Thursday, 5 November 2009

Review: The Yellow Wallpaper

"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Category: Short Story

Synopsis: A nameless narrator tells of a summer in a big house in the country where her physician husband has taken her on doctors orders in order for her nerves to get better (she is suffering from what we now know to be postpartum depression). The doctor has forbidden her (according with the thinking of the day) to have any form of mental stimulation, including writing. However, she manages to write in a journal and it is through this journal we, the readers, get to follow her journey into madness.

My Thoughts: I skim-read this short story for my survey course last semester and really wanted to get back to it and read it properly. Having my seniors read it for their unit on poetry and texts seemed like a perfect time to do it. Then when the Women Unbound challenge was announced it seemed perfectly providential.

I liked this story because it touches on something that is close to my heart, women's mental health. The story was written at the turn of the last century and it shows the vulnerability of women in a society that already saw them as weak and then compounded the problem by not acknowledging mental illness. Actually, they saw mental illness as something that could be overcome by not doing anything. And as can be seen by this story, this had dire consequences.

Through the journal we get to follow the decent from a relatively mild form of postpartum depression into a raging psychosis. By infantilizing his wife the husband and the doctors in the story isolate and compound the problem. By cutting off access to almost all of her friends and relatives the woman is left to ponder the pattern on the decaying wallpaper in the prison like nursery that her husband has designated as her room.

I found this to be a fascinating story of the decent into mental illness and a powerful commentary on the time when it was written as well as giving an insight into the life of the author herself.  A quick but powerful read I recommend to anyone!

My Students Thoughts: My seniors (who have studied English as a second language for nine years now) just read this short story. On the whole they found the story strange but they liked the language. They found the descriptions of the wallpaper fascinating. The great variety in adjectives used was a source of enjoyment and fascination. I think they found it strange because of the way the madness was described. Once we looked at the time when it was written and the themes in it they found it fascinating and relevant. I was quite pleased with their response to this story, although they questioned if it could really be a short story (it is about 10 pages when printed). They felt it was a bit on the long side :D

I got my copy from Project Gutenberg.


Aarti said...

I just recently cataloged this book for a used bookstore and took some time to rifle through the pages first. It was really chilling to read, and I think the tone about mental illness was conveyed really well. It was sad.

An excellent choice for the Unbound challenge- I'll see if the book is still there :-)

hmsgofita said...

What a fascinating story. I've never heard of this before. I must read it now.

Care said...

I had no idea this was going to be SHORT. Thank you for the link! I had not heard of it before this challenge and I'm so glad to be made aware of it. (I just received Herland in the mail from bookmooch, too)

Notorious Spinks said...

I read this book in a college English literature class about a year ago. I absolutely loved the story but it made me think about all the people that still try to ignore mental diseases. It is real and people should take time to deal with it accordingly. I remember I used to hear the elders in my church that God for keeping them in their "right" mind. Now I see what they were really thanking God for.