#268 The Yellow Wallpaper

This is a (very) short story which I stumbled across when leafing through a print copy of the 1001 books list a couple of weeks ago (irritatingly when I do this most of the titles I pick out as wanting to read are almost impossible to find in the library), and learning that it was only 16 pages (6000 words ? I read it online on project gutenberg) as a treat to get another book ticked off quickly.

Equally – and because that makes it sound like I’m dismissing the Yellow Wallpaper as a mega quick read not worth much time or attention – and possibly more than anything else, I was intrigued to see how a 16 page novella had made it onto the list. Not that size is any kind of indication of greatness, but you do wonder how much of a plot can be developed and how much you’ll be able to identify with the characters in such a short space of time (especially when I’ve read 400 odd page books whose plots I can’t get into and characters annoy me). I did also worry that it might end up on my ever growing wish list if I couldn’t find it online – because how many libraries would stock a book so short ? Anyway, happily I did find it so those concerns were irrelevant, and for the majority of those 6000 words I was fairly captivated, which made it a much more satisfying (and thought provoking) read than many more substantial tomes I’ve trawled through.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (who I assumed – correctly – to be American although I’m not entirely sure why) was written at the end of the 19th Century, about a woman who is advised by her “sensible” husband and brother (both of whom are respected physicians) to take some time out and rest as much as possible, in order to recover from “hysterical tendencies”. What this amounts to in practise is the narrator spending most of her time cooped up in a room in their rented summerhouse – forbidden to write or exercise greatly, or visit friends who might prove “too stimulating”, she finds herself with nothing to do but stare at the eponymous yellow wallpaper (which she finds abhorrent) in the room, and slowly descend into madness. Although the narrator believes her husband and brother to be advising as they see fit and from their best intentions, she does express anguish and frustration at being shut up with nothing to do, and their (mainly her husband as we don’t encounter the brother – he’s just mentioned to corroborate the opinion) ignorance of her suggestions of how she feels she could recover show cruelty in their dismissal (even just the cruelty of refusing to listen to her). Over time, the wallpaper that she spends her days with (her husband being out on call most of the time) comes to fascinate as well as disgust her, she attributes smells to it and it’s suggested that its colour has rubbed off on their clothes (although I’m not sure why they would have been rubbing against it) until eventually she comes to believe that she herself is a part of the wallpaper too (I don’t really think I’ve spoilt it by saying that because the best bit of this story is its telling – I think). When her husband arrives home to find her locked in the room with the key thrown out of the window on to the path (which for some reason she has to tell him multiple times – because he doesn’t listen to/believe her) he finally seems agitated – implying that the rest of her depression/distress/anxiety hasn’t been taken seriously at all (which is not surprising given the milieu I suppose but frustrating from a modern perspective); and when he finally enters the room to see the state she has descended into he faints. This suggests to me that he is not only unwilling to but unable to deal with any views that might be contrary to his own: his medical, scientific solutions have failed here and his wife, who he does seems affectionate towards (if not slightly condescending) has become something he cannot comprehend. I’m sad that I didn’t find this book earlier, because it would have been an excellent comparison to other 19th/early 20th century novels to write about at uni (and not too unpleasantly either) and probably an interesting comparison – because it was never mentioned in any lectures or seminars; it’s quite easy to find on google and evidentially a very quick read, so I would recommend trying it if you’re stuck somewhere with nothing else to do (or even if you do have something to do).

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