Daughters of Decadence and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This week, my favourite publishing imprint (for obvious reasons) Virago is reissuing the short story collection Daughters of Decadence: Stories by Women Writers of the Fin de Siècle, edited by Elaine Showalter. The collection includes stories by Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Mew and Constance Fenimore Woolson, amongst others. Possibly the most famous story included is feminist classic ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Rather than cover the whole collection, Virago asked whether I’d focus on this one story and, having last read it as an undergraduate student some twenty years ago, I’m delighted to revisit it.

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‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is narrated by an unnamed woman. She has moved, along with her husband, John, into an ‘ancestral hall’ for the summer whilst work is carried out on their home. The house is cheap and has been uninhabited for some time which leads her to believe ‘there is something queer about it’. Her husband disagrees. He also disagrees with her when she tells him she is ill.

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.

[…]

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?

Not two pages in and already I’m furious at Freud – he’s got a lot to answer for when it comes to society’s views of women. Did someone mention the patriarchy?

The narrator goes on to describe the room which they’ve taken for their bedroom. The room was her husband’s choice – ‘I don’t like our room a bit’ – and she’s particularly perturbed by the wallpaper:

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 colour 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 in others.

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

As the story progresses, the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper, convinced that there are two different patterns to it and that they change with the light. Then she discovers there’s a woman behind it, trying to get out…

Two key things I haven’t mentioned yet are – one – that the narrator is a writer but her husband and her sister-in-law disapprove of her pursuit. She writes the story in snatched moments, hiding her work when one of them enters the room. By making her a writer, Gilman highlights how women have been denied their own voices and the right to tell their own stories. Two – that the narrator is a mother. It’s four pages into the story before she mentions the baby and we never see him. Here the possibility that the narrator is suffering from post-natal depression is raised. Why don’t the men in her life consider this? At the time the story was written it had only recently been recognised as a condition. Also, why would a new mother be depressed? Having a child is what women are made for, isn’t it?

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ considers the merits of the rest cure and finds them lacking. It looks at the feelings of entrapment women experience trying to survive in a patriarchal society which dictates their emotions to them, tells them what they need and expects them to conform to marriage and motherhood without protest. It’s an incredibly powerful story and one that continues to resonate more than a century after it’s initial publication.

 

Thanks to Virago for the review copy.

0 thoughts on “Daughters of Decadence and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

  1. I read this for the first time fairly recently and found it fantastically creepy. It seems very modern too – distinctly different from anything else I’ve ever read from the same period.
    Obviously, made my blood boil too…

  2. An excellent critique of what sounds like a landmark story (I have to confess that I’d never heard of it until now). Short story anthologies are a great way to sample a few ‘new’ writers alongside tried and trusted favourites such as Wharton. Thank for the review – I shall look out for this one.

    • Thanks, Jacqui. I’m quite shocked you hadn’t heard of it before – sometimes I forget not everyone was an English student! Hope you enjoy the rest of the stories.

  3. I’ve not read this for some time but I do remember it as chilling. The repetition of ‘what is one to do’ in the quote you’ve pulled out conveys all too well the narrator’s feelings of impotence. No wonder it’s stood the test of time.

    • It’s funny what sticks isn’t it? I just remembered the woman behind the wallpaper but reading it again now it’s clear it’s had an influence on my own writing.

  4. So glad Virago have done this. These women were profoundly brave (in a way we might not always understand now when many of us can choose to have a public life, put pen to paper etc) and they deserve to be remembered not only for their brilliant writing but for their audacity and pioneering spirit. Arguably all women writing today are indebted to the women (like these) who went before us. Thanks for the review!

  5. I’ve been meaning to re-read The Yellow Wallpaper for ages. I have it in another collection with other collected writings.

  6. Like you I read the story when at university in the 90s and it had a profound effect on me, along with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. These stories have stayed in my consciousness and I often return to them. Powerful today they must have been volcanic in their day.

  7. I’ve been meaning to read ‘The Yellowed Wallpaper’ for ages, but it hasn’t shown up on any of my recent secondhand book trawls. Hmm, it’s inclusion in this new Virago collection has me very tempted!