Charlotte Gilman's stylistic short story is an important early American feminist text, illustrating patriarchal attitudes in the early 20th century toward women's health, both physical and mental.
This 125th Anniversary edition of The Yellow Wallpaper includes the essay Woman Suffrage by Emma Goldman first published in 1910.
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About the Author
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an American sociologist, writer, lecturer, and social reformist. As a child, Gilman was often in the presence of her father’s relatives, notably Isabella Beecher Hooker, a well-known suffragist, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Many of Gilman’s own works reflect similarly feminist and social reformist perspectives, and in 1909 she established The Forerunner, a magazine that acted as a forum for discussion of these issues. Gilman’s most famous work is “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a semi-autobiographical short story written in response to being put on “rest cure” by a doctor to cure her depression. Gilman’s works also include the poetry collection In This Our World, and the feminist texts Women and Economics and The Home: Its Work and Influence. She died in 1935.
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The Yellow Wallpaper
It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.
A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity – but that would be asking too much of fate!
Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.
Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?
John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.
John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.
John is a physician, and perhaps – (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind) – perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see, he does not believe I am sick!
And what can one do?
If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?
My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.
So I take phosphates or phosphites – whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to 'work' until I am well again.
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?
I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal – having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.
I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus – but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.
So I will let it alone and talk about the house.
The most beautiful place! It is quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people.
There is a delicious garden! I never saw such a garden – large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them.
There were greenhouses, too, but they are all broken now.
There was some legal trouble, I believe, something about the heirs and co-heirs; anyhow, the place has been empty for years.
That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid; but I don't care – there is something strange about the house – I can feel it.
I even said so to John one moonlight evening, but he said what I felt was a draught, and shut the window.
I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition.
But John says if I feel so I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself, – before him, at least, – and that makes me very tired.
I don't like our room a bit. I wanted one downstairs that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings! but John would not hear of it.
He said there was only one window and not room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another.
He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.
I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.
He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get. 'Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear,' said he, 'and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time.' So we took the nursery, at the top of the house.
It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playground and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.
The paint and paper look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off – the paper – in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.
One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.
The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering, unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.
There comes John, and I must put this away, – he hates to have me write a word.
We have been here two weeks, and I haven't felt like writing before, since that first day.
I am sitting by the window now, up in this atrocious nursery, and there is nothing to hinder my writing as much as I please, save lack of strength.
John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious.
I am glad my case is not serious!
But these nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing.
John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.
Of course it is only nervousness. It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way!
I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!
Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able – to dress and entertain, and order things.
It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby!
And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous.
I suppose John never was nervous in his life. He laughs at me so about this wallpaper!
At first he meant to repaper the room, but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies.
He said that after the wallpaper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on.
'You know the place is doing you good,' he said, 'and really, dear, I don't care to renovate the house just for a three months' rental.'
'Then do let us go downstairs,' I said, 'there are such pretty rooms there.'
Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down cellar if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain.
But he is right enough about the beds and windows and things.
It is as airy and comfortable a room as any one need wish, and, of course, I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim.
I'm really getting quite fond of the big room, all but that horrid paper.
Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deep-shaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees.
Out of another I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf belonging to the estate. There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house. I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.
I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.
But I find I get pretty tired when I try.
It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work. When I get really well John says we will ask Cousin Henry and Julia down for a long visit; but he says he would as soon put fire-works in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now.
I wish I could get well faster.
But I must not think about that. This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!
There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside-down.
I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere. There is one place where two breadths didn't match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other.
I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store.
I remember what a kindly wink the knobs of our big old bureau used to have, and there was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend.
I used to feel that if any of the other things looked too fierce I could always hop into that chair and be safe.
The furniture in this room is no worse than inharmonious, however, for we had to bring it all from downstairs. I suppose when this was used as a playroom they had to take the nursery things out, and no wonder! I never saw such ravages as the children have made here.
The wallpaper, as I said before, is torn off in spots, and it sticketh closer than a brother – they must have had perseverance as well as hatred.
Then the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there, and this great heavy bed, which is all we found in the room, looks as if it had been through the wars.
But I don't mind it a bit – only the paper.
There comes John's sister. Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing.
She is a perfect, and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!
But I can write when she is out, and see her a long way off from these windows.
There is one that commands the road, a lovely, shaded, winding road, and one that just looks off over the country. A lovely country, too, full of great elms and velvet meadows.
This wallpaper has a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then.
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 sulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.
There's sister on the stairs!
Well, the Fourth of July is over! The people are gone and I am tired out. John thought it might do me good to see a little company, so we just had mother and Nellie and the children down for a week.
Of course I didn't do a thing. Jennie sees to everything now.
But it tired me all the same.
John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.
But I don't want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!
Besides, it is such an undertaking to go so far.
I don't feel as if it was worth while to turn my hand over for anything, and I'm getting dreadfully fretful and querulous.
I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time.
Of course I don't when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone.
And I am alone a good deal just now. John is kept in town very often by serious cases, and Jennie is good and lets me alone when I want her to.
So I walk a little in the garden or down that lovely lane, sit on the porch under the roses, and lie down up here a good deal.
I'm getting really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper.
It dwells in my mind so!
I lie here on this great immovable bed – it is nailed down, I believe – and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we'll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.
I know a little of the principle of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of.
It is repeated, of course, by the breadths, but not otherwise.
Looked at in one way each breadth stands alone, the bloated curves and flourishes – a kind of 'debased Romanesque' with delirium tremens – go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity.
But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase.
The whole thing goes horizontally, too, at least it seems so, and I exhaust myself in trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction.
They have used a horizontal breadth for a frieze, and that adds wonderfully to the confusion.
There is one end of the room where it is almost intact, and there, when the cross-lights fade and the low sun shines directly upon it, I can almost fancy radiation after all, – the interminable grotesques seem to form around a common centre and rush off in headlong plunges of equal distraction.
It makes me tired to follow it. I will take a nap, I guess.
I don't know why I should write this.
I don't want to.
I don't feel able.
And I know John would think it absurd. But I must say what I feel and think in some way – it is such a relief!
But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief.
Half the time now I am awfully lazy, and lie down ever so much.
John says I musn't lose my strength, and has me take codliver oil and lots of tonics and things, to say nothing of ale and wine and rare meat.
Dear John! He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia.
But he said I wasn't able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished.
It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight. Just this nervous weakness, I suppose.
And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head.
He said I was his darling and his comfort and all he had, and that I must take care of myself for his sake, and keep well.
He says no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me.
There's one comfort, the baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy this nursery with the horrid wallpaper.
If we had not used it that blessed child would have! What a fortunate escape! Why, I wouldn't have a child of mine, an impressionable little thing, live in such a room for worlds.
I never thought of it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all. I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see.
Of course I never mention it to them any more, – I am too wise, – but I keep watch of it all the same.
There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.
Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day.
It is always the same shape, only very numerous.
And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don't like it a bit. I wonder – I begin to think – I wish John would take me away from here!
It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.
But I tried it last night.
It was moonlight. The moon shines in all around, just as the sun does.
I hate to see it sometimes, it creeps so slowly, and always comes in by one window or another.
John was asleep and I hated to waken him, so I kept still and watched the moonlight on that undulating wallpaper till I felt creepy.
The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.
I got up softly and went to feel and see if the paper did move, and when I came back John was awake.
'What is it, little girl?' he said. 'Don't go walking about like that – you'll get cold.'
I though it was a good time to talk, so I told him that I really was not gaining here, and that I wished he would take me away.
'Why darling!' said he, 'our lease will be up in three weeks, and I can't see how to leave before.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Yellow Wallpaper"
Copyright © 2019 Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Excerpted by permission of Legend Times Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
About the Series
About This Volume
List of Illustrations
PART I. THE YELLOW WALLPAPER: THE COMPLETE TEXT
Introduction: Cultural and Historical Background
Chronology of Gilman's Life and Times
The Yellow Wallpaper [1892 New England Magazine Edition]
PART II. THE YELLOW WALLPAPER: CULTURAL CONTEXTS
1. Conduct Literature and Motherhood Manuals
Catharine Beecher, From A Treatise on Domestic Economy
Susan Power, From The Ugly-Girl Papers
Julia and Annie Thomas, From Psycho-Physical Culture
Marion Harland, "What Shall We Do with the Mothers?"
Margaret E. Sangster, From Winsome Womanhood: Familiar Talks on Life and Conduct
Frances E. Willard, From How to Win: A Book for Girls
William Acton, From The Function and Disorder of the Reproductive Organs
2. Invalid Women
S. Weir Mitchell, From Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked
S. Weir Mitchell, "Nervousness and Its Influence on Character"
S. Weir Mitchell, "The Evolution of the Rest Cure"
Prudence B. Sauer, From Maternity: A Book for Every Wife and Mother
John Harvey Kellogg, From The Household Monitor of Health
John Harvey Kellogg, From The Ladies' Guide in Health and Disease
Alfred Meadows, "Puerperal Mania"
Fordyce Barker, From The Puerperal Diseases
3. Sexuality, Race, and Social Control
1873 Comstock Law
Anthony Comstock, From Traps for the Young
Theodore Roosevelt, Address to the National Congress of Mothers, March, 1905
Edward Alsworth Ross, From "The Causes of Race Superiority"
George M. Beard, From American Nervousness
A. J. Bloch, From "Sexual Perversion in the Female"
Havelock Ellis, From "Sexual Inversion in Women"
Richard von Krafft-Ebing, From Psychopathia Sexualis
Lester Frank Ward, From Pure Sociology
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Parasitism and Civilised Vice"
4. Movements for Social Change
Angela Heywood, Selections from The Word
Edward Bellamy, From Looking Backward: 2000–1887
Thorstein Veblen, From The Theory of the Leisure Class
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, From Women and Economics
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Think Husbands Aren't Mainstays"
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Dr. Clair's Place"
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, From The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman
5. Literary Responses and Literary Culture
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper?"
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, On the Reception of "The Yellow Wallpaper"
William Dean Howells, From Criticism and Fiction
Henry James, From The Notebooks
Alice James, From The Diary of Alice James
Kate Chopin, The Story of an Hour