The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Elaine Hedges

“This wallpaper has a kind of subpattern 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.”

Classic horror in small doses provided by an author I had not heard about but who is now someone I will seek out for other stories.

The Yellow Wallpaper tells the story of a woman who is incarcerated in her own house and basically confined to rest in a room without being allowed to do anything. No work, no mental diversion. All because her keepers – mainly her husband – believe this is what is best for her, even though he does not understand the reason for the woman’s illness:

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

Over the three months (!) of her confinement, the woman has nothing to occupy her mind except for the room she is in and the wallpaper hanging in pieces:

“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.”

In fact, the description of the room strongly reminded me of Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story, where a prisoner is held and where isolation, inactivity, and a bare room is used as a form of torture. In order to keep sane, the prisoner starts an imaginary chess game against himself, which he cannot win.

So, when reading The Yellow Wallpaper’s first few chapters, I suspected that the story might reveal similar motives. As the paragraphs went on, however, I became less interested in the motives of the “carers” (or captors) and instead increasingly interested in the woman’s identity. She is not named. Was she a person or was she a ghost?

For a story written in 1890, The Yellow Wallpaper packs a lot of punch. I had not expected that the story was not really written as a horror story, but was written as social commentary based on the author’s own experience, which in fact just adds to its poignancy.

When Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote the The Yellow Wallpaper, she knew about suffering from post-natal depression and had first-hand experience of the then newly developed prescription on rest cures – a treatment consisted primarily in isolation, confinement to bed, dieting, electrotherapy and massage – because she had been a patient of the developer of said cure, Silas Weir Mitchell, who even gets a mention in The Yellow Wallpaper.

I guess, this is another instance where fiction and fact are inseparable, and where circumstances that once described the fate of real people will now pass as classic horror.


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