Dec/Jan 2011

Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Phoebe Connelly


Published without remuneration by New England Magazine in 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" is an account of a woman who, confined to bed with an unnamed illness, slowly loses her grip on reality. Though the author enjoyed some renown during her lifetime, she was mostly forgotten until feminists "rediscovered" the story and reissued it in 1973. Since then, it has occasioned nearly eight hundred publications and scholarly projects—no doubt because the woman's madness, and her discovery of a woman trapped in the wallpaper of her room, can be read as everything from an indictment of male-centric medicine to a brief on the power of the female imagination.

The latest to join this torrent of commentators is biographer Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. Unlike her forerunners, Horowitz has at her command what she terms "a historian's dream"—Gilman's journals and correspondence, as well as the diary of her first husband, Charles Walter Stetson, and the papers of the famed doctor S. Weir Mitchell, whose popular rest cure Gilman underwent during the first years of her marriage after the birth of her only child. Horowitz sets up Gilman's history in order to analyze the writer's fiction through the lens of biography.

At times Wild Unrest gets mired in an academic game of he-said, she-wrote, but overall it's a fascinating account of one woman's attempt to navigate the tightly circumscribed social world of the 1800s. Gilman's marriage was preceded by a passionate female friendship that fell apart when the other girl married. (The was-it-sexual question is somewhat answered by the fact that Gilman took a female partner later in life.) Before agreeing to marry Stetson, she suggested that the two form a partnership that would allow her a home (and career) of her own; he could come to her "when the erotic tendency was at a maximum." Stetson was so horrified by the proposal that he crossed out an account of the offer in his journal.

Marriage weighed on Gilman, who emerges here as intellectually ambitious and passionate, but it wasn't the only source of discomfort—she suffered depressive episodes before meeting Stetson and struggled financially after their divorce. Still, it's clear that the constraints of conventional marriage led to her worst episode of depression, which she mined for "Wallpaper."

Near the end of the story, the narrator attempts to convince her husband that she is not improving and, after he reproaches her, returns to contemplating the wallpaper. "He thought I was asleep first, but I wasn't, and lay there for hours trying to decide whether that front pattern and the back pattern really did move together or separately." This, it turns out, is a neat shorthand for the biggest question Horowitz tackles: Does literature gain anything from being read for hints of biography? Horowitz's account is compelling more for the life lived and less for how that life informed Gilman's story. For as much as her history mirrors "Wallpaper," Gilman escaped her demons, becoming a noted speaker and public intellectual. The more interesting question, which Horowitz leaves unanswered, is how Gilman, shortly after publishing "Wallpaper," managed to lift herself out of crippling depression and into public life.

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