Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Poem: One Girl of Many (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

("One Girl of Many," 1884, is Gilman's second known publication.)


One girl of many. Hungry from her birth
Half-fed. Half-clothed. Untaught of woman’s worth.
In joyless girlhood working for her bread.
At each small sorrow wishing she were dead,
Yet gay at little pleasures. Sunlight seems
Most bright & warm where it most seldom gleams.


One girl of many. Tawdry dress and old;
And not enough beneath to bar the cold.
The little that she had misspent because
She had no knowledge of our nature’s laws.
Thinking in ignorance that it was best
To wear a stylish look, and -- bear the rest.


One girl of many. With a human heart.
A woman’s too; with nerves that feel the smart
Of each new pain as keenly as your own.
The old ones, through long use, have softer grown.
And yet in spite of use she holds the thought
Of might-be joys more than, perhaps, she ought.


One girl of many. But the fault is here;
Though she to all the others was so near;
One difference there was, which made a change.
No wrong thing, surely. Consequence most strange!
Alike in birth. Alike in life’s rough way.
She, through no evil, was more fair than they.


So came the offer, “Leave this story cold
Where you may drudge and starve till you are old.
Come! I will give you rest. And food. And fire.
And fair apparel to your heart’s desire;
Shelter. Protection. Kindness. Peace & Love.
Has your life anything you hold above?”


And she had not. In all her daily sight
There shone no vestige of the color White.
She had seen nothing in her narrow life
To make her venerate the title “Wife.”
She knew no reason why the thing was wrong;
And instinct grows debased in ages long.


All things that she had ever yet desired
All dreams that her starved girlhood’s heart had fired
All that life held of yet unknown delight
Shone, to her ignorance, in colors bright.
Shone near at hand and sure. If she had known!
But she was ignorant. She was alone.


And so she -- sinned. I think we call it sin.
And found that every step she took therein
Made sinning easier and conscience weak.
And there was never one who cared to speak
A word to guide and warn her. If there were
I fear such help were thrown away on her.


Only one girl of many. Of the street.
In lowest depths. The story grows unmeet
For wellbred ears. Sorrow and sin and shame
Over and over till the blackened name
Sank out of sight without a hand to save.
Sin, shame, and sorrow. Sickness, & the grave.


Only one girl of many. Tis a need
Of man’s existence to repeat the deed.
Social necessity. Men cannot live
Without what these disgraceful creatures give.
Black shame. Dishonor. Misery & Sin.
And men find needed health & life therein.


Original publication: Alpha, 1 Feb. 1884.

Poem: In Duty Bound (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

("In Duty Bound" is often noted as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's first published work. However, there is evidence that she published the poem "To D.G." in 1880, in the 20 May 1880, issue of the New England Journal of Education.)

In duty bound, a life hemmed in,
----Whichever way the spirit turns to look;
No chance of breaking out, except by sin,
----Not even room to shirk--
----Simply to live, and work.

An obligation preimposed, unsought,
----Yet binding with the force of natural law;
The pressure of antagonistic thought;
----Aching within, each hour,
----A sense of wasting power.

A house with roof so darkly low
----The heavy rafters shut the sunlight out;
One cannot stand erect without a blow;
----Until the soul inside
----Cries for a grave--more wide.

A consciousness that if this thing endure,
----The common joys of life will dull the pain;
The high ideals of the grand and pure
----Die, as of course they must
----Of long disuse and rust.

That is the worst. It takes supernal strength
----To hold the attitude that brings the pain;
And there are few indeed but stoop at length
----To something less than best,
----To find, in stooping, rest.


Original publication: Buffalo Christian Advocate, 12 January 1884.

"Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper" (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

Many and many a reader has asked that. When the story first came out, in the New England Magazine about 1891, a Boston physician made protest in The Transcript. Such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.

Another physician, in Kansas I think, wrote to say that it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen, and--begging my pardon--had I been there?

Now the story of the story is this:

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia--and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to "live as domestic a life as far as possible," to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again" as long as I lived. This was in 1887.

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and went to work again--work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite--ultimately recovering some measure of power.

Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper," with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.

The little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate--so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.

But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.

It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.


SOURCE: The Forerunner, October 1913.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Famous Charlotte Perkins Gilman Quotes

“The first duty of a human being is to assume the right functional relationship to society--more briefly, to find your real job, and do it.”

“There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver.”

“There was a time when Patience ceased to be a virtue. It was long ago.”

“To swallow and follow, whether old doctrine or new propaganda, is a weakness still dominating the human mind.”

"It is not that women are really smaller-minded, weaker-minded, more timid and vacillating, but that whosoever, man or woman, lives always in a small, dark place, is always guarded, protected, directed and restrained, will become inevitably narrowed and weakened by it."

"The softest, freest, most pliable and changeful living substance is the brain-- the hardest and most iron-bound as well."

"A house does not need a wife any more than it needs a husband."

"When all usefulness is over, when one is assured of an unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one" (from her suicide note).

Monday, April 14, 2008

2007 NCTE Idea Exchange: To Participants and All Interested Teachers

The 2007 NCTE Idea Exchange

As The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) 2007 conference in New York City drew near, I mulled over some options for developing an exercise that could incorporate both my own growing interest in computers and websites and my longstanding love of literature.
As both college and high school students become more proficient with the computer and all things technological, we, as college professors and high school teachers, must figure out ways to keep up with technological advances while retaining high literary standards.
I decided to bring Charlotte Perkins Gilman, an author at odds with her late 19th and early 20th centuries, into the 21st Century. One can only speculate how CPG might have used the web tools that we now take for granted, but I suspect that she would have become fully engaged with the technology and view it as an extension of her mind and an important vehicle for her feminist and sociological ideologies.

For those who missed the Idea Exchange (only 109 teachers participated this year), here is what I finally developed (and do feel free to tweak this idea to suit your own classroom needs):

* * * * *
Level: High School (Advanced literature course) or College (Introductory literature course)
You are Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), author of the long short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892) and other noted works.

Develop a plan for your brand new website,
In your plan, include the following pages:
  • Home Page
  • Short Bio
  • Why You (CPG) Write (based on textual clues from the author’s works and biography)
  • Résumé with list of works
  • Favorite links
  • Excerpts from your (CPG's) important works

Do NOT simply copy from current existing Charlotte Perkins Gilman websites; for excerpts, see Project Gutenberg and other public domain sites.

* * * * *

Note to NCTE participants:

I own the domain, which is directed to this site, currently under construction; I originally registered the domain because I didn't want to send my students to a dead link, but I also didn't want to send them to a construction page either.

So, now, I plan to develop this blog by bringing together open-source CPG information, some of her public domain works, and my own research, including a scholarly paper I have published.

Do check the blog from time to time. If you have any ideas how I can develop it, please let me know.

Also, if you have an already-published scholarly paper on CPG and/or a pedagogical essay and would like to submit it here, please let me know--just make sure that you own the copyright. I'm not a publisher per se, but I am interested in new perspectives on this multi-talented and diverse author.


Jennifer Semple Siegel

York College of Pennsylvania

The Yellow Wallpaper (Novella)

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity—but that would be asking too much of fate!

Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.

Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?

John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.

John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.

John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.

You see he does not believe I am sick!

And what can one do?

If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?

My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well again.

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

But what is one to do?

I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.

I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.

So I will let it alone and talk about the house.

The most beautiful place! It is quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people.

There is a delicious garden! I never saw such a garden—large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them.

There were greenhouses, too, but they are all broken now.

There was some legal trouble, I believe, something about the heirs and co-heirs; anyhow, the place has been empty for years.

That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid, but I don't care—there is something strange about the house—I can feel it.

I even said so to John one moonlight evening, but he said what I felt was a draught, and shut the window.

I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition.

But John says if I feel so, I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself—before him, at least, and that makes me very tired.

I don't like our room a bit. I wanted one downstairs that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window, and such pretty old-fashioned chintz hangings! but John would not hear of it.

He said there was only one window and not room for two beds, and no near room for him if he took another.

He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.

I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.

He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get. "Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear," said he, "and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time." So we took the nursery at the top of the house.

It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.

The paint and paper look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off—the paper—in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.

One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.

The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.

No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.

There comes John, and I must put this away,—he hates to have me write a word.


We have been here two weeks, and I haven't felt like writing before, since that first day.

I am sitting by the window now, up in this atrocious nursery, and there is nothing to hinder my writing as much as I please, save lack of strength.

John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious.

I am glad my case is not serious!

But these nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing.

John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.

Of course it is only nervousness. It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way!

I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!

Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able,—to dress and entertain, and order things.

It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby!

And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous.

I suppose John never was nervous in his life. He laughs at me so about this wall-paper!

At first he meant to repaper the room, but afterwards he said that I was letting it get the better of me, and that nothing was worse for a nervous patient than to give way to such fancies.

He said that after the wall-paper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on.

"You know the place is doing you good," he said, "and really, dear, I don't care to renovate the house just for a three months' rental."

"Then do let us go downstairs," I said, "there are such pretty rooms there."

Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down cellar, if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain.

But he is right enough about the beds and windows and things.

It is an airy and comfortable room as any one need wish, and, of course, I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim.

I'm really getting quite fond of the big room, all but that horrid paper.

Out of one window I can see the garden, those mysterious deep-shaded arbors, the riotous old-fashioned flowers, and bushes and gnarly trees.

Out of another I get a lovely view of the bay and a little private wharf belonging to the estate. There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house. I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.

I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.

But I find I get pretty tired when I try.

It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work. When I get really well, John says we will ask Cousin Henry and Julia down for a long visit; but he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now.

I wish I could get well faster.

But I must not think about that. This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!

There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.

I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere. There is one place where two breadths didn't match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other.

I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store.

I remember what a kindly wink the knobs of our big, old bureau used to have, and there was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend.

I used to feel that if any of the other things looked too fierce I could always hop into that chair and be safe.

The furniture in this room is no worse than inharmonious, however, for we had to bring it all from downstairs. I suppose when this was used as a playroom they had to take the nursery things out, and no wonder! I never saw such ravages as the children have made here.

The wall-paper, as I said before, is torn off in spots, and it sticketh closer than a brother—they must have had perseverance as well as hatred.

Then the floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there, and this great heavy bed which is all we found in the room, looks as if it had been through the wars.

But I don't mind it a bit—only the paper.

There comes John's sister. Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing.

She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!

But I can write when she is out, and see her a long way off from these windows.

There is one that commands the road, a lovely shaded winding road, and one that just looks off over the country. A lovely country, too, full of great elms and velvet meadows.

This wallpaper has a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then.

But in the places where it isn't faded and where the sun is just so—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.

There's sister on the stairs!


Well, the Fourth of July is over! The people are all gone and I am tired out. John thought it might do me good to see a little company, so we just had mother and Nellie and the children down for a week.

Of course I didn't do a thing. Jennie sees to everything now.

But it tired me all the same.

John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.

But I don't want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!

Besides, it is such an undertaking to go so far.

I don't feel as if it was worth while to turn my hand over for anything, and I'm getting dreadfully fretful and querulous.

I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time.

Of course I don't when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone.

And I am alone a good deal just now. John is kept in town very often by serious cases, and Jennie is good and lets me alone when I want her to.

So I walk a little in the garden or down that lovely lane, sit on the porch under the roses, and lie down up here a good deal.

I'm getting really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper.

It dwells in my mind so!

I lie here on this great immovable bed—it is nailed down, I believe—and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we'll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.

I know a little of the principle of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of.

It is repeated, of course, by the breadths, but not otherwise.

Looked at in one way each breadth stands alone, the bloated curves and flourishes—a kind of "debased Romanesque” with delirium tremens—go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity.

But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase.

The whole thing goes horizontally, too, at least it seems so, and I exhaust myself in trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction.

They have used a horizontal breadth for a frieze, and that adds wonderfully to the confusion.

There is one end of the room where it is almost intact, and there, when the crosslights fade and the low sun shines directly upon it, I can almost fancy radiation after all,—the interminable grotesques seem to form around a common centre and rush off in headlong plunges of equal distraction.

It makes me tired to follow it. I will take a nap I guess.


I don't know why I should write this.

I don't want to.

I don't feel able.

And I know John would think it absurd. But I must say what I feel and think in some way—it is such a relief!

But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief.

Half the time now I am awfully lazy, and lie down ever so much.

John says I mustn't lose my strength, and has me take cod liver oil and lots of tonics and things, to say nothing of ale and wine and rare meat.

Dear John! He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia.

But he said I wasn't able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished.

It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight. Just this nervous weakness I suppose.

And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head.

He said I was his darling and his comfort and all he had, and that I must take care of myself for his sake, and keep well.

He says no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me.

There's one comfort, the baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy this nursery with the horrid wallpaper.

If we had not used it, that blessed child would have! What a fortunate escape! Why, I wouldn't have a child of mine, an impressionable little thing, live in such a room for worlds.

I never thought of it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all, I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see.

Of course I never mention it to them any more—I am too wise,—but I keep watch of it all the same.

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.

Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day.

It is always the same shape, only very numerous.

And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don't like it a bit. I wonder—I begin to think—I wish John would take me away from here!


It is so hard to talk to John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.

But I tried it last night.

It was moonlight. The moon shines in all around just as the sun does.

I hate to see it sometimes, it creeps so slowly, and always comes in by one window or another.

John was asleep and I hated to waken him, so I kept still and watched the moonlight on that undulating wallpaper till I felt creepy.

The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.

I got up softly and went to feel and see if the paper did move, and when I came back John was awake.

"What is it, little girl?" he said. "Don't go walking about like that— you'll get cold."

I thought it was a good time to talk, so I told him that I really was not gaining here, and that I wished he would take me away.

"Why, darling!" said he, "our lease will be up in three weeks, and I can't see how to leave before.

"The repairs are not done at home, and I cannot possibly leave town just now. Of course if you were in any danger, I could and would, but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know. You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better, I feel really much easier about you."

"I don't weigh a bit more," said I, "nor as much; and my appetite may be better in the evening when you are here, but it is worse in the morning when you are away!"

"Bless her little heart!" said he with a big hug, "she shall be as sick as she pleases! But now let's improve the shining hours by going to sleep, and talk about it in the morning!"

"And you won't go away?" I asked gloomily.

"Why, how can I, dear? It is only three weeks more and then we will take a nice little trip of a few days while Jennie is getting the house ready. Really dear you are better!"

"Better in body perhaps—" I began, and stopped short, for he sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word.

"My darling," said he, "I beg of you, for my sake and for our child's sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?"

So of course I said no more on that score, and we went to sleep before long. He thought I was asleep first, but I wasn't, and lay there for hours trying to decide whether that front pattern and the back pattern really did move together or separately.


On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.

The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.

You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream.

The outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus. If you can imagine a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions—why, that is something like it.

That is, sometimes!

There is one marked peculiarity about this paper, a thing nobody seems to notice but myself, and that is that it changes as the light changes.

When the sun shoots in through the east window—I always watch for that first long, straight ray—it changes so quickly that I never can quite believe it.

That is why I watch it always.

By moonlight—the moon shines in all night when there is a moon—I wouldn't know it was the same paper.

At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.

I didn't realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman.

By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour.

I lie down ever so much now. John says it is good for me, and to sleep all I can.

Indeed he started the habit by making me lie down for an hour after each meal.

It is a very bad habit I am convinced, for you see I don't sleep.

And that cultivates deceit, for I don't tell them I'm awake—O no!

The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John.

He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look.

It strikes me occasionally, just as a scientific hypothesis,—that perhaps it is the paper!

I have watched John when he did not know I was looking, and come into the room suddenly on the most innocent excuses, and I've caught him several times looking at the paper! And Jennie too. I caught Jennie with her hand on it once.

She didn't know I was in the room, and when I asked her in a quiet, a very quiet voice, with the most restrained manner possible, what she was doing with the paper—she turned around as if she had been caught stealing, and looked quite angry—asked me why I should frighten her so!

Then she said that the paper stained everything it touched, that she had found yellow smooches on all my clothes and John's, and she wished we would be more careful!

Did not that sound innocent? But I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself!


Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch. I really do eat better, and am more quiet than I was.

John is so pleased to see me improve! He laughed a little the other day, and said I seemed to be flourishing in spite of my wall-paper.

I turned it off with a laugh. I had no intention of telling him it was because of the wall-paper—he would make fun of me. He might even want to take me away.

I don't want to leave now until I have found it out. There is a week more, and I think that will be enough.


I'm feeling ever so much better! I don't sleep much at night, for it is so interesting to watch developments; but I sleep a good deal in the daytime.

In the daytime it is tiresome and perplexing.

There are always new shoots on the fungus, and new shades of yellow all over it. I cannot keep count of them, though I have tried conscientiously.

It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw—not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.

But there is something else about that paper—the smell! I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad. Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here.

It creeps all over the house.

I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs.

It gets into my hair.

Even when I go to ride, if I turn my head suddenly and surprise it—there is that smell!

Such a peculiar odor, too! I have spent hours in trying to analyze it, to find what it smelled like.

It is not bad—at first, and very gentle, but quite the subtlest, most enduring odor I ever met.

In this damp weather it is awful, I wake up in the night and find it hanging over me.

It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house—to reach the smell.

But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell.

There is a very funny mark on this wall, low down, near the mopboard. A streak that runs round the room. It goes behind every piece of furniture, except the bed, a long, straight, even smooch, as if it had been rubbed over and over.

I wonder how it was done and who did it, and what they did it for. Round and round and round—round and round and round—it makes me dizzy!


I really have discovered something at last.

Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out.

The front pattern does move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!

Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.

Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.

And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.

They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!

If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be half so bad.


I think that woman gets out in the daytime!

And I'll tell you why—privately—I've seen her!

I can see her out of every one of my windows!

It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight.

I see her in that long shaded lane, creeping up and down. I see her in those dark grape arbors, creeping all around the garden.

I see her on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines.

I don't blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight!

I always lock the door when I creep by daylight. I can't do it at night, for I know John would suspect something at once.

And John is so queer now, that I don't want to irritate him. I wish he would take another room! Besides, I don't want anybody to get that woman out at night but myself.

I often wonder if I could see her out of all the windows at once.

But, turn as fast as I can, I can only see out of one at one time.

And though I always see her, she may be able to creep faster than I can turn!

I have watched her sometimes away off in the open country, creeping as fast as a cloud shadow in a high wind.


If only that top pattern could be gotten off from the under one! I mean to try it, little by little.

I have found out another funny thing, but I shan't tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much.

There are only two more days to get this paper off, and I believe John is beginning to notice. I don't like the look in his eyes.

And I heard him ask Jennie a lot of professional questions about me. She had a very good report to give.

She said I slept a good deal in the daytime.

John knows I don't sleep very well at night, for all I'm so quiet!

He asked me all sorts of questions, too, and pretended to be very loving and kind.

As if I couldn't see through him!

Still, I don't wonder he acts so, sleeping under this paper for three months.

It only interests me, but I feel sure John and Jennie are secretly affected by it.


Hurrah! This is the last day, but it is enough. John to stay in town over night, and won't be out until this evening.

Jennie wanted to sleep with me—the sly thing! But I told her I should undoubtedly rest better for a night all alone.

That was clever, for really I wasn't alone a bit! As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her.

I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper.

A strip about as high as my head and half around the room.

And then when the sun came and that awful pattern began to laugh at me, I declared I would finish it to-day!

We go away to-morrow, and they are moving all my furniture down again to leave things as they were before.

Jennie looked at the wall in amazement, but I told her merrily that I did it out of pure spite at the vicious thing.

She laughed and said she wouldn't mind doing it herself, but I must not get tired.

How she betrayed herself that time!

But I am here, and no person touches this paper but me,—not alive!

She tried to get me out of the room—it was too patent! But I said it was so quiet and empty and clean now that I believed I would lie down again and sleep all I could; and not to wake me even for dinner—I would call when I woke.

So now she is gone, and the servants are gone, and the things are gone, and there is nothing left but that great bedstead nailed down, with the canvas mattress we found on it.

We shall sleep downstairs to-night, and take the boat home tomorrow.

I quite enjoy the room, now it is bare again.

How those children did tear about here!

This bedstead is fairly gnawed!

But I must get to work.

I have locked the door and thrown the key down into the front path.

I don't want to go out, and I don't want to have anybody come in, till John comes.

I want to astonish him.

I've got a rope up here that even Jennie did not find. If that woman does get out, and tries to get away, I can tie her!

But I forgot I could not reach far without anything to stand on!

This bed will not move!

I tried to lift and push it until I was lame, and then I got so angry I bit off a little piece at one corner—but it hurt my teeth.

Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision!

I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.

Besides I wouldn't do it. Of course not. I know well enough that a step like that is improper and might be misconstrued.

I don't like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast.

I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?

But I am securely fastened now by my well-hidden rope—you don't get me out in the road there!

I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!

It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!

I don't want to go outside. I won't, even if Jennie asks me to.

For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow.

But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way.

Why there's John at the door!

It is no use, young man, you can't open it!

How he does call and pound!

Now he's crying for an axe.

It would be a shame to break down that beautiful door!

"John dear!" said I in the gentlest voice, "the key is down by the front steps, under a plaintain leaf! "

That silenced him for a few moments.

Then he said—very quietly indeed, "Open the door, my darling!"

"I can't," said I. "The key is down by the front door under a plantain leaf!"

And then I said it again, several times, very gently and slowly, and said it so often that he had to go and see, and he got it of course, and came in. He stopped short by the door.

"What is the matter?" he cried. "For God's sake, what are you doing! "

I kept on creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder.

"I've got out at last," said I, "in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!"

Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!


(Originally published in The New England Magazine, May 1891)

I. Introduction

Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, The Critics, and The Yellow Wallpaper: Fiction "With a Purpose" vs. Literary Interpretation of the Subtext--The Need to Know the Rest of the Story (by Jennifer Semple Siegel)

Mr. [William Dean] Howells asked leave to include [The Yellow Wallpaper] in a collection he was arranging--Masterpieces of American Fiction. I was more than willing, but assured him that it was no more "literature" than my other stuff, being definitely written "with a purpose." In my judgment it is a pretty poor thing to write, to talk, without a purpose (Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (121).


Since 1973, numerous books and articles have been written about the life and work of Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, many of them centering around the short novella The Yellow Wallpaper. Largely ignored and out of print for over fifty years--the story had last been published in 1920 by William Dean Howells in The Great Modern American Stories: An Anthology (Shumaker 588)--this piece was reprinted in 1973 by the Feminist Press and almost immediately hailed as a feminist classic of the nineteenth-century (Lane 130). Since then, other interpretations have evolved, some of which I will examine in this paper in an attempt to separate the "author's purpose" from "literary interpretation" by critics. I will also address the following question: at what point does a critic's interpretation interfere with the meaning of the original work that its intended purpose has been submerged? I propose that, as readers and critics, we may be coming perilously close to losing sight of why Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper in the first place, and I will cite a sampling of readers and literary critics to show how this progression has occurred: "M.D." (1892), Brummel Jones (1892), Elaine R. Hedges (1973), Vivian Gornick (1978), Jean E. Kennard (1981), Conrad Shumaker (1985), and Susan S. Lanser (1989). These authors are not necessarily the definitive word on The Yellow Wallpaper, nor are their interpretations necessarily "incorrect." However, they do seem to move further and further away from what I view as Gilman's original purpose in writing the piece.

Interestingly enough, I first read The Yellow Wallpaper from a historical perspective in an undergraduate American history class: at the time, I was surprised that this particular piece had been assigned as a reading for a history class. However, years and many articles later, I can see clearly how Gilman might be viewed in a historical context as an important social reformer with communist leanings, although her works on economics and socialism might have been better reading choices for that history course. Still, the novella made a significant impression on me, enough that I have read some of her non-fiction works on my own. Certainly, The Yellow Wallpaper is Gilman's best and most significant work.

II. Fiction "with a Purpose"


Originally published in The CEA Critic: An Official Journal of The College English Association, 59:3 (Spring/Summer 1997): 44-57.

II. Fiction "With a Purpose"

Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, The Critics, and The Yellow Wallpaper: Fiction "With a Purpose" vs. Literary Interpretation of the Subtext--The Need to Know the Rest of the Story (by Jennifer Semple Siegel)

II. Fiction "With a Purpose"

Of all the works by Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper seems to stand alone as a work that was written with a specific purpose--perhaps a "mission"--in mind, for her other writings tend to have a dry, repetitive ideology with intellectual, sometimes "preachy," overtones. This seems especially true of Women and Economics (1898), a book that probably would have been just as effective as a short essay. Even some of Gilman's other fiction, such as Herland--first serialized in 1915 in Forerunner (Lane 4)--has a dogmatic quality and a style that comes off as somewhat humorous as Gilman attempts to narrate from a male point of view. As Elaine Hedges states, "Polemical intent often made her fiction dry and clumsily didactic" (38).

The Yellow Wallpaper, on the other hand, differs in that the narrator's emotions, right from the beginning, seem close to the surface and yet muted somehow by a sense that the narrator cannot or will not see her impending madness. Thus, even as the narrator talks about trivial matters in her first "journal" entry--ordinary descriptions of the summer house, family background, her prescriptions--the reader can feel immediately an undercurrent, that the narrator is not telling the reader what she is really feeling. For example, the narrator opens by saying the following:

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity--but that would be asking too much of fate!

Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.

Else, why should it let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?

John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage
(Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper 9).

The careful reader will notice an economy in that opening that not only hints of the narrator's feelings but also conveys some very important information (aside from the obvious surface meaning):

(1) The narrator probably belongs to the middle class and is unaccustomed to living in "mansions."

(2) The house is old and in disrepair (which also foreshadows the "gothic" aspects of the story).

(3) The narrator has a vivid imagination and has high intellectual capacity, thus questioning anything that she views as "not quite right"--in this case, the house itself.

(4) There is some serious marital discord, and, although she shrugs it off, the narrator resents her husband for not taking her seriously.

So, then, what was Gilman's real purpose for writing The Yellow Wallpaper? In her autobiography, Gilman offers what seems to be a reasonable explanation:

The real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways. I sent him a copy as soon as it came out, but got no response. However, many years later, I met someone who knew close friends of Dr. Mitchell's who said he had told them that he had changed his treatment of nervous prostration since reading [the story]. If that is a fact, I have not lived in vain (121).

Certainly, Gilman's aversion toward Dr. Mitchell's "rest cure" shows up in The Yellow Wallpaper when she writes:

John says if I don't pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall.

But I don't want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!

Gilman wrote those words from her own experience, for her early struggle with postpartum depression and unhappiness in her marriage with first husband Walter Stetson resulted in her traveling to Philadelphia in April 1887 for Dr. Mitchell's then-famous treatment for "nervous prostration" (Gilman, Living 95; Lane 120-121). In fact, a reader might surmise correctly that the "friend" to whom the protagonist was referring in the above passage was Gilman herself. In any case, this so-called nervous prostration was fairly new to the medical profession, and experts had some difficulty believing that the disease was anything more than plain laziness (Gilman, Living 90). Surely, many of Gilman's friends offered numerous suggestions, including the following by a close friend: "Force some happiness in your life. Take an agreeable book to bed with you, occupy your mind with pleasant things" (90).

In her autobiography, Gilman describes why she could not act upon the friend's advice:

She did not realize that I was unable to read, and that my mind was exclusively occupied by unpleasant things. This disorder involved a growing melancholia, and that, as those who have tasted it, consists of every painful mental sensation, shame, fear, remorse, a blind oppressive confusion, utter weakness, a steady brainache that fills the conscious mind with crowding images of distress (90).

Gilman goes on to say that she often "lay on [the] lounge and wept all day" (91). Thus, she understood that something was terribly wrong with her and that she needed to find a cure, something to get herself back into the world. And now, a well-respected nerve specialist of the time was willing to recognize, at least on some minute level, that this female ailment was a disease, albeit a most perplexing one (95).

Thus, when her mother's friend Mrs. Diman offered her $100 "to get away someplace," Gilman accepted and went to Philadelphia for Dr. Mitchell's "rest cure" (95). Even then, Gilman seemed to recognize that her lifestyle was contributing somewhat to her mental distress, for she says: "This [realization] was a worse horror than before, for now I saw the stark fact--that I was well while away and sick while at home--a heartening prospect!" (95).

Still, Gilman proceeded to Philadelphia. After examining his patient, Dr. Mitchell assured Gilman that she was not suffering from dementia--only hysteria, whereupon

I was put to bed and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed, and responded with the vigorous body of twenty-six. As far as he could see there was nothing the matter with me, so after a month of this agreeable treatment, he sent me home, with this prescription:

"Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time." (Be it remarked that if I did but dress the baby it left me shaking and crying--certainly far from a healthy companionship for her, to say nothing of the effect on me.) "Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours' intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live"

After months of following this regimen, Gilman sank even deeper into her depression, suffering extreme "mental torment," and behaving in odd ways:

I made a rag baby, hung it on a doorknob and played with it. I would crawl into remote closets and under beds--to hide from the grinding pressure of that profound distress....(96).

Later, in The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman would describe similar behavior as the protagonist begins to assume the identity of the woman who "creeps" behind the wallpaper, thus sinking deeper and deeper into madness:

It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep as I please!

I don't want to go outside. I won't, even if Jennie asks me to.

For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow.

But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way

Of course, in reality, Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman pulled herself out the abyss--the unnamed protagonist in the story does not--because as Gilman wrote in 1887 to Grace Channing, the close friend who later married Gilman's ex-husband Walter Stetson: "I decided to cast off Dr. Mitchell bodily, and do exactly as I pleased" (qtd. in Lane 123).

Thus, in a sense, Gilman's purpose in writing The Yellow Wallpaper seems to run much deeper than just sending a "message" to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell; perhaps she was exorcising from her psyche "Mitchell the demon" who forced a cure on her that could never reach the root of her problem: her unhappiness with her life in general. By exorcising the doctor and his male colleagues, Gilman may have also been sending a the same "message" to ordinary women--and men--of her generation.

In this particular piece, Gilman does not seem to be advocating equal rights for women, at least explicitly. Even though many modern critics view Gilman as a nineteenth-century feminist, Gilman herself was uncomfortable with that role. According to Ann J. Lane, Gilman considered herself a "masculinist," in that as a humanist she wished "to bring about a fair and just balance" (5). Still, Gilman was very clear on her beliefs that women were, by nature, more "nurturing" than men and, therefore, more competent in child care (Women and Economics 124-125). Lane emphasizes that

When Charlotte insisted that she was not a feminist she was not entirely wrong. As she said, she was a humanist; the world was masculinist and she wished to restore an equitable balance. She saw the submergence of women as a critical handicap retarding the best development of society, and it was in this context that she spoke of the social [emphasis mine] need to emancipate women (231-232).

Lane goes on to say that Gilman's main interest was to make society itself a better place by freeing women from their constricted "homemaker" role in the social order, which would, in turn, free men and children from their own narrow roles (232). In 1898, eight years after writing The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman proposed two major changes in the new society: that women become economically independent of their men and develop homemaking as a paid, professional activity, which both women and men could perform (Women and Economics). However, Gilman believed that child care was still primarily a feminine activity and that biology was the determining factor; in Women and Economics, Gilman writes,

The child must have the breast. The mother's breast must have the child. Therefore, between mother and child was born love, long before fatherhood was anything more than a momentary incident (125).

In addition, Gilman proposes the ideal social order when she examines the primitive female as mother in her natural state, before the primitive male realized that it was easier to enslave a female than to fight a competitor every time he wished to mate:

The mother ape, with her maternal function well fulfilled, flees leaping through the forest,--plucks her fruits and nuts, keeps up with the movement of the tribe, her young one on her back or held in one strong arm. But the mother woman, enslaved, could not do this (Women and Economics 60-61).

Thus, Gilman postulates that women are quite capable of becoming economically independent--thus, work outside the home--and still participate fully in the care of their children.

Consequently, "for Charlotte the emancipation of women was a step towards human emancipation, not an ultimate goal in itself" (232)--certainly not a means of denying of what she believed to be the natural order of things. Gilman herself echoes her ambivalence about feminism when she writes: "I worked for Equal Suffrage when opportunity offered, believing it to be reasonable and necessary, though by no means as important as some as its protagonists held" (Gilman, Living 186-187). Thus, feminist critics may be reading more into the text than was ever intended, perhaps basing their interpretations on her later ideological works than on this particular work and on modern attitudes.

So, then, what was Gilman's purpose? It would seem that she may have had a four-part agenda when she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper:

(1) Informing the medical profession, thus her aforementioned goal of sending a message to Dr. Mitchell with the very real hope that he would change his methods of treating "nervous prostration."

(2) Deriving personal therapeutic benefit, thus venting the anger and frustration she must have been feeling when she received little support and virtually no help when she was suffering from her postpartum depression.

(3) Publicizing the effects of mental distress, perhaps in an attempt to discover others who might have also suffered from the condition, that she was not struggling in a vacuum.

(4) Attempting to alleviate some guilt and ambivalence regarding her own motherhood role.

This last part may seem somewhat nebulous; however, when one compares Gilman's ideal role of motherhood with the real role she played in her own daughter's life, one finds obvious gaps and contradictions. For example, Gilman writes that while she loved children and intended to have "six children, three of each kind" (Living 154), she could not because of the "black helplessness into which [she] fell, with its deadness of heart" (154). Thus, she felt that bringing more children into the would be unfair to them and the daughter she already had. Gilman was probably wise: in 1894, she sent her daughter Katharine away to live with Walter and Grace Stetson, the child's father and stepmother (Lane 178). Paradoxically, Gilman wrote glowing accounts of Katharine's early childhood (Living 153-164), but in reality, she was uncomfortable with her child. For clues to Gilman's uneasiness, Ann Lane looks to the yellow wallpaper itself: after it assumes a foul odor, the wallpaper could represent the smell of a child's feces, thus symbolizing Gilman's own fear of babies (129). Also, as the protagonist sees "frightening images" in the wall, her fear becomes more apparent. Referring to the images described in the story, Lane offers the following insight about Gilman's fear of children:

The images are of a baby, the one she has and never sees, and the one she was, and she is frightened by them. It is her own baby and herself as a baby that terrify her, perhaps pregnancy as a threat to the life of the mother, perhaps the insatiable needs of children that devour their mothers and from which mothers must protect themselves by withdrawing from their children, Mary Fitch Perkins [Gilman's mother] from Charlotte, Charlotte Perkins Stetson from Katharine, the young woman in the story from her baby, both unnamed (130).

Thus, by writing The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman was able to fulfill many purposes: to send a message to Dr. Mitchell and the medical profession, to engage in a pre-Freudian form of free association, to reach others who might also be suffering from depression, and to work through her own ambivalence and guilt regarding her child and children in general. By using thinly- veiled fiction as her vehicle,

Charlotte permitted herself to touch emotions and dredge up deep-hidden fears in this semi-autobiographical, fictionalized story in ways she could not in her biography, in her letters, in her dairies, or in her time of treatment with Mitchell (Lane 128).

As a consequence of her writing from personal experience, Gilman was able to create a piece of fiction that was both deeply moving and fulfilling a purpose, a duality that does not seem to be present in her other works.

I. Introduction.....................III. Literary Interpretation of the Subtext

Originally published in The CEA Critic: An Official Journal of The College English Association, 59:3 (Spring/Summer 1997): 44-57.

III. Literary Interpretation of the Subtext (1890-1989)

Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, The Critics, and The Yellow Wallpaper: Fiction "With a Purpose" vs. Literary Interpretation of the Subtext--The Need to Know the Rest of the Story (by Jennifer Semple Siegel)

III. Literary Interpretation of the Subtext (1890-1989)

Even before The Yellow Wallpaper was published, the story sparked controversy throughout literary circles; when William Dean Howells submitted the story to Atlantic Monthly editor H.E. Scudder, the latter rejected it and included the following message:

Mr. Howells handed me this story.

I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself!
(Gilman, Living 119).

Conrad Shumaker explains that the nineteenth-century editor, critic, and reader did not have the cultural background required in order to accept, even as a horror story, the premise of a middle-class wife and mother slipping into insanity, even though the concept of madness was not exactly revolutionary in fiction, i.e., Poe (589). Thus, Mr. Scudder's reaction is not at all surprising.

When The Yellow Wallpaper was finally published in The New England Magazine in May 1891, public reaction was strong; in many ways, Gilman had succeeded too well in conveying the horror of her mental distress. For example, in a letter to the editor published in the Boston Transcript, "M.D." says about the story: "It certainly seems open to serious question if such literature should be permitted in print" (Gilman, Living 120). M.D. goes on to say that such literature containing "deadly peril" could possibly negatively affect those whose "lives have become a struggle against an [sic] heredity of mental derangement in a negative manner" (120). Apparently, many of Gilman's contemporaries echoed M.D.'s sentiments, feeling, perhaps, that deranged people--especially deranged women--ought to stay in their place.

Not all reaction was negative, however, although praise seemed to be limited to the work's medical accuracy. In an unpublished letter to Gilman, Dr. Brummel Jones writes

I am overwhelmed with the delicacy of your touch and the correctness of your portrayal. From a doctor's standpoint, and I am a doctor, you have made a success. So far as I know, and I am fairly well up in literature, there has been no detailed account of incipient insanity (qtd. in Gilman, Living 120).

Obviously, Jones was reading the story on a superficial level, thus fulfilling Gilman's first (and primary) purpose of informing the medical profession. And until 1973, readers tended to view The Yellow Wallpaper primarily "as a Poe-esque tale of chilling horror--and as a story of mental aberration" (Hedges 39).

In the "Afterword" of the Feminist Press revival of The Yellow Wallpaper, Elaine Hedges offers the first feminist interpretation of this work; she postulates that the piece is basically a feminist document, "dealing with sexual politics at a time when few writers felt free to do so, at least candidly" (39). What makes Hedges' interpretation so rich and so plausible is her insistence that a reader should not separate author from story (41-42), and to that end outlines a brief biographical sketch.

Vivian Gornick offers a unique interpretation; in reviewing Anna, a "dairy" written by David Reed, an English writer whose wife had fought depression for years and then finally succumbed to her illness by killing herself, the reviewer uses The Yellow Wallpaper as comparison--except that in Anna, the narrator is the husband, the one who "suffers" from guilt. After Anna kills herself, David reads her papers and discovers that, unknowingly, he had been smothering his wife in ways that John smothers Gilman's character. Gornick says,

"Perhaps" is the operative word here; the word that is at the heart of the matter; the word that makes David Reed the husband in "The Yellow Wallpaper." [David says in his diary:] "Perhaps [Anna] did hate being married...Perhaps she did feel caged..." (280).

Gornick seems to imply that had Gilman's protagonist killed herself, John might have experienced David's epiphany, and then felt some of the same agony and guilt that David feels when he realizes that, in large part, he is responsible for his wife's suicide. Although Gornick's theory is an interesting one, it is mainly speculation, for, from a textual standpoint, the reader does not get an adequate view of John's feelings. We get only a glimmer of what might be going through his head, and the viewpoint is still the protagonist's:

"Better in body perhaps--" I began, and stopped short, for he sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word.

"My darling," said he, "I beg of you, for my sake and for our child's sake, as well for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?"
(Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, 24).

Thus, an attempt to figure what John is thinking and feeling might be an interesting experiment--albeit unprovable. Hence, perhaps critics should focus on Gilman's autobiography, notes, biographies, and text for their interpretations.

Jean E. Kennard makes a good argument for interpreting the text based on a broadened definition of "convention," thus challenging some of the old traditional definitions of the term. For example, Northrop Frye defines a "literary convention" as "the contract agreed on by the reader before he can start reading" (qtd. in Kennard 69). Jonathan Culler refines that definition to include "a set of expectations--of significance, of metaphorical coherence, of thematic unity--which we impose on the text" (qtd. in Kennard 70). Not satisfied, Kennard expands on these definitions by suggesting that, perhaps, the concept of changing conventions could involve nonliterary as well as literary influences (71). Thus, readers might interpret a text based upon their culture, customs, and life experiences, as well as upon literary conventions learned at the academic level. Kennard points out that when Elaine Hedges interpreted The Yellow Wallpaper in 1973 as a feminist piece, her views became widely accepted in the revised canon of American literature because we were "looking at a series of conventions available to readers of the 1970s which were not available to those in 1892" (74).

Kennard goes on to say that even Gilman herself as author may not have intended the work as a feminist piece, but rather, a work that depicts the narrator's slide into insanity. Thus, when Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper in 1890, it was unlikely that readers would read anything more into the story than that of the horror of a young married woman suffering from postpartum depression. Consequently, the 1892 reader would not view the story as depicting the plight of the repressed female, whereas the 1973 reader might agree with feminist critics that the narrator's madness is "a higher form of sanity" and that Gilman shows in vivid detail a "woman's quest for her own identity" (76).

Kennard suggests that there is no "final" interpretation to any literary work, that changing conventions will always color the way in which we view a piece. However, she does caution that individual critics do not usually mold a text to whatever he or she wants it to be, for "we always surrender some part of the individual freedom we do have in order to seek affirmation for our reading from our interpretive community" (86). But if we are to accept the notion of changing conventions determining interpretation of literary works, then "surrendering some part of individual freedom" seems somewhat contradictory, for if people like Elaine Hedges, Kate Millett, or even Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself had not challenged existing conventions by introducing new ways of thinking, perhaps we would have never been exposed to the feminist interpretation of literary works--and men might still be whisking depressed women off to the country for their "rest cures." Thus, offering new insights on older texts--perhaps risking censure by the academic community--can be a rich and rewarding experience for both critic and reader. However, at what point do "changing conventions" become so far removed from what the author intended that the resulting interpretation comes across as implausible? This question continues to fascinate and challenge me, for when I begin to think that I have a sense of where that line occurs, someone like Jean Kennard comes along and forces me to rethink my position.

Conrad Shumaker expands on Kennard's concept of changing conventions to offer an interpretation that includes the idea of the female personality ("imaginative and poetic") vs. the male personality ("rational" and commonsensical), citing Gilman's use of narrative, symbolism, and details (589-590). Also, Shumaker interprets Gilman's "written with a purpose" statement as transcending her sending a message to the medical community, that readers do have to look past the obvious and examine the feminist aspects of the work. He also suggests that the piece has relevance in the modern college classroom, for students of both sexes seem favorably impressed by the story "even before they learn of its feminist context or of the patriarchal biases of nineteenth-century medicine" (589). In addition, Shumaker offers an interesting slant on the nineteenth view of The Yellow Wallpaper--that, contrary to twentieth-century belief, he believes that William Dean Howells and other critics understood only too well of the deeper implications of the piece, that it was more than a bone-chilling horror story. As a result,

Perhaps the story was unpopular because it was, at least on some level, understood all too clearly, because it struck too deeply and effectively at traditional ways of seeing the world and woman's place in it. That, in any case, seems to be precisely what Howells implies in his comment that it is "too terribly good to be printed" (598).

Finally, Shumaker challenges Gilman's statement that The Yellow Wallpaper is not literature, for he asserts that she was "denying that she was a mere imaginative artist," an occupation that was viewed as a feminine activity--and, therefore, as inferior (599). Shumaker may very well be correct--the psychological characteristics of denial are not too difficult to figure out--however, proving such an assertion would be difficult, if not impossible.

Of my sampling of critics, Susan S. Lanser offers what might be most radical departure from Gilman's purpose--and, in my opinion, the least plausible. In her study, Lanser reviews the literature regarding feminist interpretation of The Yellow Wallpaper, citing criticism from six sources (from 1973 to 1986) as her sample: Elaine Hedges, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Annette Kolodny, Jean Kennard, Paula Treichler, and Judith Fetterley. Lanser made an interesting observation about these authors: that their views all seem to reflect a white, middle class feminine perspective and that, perhaps, another interpretation might be helpful. Lanser does not suggest that these interpretations are wrong or outdated but simply that the feminist critics

Seem to have noticed that virtually all feminist discourse on "The Yellow Wallpaper" has come from white academics and that it has failed to question the story's status as a universal woman's text. A feminist criticism willing to deconstruct its own practices would reexamine our exclusive reading of the [work], rethink the implications of its canonization, and acknowledge both the text's position in ideology and our own. That a hard look at feminism's "Yellow Wallpaper" is now possible is already evident by the publication in 1986 of separate essays by Janice Haney-Peritz and Mary Jacobus which use psychoanalytic theory to expose the limits of both the narrator's and feminist criticism's interpretive acts (423-424).

Furthermore, Lanser goes on to say that at this point, a critic might risk "overreading" the work in order to accomplish a more diverse interpretation, which, I believe she does when she interprets the yellow wallpaper as symbolizing Gilman's own racist tendencies, specifically anti-Asian sentiment. Certainly, Gilman was a racist (common for those times), only associating with other white, middle class women (Lane 255-256). However, I still have some difficulty in accepting the yellow wallpaper as suggesting a racist theme. What other color could have Gilman used? Faded pink? Blue? Green? Probably not. Quite simply, yellow was the logical color of the wallpaper, perhaps a yellow that had once been ivory, off-white or even white. Yellow as a color suggests many unpleasant images: urine, old musty clothes, old newspapers and books. However, even though I have some reservations about Lanser's specific interpretation of Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, I admire her courage for taking the risk and presenting her views in a feminist publication.

Most of the literary interpretations presented here seem plausible enough and do not detract from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's original intent. Certainly, "M.D.'s" and Jones' contemporary viewpoints are consistent with the times, and the views of Hedges, Kennard, and Shumaker only enhance the themes intended by the author. However, in my opinion, the interpretations of Gornick and Lanser seem to be reaching for themes that simply do not exist in the text and could not really be drawn from Gilman's journals, letters, autobiography, and biographies. Lanser's analysis seems most problematical in that this critic is calling for a universal interpretation, one that would include women of all ethnic and socio-economic groups. I simply do not believe that this is possible, for Gilman wrote from her own experience, and that experience was that of a white, middle class woman who, in general, did not associate with women outside that group. As a point of comparison, readers would find it difficult to accept the premise that Alice Walker's The Color Purple could be viewed as "a universal woman's text." Such an outcry of protest would be heard from just about every ethnic and socio-economic group, for Walker's work is a result of one Black woman's experience, and to view it any other way would insult the integrity of the text. Therefore, Lanser's cry for further deconstruction of the text would be a call that might well go unheeded.


Originally published in The CEA Critic: An Official Journal of The College English Association, 59:3 (Spring/Summer 1997): 44-57.

IV. Conclusion

Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, The Critics, and The Yellow Wallpaper: Fiction "With a Purpose" vs. Literary Interpretation of the Subtext--The Need to Know the Rest of the Story (by Jennifer Semple Siegel)


I believe that Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper primarily as an autobiographical piece--her liberal political views on social issues would come later in her non-fiction works, such as Women and Economics (1898), Concerning Children (1900), The Home: Its Work and Influence (1904), and Human Work (1904) and other fiction, such as Herland (1915). Ann Lane says it best:

"The Yellow Wallpaper"...stands apart from the entire body of [Gilman's] extensive fiction. It is, in my opinion, the only genuinely literary piece she ever created and it is also, of all her fiction, the most consciously autobiographical (127).

However, the story itself is ambiguous enough to allow room for extensive interpretations of the subtext; thus, a reader should consider some of the recent literary interpretation of this short masterpiece. Still, some of the criticism detracts from what Gilman intended, even to the point of insulting the integrity of the text.

I suggest, then, that Gilman's primary purpose for writing The Yellow Wallpaper is much more compelling and significant than any subsequent literary interpretation done on the piece. This is not to say that other interpretations are not valid and informative, but that, perhaps, they tend to place too much importance on themes that Gilman would not or could not have considered.


Originally published in The CEA Critic: An Official Journal of The College English Association, 59:3 (Spring/Summer 1997): 44-57.

V. Works Cited

Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, The Critics, and The Yellow Wallpaper: Fiction "With a Purpose" vs. Literary Interpretation of the Subtext--The Need to Know the Rest of the Story (by Jennifer Semple Siegel)

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1935.

-----. Women and Economics. New York: Source Books, 1970.

-----. The Yellow Wallpaper. Old Westbury (NY): The Feminist Press, 1973.

Gornick, Vivian. "Twice Told Tales." Nation 23 Sep.1978: 278-281.

Hedges, Elaine R. "'Afterword' to The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Old Westbury (NY): Feminist Press, 1973: 37-63.

Kennard, Jean E. "Convention Coverage or How to Read Your Own Life." New Literary History XIII:1 (Autumn 1981): 69-88.

Lane, Ann J. To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.

Lanser, Susan S. "Feminist Criticism, The Yellow Wallpaper, and the Politics of Color in America." Feminist Studies 15 (1989): 415-441.

Shumaker, Conrad. "'Too Terribly Good to be Printed': Charlotte Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper.'" American Literature 57 (1985): 592-93.


Originally published in The CEA Critic: An Official Journal of The College English Association, 59:3 (Spring/Summer 1997): 44-57.