A compelling and fascinating short story, Charlotte Gilman, takes the reader on an intense journey through the struggles of women’s autonomy over their minds and bodies. Set in Gilman’s historical moment this short story discusses the damaging consequences of women being treated secondary to their male counterparts. Gilman’s semi-autobiographical narrative discusses her experiences with depression, a controlling husband, lack of autonomy, and finally liberation. Gilman tell’s a story of a woman who is given no name. This no name woman is experiencing something that she cant quite put her finger on. Her doctor, who is also her husband, tells her she is just acting “foolish” and “hysterical.” He prescribes her rest for three months in hopes of helping her feel more “normal.” This reference Gilman makes to the historical reality of how women’s mental health was treated in the nineteenth-century is spot on. Gilman is pushing back at Silas Weir Mitchell’s “rest cure” approach that was prescribed to women who were acting “foolish” or “hysterical” in the 1800s.
Gilman narrates the no name woman resting, as prescribed, but in turn going stir crazy. All the while, her husband continues to dismiss her and insists on her resting. The woman with no name is left to secretly write wishes and desires down on paper. If her husband found her writing it would be going against his prescribed rest. Being locked up in her room the woman with no name becomes obsessed with the room—specifically the yellow wallpaper. The wallpaper becomes a simile for society.
In a bizarre turn, the woman with no name starts to sees a woman inside the wallpaper.
Gilman allows her protagonist to discusses this woman she sees in the wallpaper as her true desire. A desire for friendship, companionship, and even a career. By the end of the story she is angry and tired, maybe even “sicker” than before all the “rest” she was prescribed. In a final act of rebellion, the woman with no name, pulls the wallpaper almost completely off the walls and liberates the woman behind the wallpaper. She liberates herself.
Finally, this texts becomes a stand in for discussing issues Gilman wants to illuminate in 1892. This short story becomes the platform to do just that. The author ultimately brings up topics that were quite racy for the times such as: women’s equality, mental health issues, female heath, women’s desires and career opportunities. Gilman also pushes back on narratives that relegated women to “hysterical” beings and discusses the true nature of gender oppression in a toxic masculine society. This is a must read for historians. I would also recommend this to anyone who is interested in a fascinating short read that examines the past and the legacy of male oppression and women’s liberation.