First things first: this is my first review of a short story by a female writer, so – yay! It’s an old one (1892), but really it never gets old.* Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s quick read is a striking examination of social hierarchy and the treatment of mental illness in her time. What is more, as well as its moral integrity, this tale is an aesthetic wonder – the intensity of the first-person prose will leave you stunned, confused and wondering how you got to where you are. Before Black Swan, there was The Yellow Wallpaper; psychological horror at its finest, this short book will be over before you even realise you’ve begun, as you are sucked entirely into the timeless and static mind of the narrator.
This short tale is the story of a woman who is taken to the countryside by her husband, to recuperate from a problematic ‘nervous’ disposition. As unimaginable as it may seem, though, the poor woman’s mental health does not improve upon her practical incarceration in a tiny bedroom, which is unhelpfully covered in increasingly disconcerting yellow wallpaper. In the fragmented diary-entry form of the story, the claustrophobic yellow wallpaper dominates more and more, as the health of the protagonist seems to deteriorate with each step away from her diary; the gaps between entries get longer, and the person returning to scrawl in her notebook does not seem to be the same one who left. If you’re anything like me, you might start to blame her family – after all, you the reader are clueless as to what happens in between the fragments – what are they doing to her?
Do you find yourself becoming slightly… paranoid? Much like the narrator of the tale, before you know it, you are suspicious of everyone and everything. Do you think everyone is out to get her? So does she. You’ll be so caught up in the convincing madness of the protagonist that those critically important words – unreliable narrator – won’t even cross your mind.
Despite the constant foreshadowing and discreet warnings, you’ve fallen into the trap. Are you, too, being affected by the insidious wallpaper? As the tale reaches its climax, you’ll be thinking like the woman in the story: she needs to look after herself, she can’t rely on anyone else, her husband is not on her side… Only at the sinister, and somehow shockingly visual, ending (which forces you to picture the protagonist from an outside point of view), do you realise how caught up in her madness you have been. Suddenly, you have the privilege of perspective that she does not, and you can see everything for what it truly is.
I fear I’m setting a bit of a theme here – but, it sounds grotesquely (and slightly perversely) brilliant, doesn’t it? I promise I’ll try to find something a bit nicer for my next review, but for now, give Gilman a chance. The woman in the wallpapered room is waiting for you to pick up her diary; she’s waiting to tell her story again; she’s waiting to pull you into her interior world, and make you forget that anything other exists.
And hey, you know it’s a quick read. You have nothing to lose
other than, perhaps, your grip on reality.