A Gilded Cage of Yellow
“Lie down an hour after each meal,” a famous Philadelphia neurologist advised writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was suffering from marital malaise and a deep-seated desire not to clean the house. “Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.”
Unfortunately, that curious counsel was no anomaly in 1885; doctors routinely dispensed an admonition against activity to women afflicted with “nervous prostration,” a condition thought to stem from overstimulation of the fragile female nervous system. Rest and relaxation in the bosom of the family constituted the state-of-the-art cure. But Gilman, whose nerves were already “wilted,” and whose mind resembled a “piece of boiled spinach,” thought the physician’s suggestion sounded more like a recipe for month-old stew.
“Life is a a verb!” she would later write. “Life consists of action.”
So leaving her spouse to cope with the dirty dishes, the scandalous Gilman fled to California and proceeded to pen her own alternative prescription for well-being. Flexing those forbidden mental muscles, she discovered the “joy and growth” that had eluded her as a pampered Victorian pet. Flouting the taboo against hard work, she reclaimed the “measure of power” denied to those who devoted their lives to passive pedestal adornment.
And in her internationally acclaimed Women and Economics, which traced a plethora of social ills to suffocating marriages, Gilman recommended a thoroughly rigorous route to recovery for ladies languishing in their gilded cages.
Nowhere, however, did the self-healed heroine so eloquently state her case against the stifling status quo as in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” her 1892 story of a conventional housewife’s descent into insanity.
But like the male medic who misdiagnosed the writer’s malady, not every reader was capable of comprehending the nature of an unhappy woman’s private hell. Indeed, vivid descriptions of “strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus” provoked one American anthologizer to relegate the piece to the horror genre.
“Such a story,” asserted another disgusted student of literature, “ought not to be written. It was enough to drive someone mad to read it.”
But Gilman knew better — and so, a century later, do contemporary readers who heed the caveat of that chilling tale. According to the daring wordsmith herself, the only story that could truly drive a woman insane was her own biography, written in the passive voice.
Gilman in the October, 1913 issue of The Forerunner, a magazine she founded, offers a personal account on why she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
She assures readers she never suffered from hallucinations or objections to the decorative murals of the wallpaper.
She also admits to sending a copy of the story to the physician who so nearly drove her mad. Predictably, he never acknowledged having received it.
Excerpts: Wild Women: Crusaders, Curmudgeons and Completely Corsetless Ladies in the Otherwise Virtuous Victorian Era by Autumn Stevens. Conari Press, 1992.
Photo Credits preceding page: Designer: Erika Trotzig. Photographer: Yuval Hen.