New Historicism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

CGP The Yellow Wallpaper

Link to Story:

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a work of fiction that closely follows her personal experiences in the four previous years under the “rest care” of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. The work was written as an outward expression not only of her response in disagreement and protest to the treatment he prescribed, but as an extension to the suffering of women in America up to the time surviving in a patriarchal society oppressively restraining women to the home, limiting their advancement culturally and professionally. Specifically, the story parallels Gilman’s own plight into depression and her perception of the confinement she experienced. (Quawas, 2006)

Taking a New Historical approach to understanding The Yellow Wallpaper, we venture beyond intrinsic forms and symbolisms to examine the social, biographical and historical context The Yellow Wallpaper exhibits within its genre, author’s intent, and its place among trending influences of its time. As we seek to interpret the social meaning and context in light of events and movements of Gilman’s day, the late 1800’s, we recognize some significant events of her time. Being raised around an aunt, the suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker and Elizabeth Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was acutely aware of the sufferings of the human condition and the vast and indignant infringements on social justice for many classes of people, especially women. (Gilman, 1935)

Gilman’s depression stemmed from post-partum depression brought on by the birth of their only child Katherine Beecher Stetson in 1885. Medical views at the time categorized women as hysterical and suffering with a serious nervous condition after childbirth. By 1888, Charlotte separated from Charles Walter Stetson and by July of 1890 had written The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman wrote a one page document about why she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper and to the best of my summation describes herself seeking help for her self-described melancholia from a noted specialist. She received the “rest care” treatment and followed it to a tee for about three months. After which, she became very nearly completely insane. She tossed out his orders and went back to work writing and felt total relief. As a result, she felt compelled to pen TYP and even sent him a copy. The man never responded, but it’s said he change his practice of prescribing “rest care” as a treatment for neurasthenia. (Gilman, 1913)

Texturally, the work has several instances of relation to the mistreatment, imbalance and disproportionate values regarding women at the time.

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?  (Gilman, 1892)

And again here:

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 musn’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.

Conclusively, Gilman is a force working to right the injustice of her day. So many works have been predicated on her efforts to illustrate in the most artistic and academic fashion through her fictionalized and parallel experience, that she exceeds her intended goal of “saving people from being driven crazy” as she states in her response published in the October issue of The Forerunner in 1913. (Gilman, 1913)

– Postcolonial Views on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ –

It isn’t truly accurate to say Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is a work of modern feminism. In fact, by her own admission in an article she wrote for The Forerunner magazine in 1913, she describes writing it to “keep people from going crazy” referring more to the diagnosis and treatment than the fact of her doctor was male and it being necessarily a systemic result of a patriarchal hierarchy, whether it actually was or not her intent being more about the malpractice. That being the case, it is fair to examine The Yellow Wallpaper through a similar, yet profoundly distinct other lens, the postcolonial one.

Replacing the superiority of a male dominate in the feminine sense, the postcolonial derives its lack of hegemony still from her husband John, but in an imperial sense. The wallpaper itself represents a confinement of the subordinate interwoven with the rules and dictates set up by the colonizer where the subordinate is incapable of achieving any proper understanding, admittance and control. This is epitomized in the line:

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” (Gilman 9)

This represents a crossroads of feminism in its proto state with postcolonial analysis in an advanced state with echoes of disability criticism, queer theory and ethnic studies in related application.


Works Cited

Bertens, Johannes Willem. Literary Theory the Basics. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Project Gutenberg. Web. 3 Jan. 2016.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Forerunner 1 Oct. 1913. Print.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, and Zona Gale. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. An Autobiography…Foreword by Zona Gale. New York and London, 1935. Arno Press, 1972; and Harper & Row, 1975. Print.

Quawas, Rula. “A New Woman’s Journey into Insanity: Descent and Return in The Yellow Wallpaper.” Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association (2006): 35-53. Print.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s