Short Story Review: The Yellow Wallpaper

Terrifying, but phenomenal.

It’s only natural that an author would write about something they’re familiar with. This generally gives the reader a unique view into a certain experience, helping the reader sympathize and even at times empathize.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman offers exactly this as the narrator in her story delves into the depression felt after childbirth: exploring how her interactions with the world changed as a result. Her psychological breakdown begins from the first few pages as the reader is drawn in to see a person fall apart by mental illness through the stages of denial, anxiety, depression, insomnia, hallucinations, and paranoia. Not to mention the struggle she felt in conveying this to others.

Having been written in 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper explores the themes of depression, childbirth, love, angst, confusion, and self-worth. These themes are explored in a depth that only a first-person account of falling apart can do so. The bit that astonishes me is the book is as relevant today as it was in 1892. Her account of mental illness and the stigma attached is something we see regularly in society. Moreover, it’s something even our loved ones can overlook:

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?

The story utilizes writing techniques that amplify the narrator’s distress. Short bursts and interjections are widely used, with questions breaking through a series of thoughts to change the topic. This staccato in writing provides the reader with an uneasy setting — intensifying as the story continues. The harrowing emotions felt by the narrator lay a foundation of empathy: the reader feels distressed and so does she.

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.

The narrator in the story is either optimistic or naive and I’ve not been able to decide which. Her condition worsens through the story to a point of abject insanity where upon seeing her condition, her husband faints. Throughout the story, the narrator is optimistic about recovering but eventually gives in to the illness as moments from the book jump around and jumble into disarray.

The story left me jaded at the end — not because I was sympathizing with what the narrator had been through but because I was frustrated that more should have been done. I felt as if the narrator was let down despite a support network, who throughout most of the story needed to be more understanding. Being locked in a bedroom is rarely a place for someone who’s going through an unstable period. But being set in 1892, I’m not surprised at the stigma attached to mental illness and the lack of help given.

(Photo: Loyola University Archive/ Loyno.edu)

However, and this is most important, a certain part of me knows that the pain the narrator felt in the book is as real now as it was then. At times, we all can feel like we’re locked in a yellow bedroom and there’s a bit of solace in knowing that Charlotte Perkins Gilman recovered.

I cherish this story as it offers the reader more in terms of takeaways for life than several novels combined.

This story is phenomenal. Terrifying, but phenomenal.

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