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“Feminism, but not the bad kind” — The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman

“Feminism, but not the bad kind”–hapless college boy, all-but-pilloried in the OSH building at the University of Utah

I laugh every time I think of that quote, whose origin you’ll learn by the end of this post.

Whatever you think about women’s equality in our era–and I’d say that there’s a lot of work to do–I hope you’ll agree that it was worse back in the 19th century.  It is unlikely these days that a woman’s husband will keep her in an upstairs room in their rented “ancestral halls” so that she can recover from her ladylike, “hysterical tendencies.”

But that’s what happens to the poor wife in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman, which I first read in an anthology of feminism during college.  This story has always stuck with me, the ending especially, which is something the best horror does very well.  But Wallpaper, if it’s a horror story, is psychological. This is one you can read without worrying that you’re going to be drenched in gore all of the sudden.

So, our main character, tucked away for her own good: Maybe she’s depressed, maybe she’s hysterical, maybe there’s nothing wrong with her at all.  Doesn’t matter.  Her husband is a “physician of high standing,” so of course he knows best, and he has decided that this is for the best.

As she tells us in her journal–the journal entries, which she hides from her husband, comprise the entire story:

 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?

What is she to do?  Well, she does what she’s told by the man of the house, which is sit in the room, trapped, with nothing for company but the strange yellow wallpaper, her thoughts, and her journal.

And here’s where the story starts to get strange. As the days pass she begins to see patterns in the wallpaper.  The patterns take the shape of women, women who become her pals. She starts picking away at the walls, enjoying the “yellow smell,” and bonding with her new playmates.

By the end, if she’s relating the events accurately, she’s out of her mind.  This is what I remember most about the discussion in classes: she’s obviously an unreliable narrator at story’s end, unless you really believe that the wallpaper is full of other trapped women.    But is she sane at the beginning of the story?  Were we ever supposed to take her at her word?  Does her husband’s “treatment” of her cause the mental break?

It was a lively conversation, that’s for sure.  I remember one poor kid saying, “Yeah, I think this story is definitely feminism, but not the ‘bad kind.'” Holy cow, you should have seen the looks he got as the professor stood and said, “Whoa–what’s the bad kind of feminism?” Wow, did that kid squirm!  He tried to defend himself, but it was hopeless.  I’ve always wondered why he opened his mouth at all.  After, I asked him why he had said it, and all he could really do was stick his lip out and hurry away.

Here’s the full text of The Yellow Wallpaper.  Enjoy.

Also, I see that there’s a movie version.  Have any of you seen it?




Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Spencer October 9, 2012, 3:24 pm

    I read this a long time ago, also in school, but I can’t remember when. I remember there being some speculation that a toxic component in the wallpaper/glue may have caused/exacerbated her hallucinations. Women had it rough back then, that is for sure. Thank goodness for change, and not the bad kind.

  • Daisy October 10, 2012, 6:14 pm

    Scary. Frightening. In other ways, still reality, today is also a dangerous time to be female. Change has been good, very good, but we haven’t come far enough to call that change true equality. Frankly, the outcome of the November election carries visions every bit as frightening as the images in the Yellow Wallpaper.

  • Ara Bedrossian October 12, 2012, 10:32 am

    Just look at the commercial for household cleaning items and you can see our culture still has unenlightened gender roles.
    However, I do see a bad feminism in any of the messages that state that females can do everything a male can do. On average, would you prefer a female rather than male police officer try to help you as you’re being attacked? Or a female rather than male fire fighter saving you from a fire?
    We are all the same, but denying our differences absolutely is as unenlightened as expecting the female to clean and cook for you.