Since we are officially one week into October, I thought I would share with you the perfect short story for both World Mental Health Day, coming up on Sunday, October 10th, and for getting you into the Halloween spirit. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was originally published in New England Magazine in 1892, followed by a book publication in 1899. It’s a very quick read of about ten pages, depending on the version you’re looking at, so it’s perfect to read over lunch or before bed. That is, as long as you’re not prone to nightmares!
Despite the fact it is possibly Gilman’s most-famous piece, many people are unaware that it is about a woman suffering, most likely, from postpartum depression. This woman is then recommended what was known as a “rest cure” for what was commonly termed at the time as “hysteria,” a diagnosis specifically for females. This is also a reflection of Gilman’s own life, who became extremely depressed after the birth of her daughter and was recommended a rest cure as well, by physician Silas Weir Mitchell. Mitchell recommended treatment to women that consisted of bed rest, isolation, overfeeding, and sometimes electrotherapy. However, when treating men, Mitchell recommended that they go out West. Contrary to the “rest cure,” Mitchell referred to this as the “West cure,” and it was for men to go spend time outside and enjoy the fresh air by roping cattle or hunting. These two vastly different recommendations were both supposed to treat the same ailments of depression, anxiety, insomnia, etc.
In her story, Gilman combined the role of husband and physician to be one single character, which greater exemplifies the control over the narrator which he possesses. The story begins with the couple moving to a summer home, described as having stunning architecture and a breathtaking garden. The only downside to the house is that the master bedroom has an awful yellow wallpaper. The narrator says on the paper, “I never saw a worse paper in my life,” and then states how it commits “every artistic sin.” She describes a pattern which does not make any sense, but most notably, that the curves “suddenly commit suicide.” This, of course, is a very loaded description for something as seemingly unimportant as the wallpaper in a summer home. However, when thinking about the fact that she’s actually never allowed to leave, it suddenly makes sense as to why that wallpaper serves as a catalyst for the narrator completely losing her mind.
Moving on throughout the short story, the narrator regresses further and further into herself as she pushes those around her away. Her feelings towards the wallpaper also change from disgust to intrigue to obsession. Since it is such a short story, I don’t want to give away too much, so I won’t say much more on the topic. Just know that this infatuation with the wallpaper breaks barriers that I never expected it to upon my first read. The story is constructed as a series of journal entries, and with each one, significant changes are made in terms of the narrator’s mental health. Reflective of many real-life rest cures, the rest cure of the story once again has the opposite effect of that which it is intended to have upon its patient.
This Gothic tale portrays a drastic shift from focusing on the blooming summer gardens to the way the moonlight reflects upon the wallpaper in the dark of the night. Combined with a representation of what happened to many women who were recommended rest cures as treatment for depression, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is perfect for transitioning your mind out of the greenness of summer and into the eeriness of Halloween, while also acknowledging the utmost importance of World Mental Health Day.
Please, though, if there’s one really important thing to take away from this, it’s that if you’re struggling at all, it’s better to talk to someone than to go it alone.