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National Review
National Review
29 Apr 2023
Luther Ray Abel

NextImg:The Corner: Weekend Short: Charlotte Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

Author’s note: “Weekend Short” is a weekly profile of a short story. Additional analysis by the readership is encouraged in the comments section.

Welcome to the weekend!

Warmed by sunlight and bird calls, my tradesman neighbor pulled his fishing boat out of the shed yesterday, so you know it had to rain today — five days of shine during the workweek, then two days of rain and chores on the weekend. . . . It never fails.

Today’s story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” arrived some time ago (1892) from Charlotte Gilman’s pen; the thrust is proto-feminist (an ambiguous term commonly thought to apply to pre-20th century works), and the fictitious account is a wicked good read.

The tale follows the mental deterioration of a young woman whose doctors — her husband and her brother — insist upon her recuperation in isolated bed rest. A woman whose life had its share of male-inflicted heartbreak, Gilman offers caustic treatment of the sort of men (authorities) who know better and will brook no argument. After this week’s debates and distortions concerning school lockdowns and Covid-era restrictions, the story has currency within and without the florid politics of sex.

Gilman writes:

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity—but that would be asking too much of fate!

Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.

Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?

John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.

John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.

John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.

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?

My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.

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?

I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.

I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.

So I will let it alone and talk about the house.

The most beautiful place! It is quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people.

There is a delicious garden! I never saw such a garden—large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them.

There were greenhouses, too, but they are all broken now.

There was some legal trouble, I believe, something about the heirs and co-heirs; anyhow, the place has been empty for years.

That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid; but I don’t care—there is something strange about the house—I can feel it.

I even said so to John one moonlight evening, but he said what I felt was a draught, and shut the window.

I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition.

You can read the rest here, or listen to it here.

Assuming you’ve now enjoyed (or despaired at) the story, let us consider. Our protagonist, whose name we only learn in the concluding paragraphs, isn’t good for much of anything. Given her child’s dependence on a wet nurse, readers can interpret Jane to suffer from postpartum depression, especially when employing the symbolism of her appointed room and ward being the dilapidated nursery of the home. A uniquely female affliction, her postpartum expressions are misunderstood by her male doctors, and as party to her thoughts and fantasies, we are huddled up with Jane in the womb of enforced infantilization.

It’s simple enough to expand the male/female dynamic here and apply it to our day. An unimpeachable expert class, an irreproachable bureaucracy, and disinterested media contributed to many of the same emotions over the last four years. When Americans said “this doesn’t feel right” they were informed that they were afflicted with imbalanced humors: delusions, paranoia, and the most perfervid (thanks, Jeff) subconscious biases imaginable. As information came out, the parties that insisted they had the truth of events suddenly insisted that we must be mistaken for thinking they said what they said.

Gilman, a woman out of place in her time — who would eventually find love close to home — was a social outcast in practically every category. She was unhappy and terminally self-destructive, but gadzooks did she know what she was talking about on the subject of prescribed madness.

Here’s Willie Nelson (the legend) and Billy Strings (a brilliant new voice) singing “California Sober”:

Thanks to Andrea for suggesting “Wallpaper.”

Author’s note: If there’s a short story you’d like to see discussed in the coming weeks, please send your suggestion to . After a recent brush with an author’s estate, please consider offering suggestions that exist within the public domain. Lawyers, man.

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