpaper, trying to break the woman free.

While the story is very short, it effectively addresses some serious issues, such as the treatment of women in the late 1800's - their oppression, the minimizing and mistreatment of their emotional issues, and their inability to help themselves. The journal entries also deftly record, first-hand, the deterioration of the mind.

My thoughts: Ah, the delicious fun of an unreliable narrator! And this one has such a personality. The protagonist is an innocent, and is compelled to trust her husband's judgement. Still, she is curious, and has a mind of her own underneath all that smoke her husband is blowing up her butt. I found myself being both tickled at her moxie, and frustrated at her lack of proper medical care for a condition I suspect was a form of post-partum depression. As the story progressed, my smirk over the protagonist's antics slowly morphed into a realization that deep down inside, our narrator was desperately sad, and a sick feeling that things were not going to end happily for this woman.

Adding another layer to this story is the history of the author. Apparently, she was inspired to write this story after her personal experience with mental illness. She was assigned a rest cure for her issues, but ultimately rebelled against the diagnosis and her own confinement. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, you rock girl.

For a thoroughly entertaining, but ultimately disturbing and unsettling hour or two of reading, you should definitely give this one your consideration. I doubt it will be one you will soon forget.

4.5 out of 5 stars


27 comments:

irisonbooks said...

Every one loves this and everyone tells me to read it, so I guess I had better do so :)

Nymeth said...

She does rock! So glad you loved it, Sandy :)

farmlanebooks said...

I'm afraid I wasn't a big fan of this one - I think I just have a problem with the writing in books that are 100+ years old. She just came across as overly melodramatic and I found it funny rather than scary. I know I'm in the tiny minority with this one so I'll just creep into the corner and watch as everyone else proclaims their love for it. :-)

JoAnn said...

Time to pull this out for a reread...

Molly said...

I have seen this in several anthologies but have yet to read it myself. You have now convinced me :)

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I remember thinking this story was so great when I read it years ago. Just made of awesome. I have to pull it out for a re-read.

bermudaonion said...

I agree with you about Nymeth's blog - I want to read just about every book she reviews. This book sounds really interesting. I'm not sure they did much for mental illness in the 1800s besides lock people up.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I'm afraid I'll get too mad by reading this!

Book Bird Dog said...

Fascinating story! Here's a novel about mental illness in a crime setting: my book review and giveaway: Delirious

Zibilee said...

I also downloaded this one after reading Nymeth's review of it. I am fascinated by mental illness in literature and do really need to read this one soon. Since it's a short story, it shouldn't eat up too much time, and the truth of the matter is the more I read about this tale, the more I am intrigued by it. Great review, Sandy. I am glad you enjoyed it and I hope I do too!

Frances said...

It is unforgettable. Gets under your skin as you feel her captive in not just in a room but in her own mind. Claustrophobic.

Julie P. said...

Wow -- this is one that I never even heard of. Thanks for sharing.

I kind of feel the same way about you as you do Nymeth!

Amy said...

I remeber reading this story in high school and college and loving it. It's been too long and I really should read it again. It's an amazing story, entertaining and disturbing!

heidenkind said...

Sounds pretty dang awesome! Who can blame anyone for going mad after staring at yellow wallpaper?

caite said...

I am the lone blogger who has not read Waters yet...

Melody said...

I love reading about unreliable narrators! I've this book in my pile so I look forward to it.

Jenners said...

Believe it or not, I actually performed bits of this story as a monologue in high school drama. (Very badly I might add. Very very badly.) I really should read it again as I'm sure the whole plot was lost on me at the time.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I am with you on the challenge - let's read what Nymeth reads! I love that - she does have such diverse reading tastes and I'm always intrigued as to what she posts next. This is one that I've also got on my TBR list - I'm also a fan of creepy and Gothic. Madness? Why not!

Literary Feline said...

Nymeth does have good taste, I agree. :-) I read this many years ago as part of a Women's Literature course I took in college. I only remember a handful of titles we read that year and this is one of them. Thank you for reminding me of this great story, Sandy.

Bybee said...

I remember reading this in Women in Literature class. We all swore that we'd never, ever marry. lol

Beth F said...

It's been years since I read this but I know I loved it. And that Ana ... she adds to my wish list constantly.

Danette said...

Sandy, you've sparked my interest with this! I love unreliable narrators, too. Speaking of descents into madness (and here would be a great place to write something funny, but) have you seen that old B&W movie called Snake Pit? They also did a good job of capturing women, depression, and the very cavalier treatment of female patients.

In other news, AI tonight! I will cast no stones, neither will I praise in advance--I want to see what will happen. Definitely feels like the second string is playing now, even though I think Steven Tyler is a card. Did you ever see Aerosmith on that SNL skit for Wayne's World, too funny.

The news people trying to stick Tyler with and uber cool name like JLo has--calling him S Ty. But I don't think he wants to be a sty. And you can't go with SteeT, cuz it sounds like TseTse. I'm thinking his actual name is the way to go.

Will you be watching? I'll def be recording so I can FF as needed!

Lenore said...

I love the idea of a Nymeth reading challenge!

Melissa M said...

I love that this is a short story. I'm only about halfway through my first book of the year, and need something to jump start my reading. This might be it! And I love an unreliable narrator too!

Anna said...

I read this in college many years ago. I think it's time for a re-read, as I don't really remember much about it other than the basics.

Trisha said...

I teach this one as the first story of every Intro to Lit class, and it always goes over well. They enjoy researching the various cures for female "nervous disorders" since some of them are so dirty. ;) And creepy always goes over well with students.

Kathleen said...

Nymeth has never steered me wrong either!