Journalist, Humorist, Novelist

Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper

On July 24 at 12:30 pm I will host a discussion for the lunch-time Bryant Park Classics BookClub of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s a profoundly feminist short story written in the last few years of the 19th century. It’s about a case of hysteria that closely mirrored the author’s own postpartum depression.

If you went to college in the mid-1970s or later you may have read the story. Feminists “discovered” it and, rather widely, it got incorporated into the core curriculum.

It’s hair-raising.

I believe that Oxford University Press is giving away paperbacks of The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories in advance of the bookclub presentation. The books would be in the Reading Room in Bryant Park. (It’s on the 42nd street side of the park and is marked by umbrellas.)

I am the author of the fact-based novel Hysterical; Anna Freud’s Story (She Writes Press, 2014), which Booklist called “complexly entertaining, sexually dramatic, [and] acidly funny” and that the Ms. blog called “as funny and occasionally frightening as the title hints.” Like many women of her generation and the one before it, Sigmund’s favorite daughter had a diagnosis of hysteria. One big difference between her and everyone else was that she was treated for it by her father. Also, with Sigmund, the cure had nothing at all to do with “rest.”

These have been my primary sources for information about Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 2 vols. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994).
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (Appleton-Century, 1935).
  • Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz’s Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of the Yellow Wallpaper (Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • S. Weir Mitchell’s Doctor and Patient (J.B. Lippincott, 1901). 
  • Charles Walter Stetson, Endure: The Diaries of Charles Walter Stetson, ed. Mary Armfield Hill (Temple University Press, 1985).

Gilman wrote The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman when an old woman, and she apparently was looking to put a gloss on her life. I say this because what she writies in The Living … is often at odds with what she wrote years earlier in her diaries. In the “Notes” section of Wild Unrest, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz reports finding the same discrepancies. She explains, “Although I have used Gilman’s autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, I have read it with a critical eye, often as a source to be interrogated. Whenever possible I have relied on Gilman’s writings at the time, and they often contain contradictory information.” I agree with (and I followed) that strategy.

For anyone seeking an exhaustive bibliography of works by and related to Gilman, I recommend a close perusal of the Notes section of Horowitz’s excellent book. She gives a strong nod to a bibliography compiled by Gary Scharnhorst’s.  Unfortunately, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Bibliography (Scarecrow Press, 2003) is not in the collection of the New York Public Library. And while it is still available (at least on it is very expensive.

A single volume of Gilman’s diaries is also available in paperback. It is Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Abridged Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ed. Denise D. Knight (University of Virginia Press, 1998). has it, as does the New York Public Library.

Also note:

  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” seems to have inspired an episode of the mid-1980s reboot of Rod Serling’s series, The Twilight Zone.
  • Gilman gave the doctor in “The Yellow Wallpaper” the name of her real doctor—S. Weir Mitchell, who was perhaps the world’s most famous neurologist and who had, in the 1870s, developed what was known as “the rest cure.” Virginia Woolf was also treated by Mitchell, and she savaged him and his rest cure in Mrs. Dalloway, which was published more than a decade after his death.
  • Gilman was a first wave feminist with a strong theoretical commitment to racial and inter-religious harmony. But privately she was an anti-semite who, along with many white Protestant intellectuals of her day, promoted social Darwinism, eugenics, nationalism, and even euthanasia. Upon leaving New York City by train to move to Norwich Town, CT, an elderly Gilman wrote to her daughter Katharine about how happy she was to “escape forever this hideous city–and its Jews.”