Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1899)
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a prominent social critic and feminist writer in the United States of the period from the 1890s through the 1930s. In The Yellow Wallpaper, originally published in 1899, she presents the internal dialogue of a woman diagnosed with hysteria and for whom total rest has been prescribed. In the short fiction, the patient is slowly driven mad by her cure, cut off from any intellectual pursuits whatsoever.
- Though The Yellow Wallpaper is a work of fiction, it was based on Gilman's own experience after being diagnosed as an hysteric and prescribed a "rest cure" which prohibited her writing and labelled her feminism and social critique as symptoms of uterine illness. Gilman recovered from her "cure," and went on to write influential social theses, including Women and Economics (1898), and a feminist utopian novel, Herland (1915), which has become a classic of American women's literature.
- Questions to Think About:
- 1) What was Charlotte Perkins Gilman's incentive to write this story? What goals did she hope it would accomplish?
- 2) What did hysteria mean, and why were women diagnosed as hysterical? What sorts of behaviors led to a diagnosis of hysteria? What were the common treatments hysterics received?
- 3) Imbedded within Gilman's story is her critique of the role and place of women in Western cultures. What does Gilman see as the lot of women in her own society? What is the cost to women of being consigned to that lot?
- 4) Who is the woman behind the yellow wallpaper, who looks out through its bars at the narrator as she sleeps? Why does she creep about the yard and garden at night?
- 5) Compare "internal" (female) and "external" (male) spaces in the story. What is Gilman saying about each as places for both women and men to live?
- 6) What is Gilman's view of motherhood as presented in this work?
- 7) How does this work reflect the challenges to the Cult of Domesticity put forward by First Wave feminists?
Further resources for studying Charlotte Perkins Gilman:
- Etext of The Yellow Wallpaper, and a printable version in PDF format.
- One of my students, Jodi DiGrazia, has written a brief biography of Gilman as part of her contribution to the student-produced New York Women Biography Hub at the College of Staten Island-CUNY.
- You can look at various student work on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, such as Jason Rivers's "A Brief Synopsis of the Life of Charlotte Perkins Gilman," or Meri Olson's "Life Influences in the Writing of The Yellow Wallpaper", or read student discussions of Gilman's work on the Yellow Wallpaper Discussion Forum.
- You can also check out the page for discussing Gilman's feminist utopian novel, Herland, I prepared for my Introduction to Feminism Course.
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender, The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Last modified: Tuesday 30 March 1999.