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When The Yellow Wallpaper (original title: The Yellow Wall-Paper: A Story) was first published in 1892, women still couldn’t vote in the United States. No, that would come decades later in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment. Women’s suffrage has been a centuries long process, really picking up speed in the late 19th century. It was around this time that Charlotte Perkins Gilman penned what would be considered one of her most influential works, and one of the most important works of early American feminist literature.
The Yellow Wallpaper is told in the first person and is centered around an unnamed woman. Her husband has rented a mansion for a summer and they take the old nursery room which is covered in yellow wallpaper. John, her husband, is a physician and prescribes her bed rest to try and cure her “temporary nervous depression” – a common diagnosis for women at the time. Whether or not the narrator actually suffers from it, it was used to explain a multitude of problems that a woman at the time might’ve been experiencing. The treatment – bed rest – has long been prescribed as a treatment for any number of illnesses, but has not been medically proven to be beneficial to any of them; if anything, it might actually worsen a patients condition.
Gilman suffered her narrators woes herself. She suffered from years of depression and her doctor, Silas Weir Mitchell, prescribed her the treatment he had pioneered – the rest cure. Gilman was required to do nothing except rest – meaning she also could not write. She lasted 3 months on the treatment before nearly suffering a mental breakdown. It was after that that she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.
Upon its release, the short story was published in the January 1892 New England Magazine after being rejected by Horace Scudder at the Atlantic Monthly. He, and others, rejected it for essentially being to horrifying – an odd complaint considering that Americans welcomed horror authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and others that wrote about insanity and mental instability. It wasn’t until the 60s and the rise and progress of second-wave feminism that it (and works by other female authors) was rediscovered and surged in popularity. Since then, it has been a mainstay in anthologies and collections.
When The Yellow Wallpaper first came out, it was treated as a horror story. Even now, it’s a difficult question to answer: is it more horrifying as a work of fiction where the narrator loses her mind, or as an autobiographical short story where the author almost lost her mind?