In the early 1890s Charlotte Perkins Gilman set out 6,000 words of disturbing prose. She invoked the unreliable narrator trope to bring her readers into the insanity. It is a horror story in the genre of Henry James and Kate Chopin, fitting the characteristics of Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition”.
It is feminist, early American, and about abuse. It has been analyzed, accepted and rejected, and revisited. It is a critical commentary on the position of men to determine a woman’s well-being. It lashes out against the perceptions of the community that women cannot handle themselves without extreme intervention, isolation, and impotence.
Gilman stood up against the male powerhouses of her time going toe-to-toe with William Randolph Hearst (to further the advancement of literature against the back steps she perceived, correctly, yellow journalism to be) and Silas Weir Mitchell (to support women as socially active rather than isolated). She stood firm in her position and didn’t waver in the face of adversaries.
But she didn’t come by this strength by feeding from a silver spoon. Gilman was abandoned by her father as a child and lived a nomadic, impoverished childhood bouncing between family members. She married, divorced, and remarried. She joined suffrage movements and advocated for women’s position in society to be recognized as important and valuable.
During her first marriage, Gilman was victimized by the male perception that women can’t handle themselves and must be relegated to isolation with no external stimuli. The Yellow Wallpaper was her reaction to the “rest treatment” she received during her own fight against postpartum depression.
The narrator is confined by her husband, who is also her doctor, against her wishes, for three months in order to cure her hysteria. She is isolated in an inescapable room with nothing to do but stare out the barred windows and stare at the yellow wallpaper. She is to do as he says, and must hide her attempt at maintaining individuality and has to put up her writing any time anyone nears her prison.
Interpretations vary as to the conclusion of this tale. Does she go insane? Or, does she finally find a way to escape the abuse?
Victims of abuse live in this kind of isolation and struggle for individually. 120 years later, this story rings true for too many of us.