Skip to content

The Yellow Wallpaper Essay Introduction

Word association time, y'all. What do you think of when we say the words "psychological treatment"?

If you're anything like most denizens of the 21st Century, you probably thought of counselors' offices. Prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication. Talking it out with a shrink. Equine therapy. Breathing exercises. Maybe a soothing yoga routine.

You probably didn't hear the words "psychological treatment" and think "Oooh, oooh: I know—being forced to lie in bed and do literally nothing for weeks!"

And that's because you don't live in the 1880's, a.k.a. the Dark Ages of psychological treatment.

But way back in 1887, Charlotte Perkins Gilman went to see a specialist in the hope of curing her recurring nervous breakdowns. The specialist recommended a "rest cure," which consisted of lying in bed all day and engaging in intellectual activity for only two hours a day. After three months, Gilman says, she was "near the borderline of utter mental ruin." (Check out the epic—and epically terrifying— "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper" for more.)

In due time, Gilman disregarded the specialist’s advice and wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" to demonstrate the kind of madness produced by the popular "rest cure." It was published in 1891 in New England Magazine.

For the first decades of its life, "The Yellow Wallpaper" was read as a piece of horror fiction firmly situated in the Gothic genre.  And we're not terribly shocked by this: the story is about a woman who, when given the rest cure, ends up seeing a woman crawling out of her wallpaper.

It's serious pee-your-pants (or at least reconsider-wallpapering-your-bedroom) stuff.

But according to Gilman, the short story was never intended as a Gothic horror, but rather as a cautionary tale about what supposed "rest cures" could do to the mental stability of patients. (She sent a copy to the physician who had recommended a rest cure, and he subsequently changed his medical practices.)

In her own words, Gilman wrote:

It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked. (Source)

And, since Women's Movement of the 1960's, "The Yellow Wallpaper" been anthologized as a piece  illustrating 19th Century attitudes towards women’s physical and mental health.

Yup: this bit of horror Lit got reclassified as something akin to realism...which, paradoxically, is an even better reason to break out in a cold sweat.

It's easy to read "The Yellow Wallpaper" and feel a little smug. After all, you're living in the 21st Century. Thing like leaving a someone alone for most of the day without any mental stimulation just doesn't happen these days, right? And if it does, it's certainly not done in someone's best interest, right?

Right?

Um, the answer is "yes" and "no." We don't package it as a "rest cure," but solitary confinement still happens at an astonishing rate.

The narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" spends a summer languishing mostly alone on a bed nailed down to the floor. And she does this on the orders of a well-meaning husband and a well-meaning doctor (who, um, happen to be the same man). Being essentially locked into a room with nothing to do was seen as the very best treatment against mental illness. And, as we see in this story, the treatment actually made its patients more unstable, not less.

And even though the "rest cure" has gone the way of the velociraptor (good riddance), there's still a cousin of the rest cure being used around the country, even today. We're talking about solitary confinement in prisons.

Like in "The Yellow Wallpaper," prison solitary confinement is supposed to be good for the inmate. It's supposed to "foster personal redemption through habits of meditation and penitence" but it ends up "irreparably harming the human psyche." (Source)

Check out the following quote from a Wired article on the psychology of solitary confinement:

For 23 hours or more per day, in what’s euphemistically called “administrative segregation” or “special housing,” prisoners are kept in bathroom-sized cells, under fluorescent lights that never shut off. Video surveillance is constant. Social contact is restricted to rare glimpses of other prisoners, encounters with guards, and brief video conferences with friends or family.

For stimulation, prisoners might have a few books; often they don’t have television, or even a radio. [...] As one Florida teenager described in a report on solitary confinement in juvenile prisoners, “The only thing left to do is go crazy.” (Source)

Sound familiar? We thought so.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is famous as a text that addresses sexism and the stigmatizing of the mentally ill. And you should certainly read it with those themes in mind—they're super-important, and the world is in dire need of gender equality and acceptance of mental illness.

But the "Yellow Wallpaper" is also famous for its gut-wrenching descriptions of the effects of being holed up and left alone and we live in a world where, as of 2016, an estimated 80,000-100,000 inmates are held in isolated confinement. (Source) That's 80,000-100,000 people who risk serious mental injury as a result of isolation, guys.

Barack Obama called solitary confinement "an affront to our common humanity," and we think, after reading "The Yellow Wallpaper," you'll definitely agree.

(We also think you'll never be able to look at wallpaper the same way again, but hey: most wallpaper is pretty hideous anyway.)

+ All Yellow Wallpaper Essays:

  • Superficial Power: The Gifts Afforded to Property
  • Insanity in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Graphical User Interfaces
  • Slumdog Millionaire - Analyse How Visual Techniques Are Used to Develop Deeper Ideas in a Visual Text You Have Studied.
  • Self Reflection
  • 7p's of Airtel
  • The Oppression of Women by Society in The Yellow Wallpaper
  • Symbolism of the Yellow Raft in Yellow Raft in Blue Water
  • A Woman Indefinitely Plagued: The Truth Behind The Yellow Wallpaper
  • Stifled Women in Yellow Wallpaper, Rappaccini's Daughter, and Beloved
  • Gender Roles in The Yellow Wallpaper and A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Invisible Distrimination in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilman
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • English Class Reflection Paper
  • Gender Role Effects in "The Yellow Wallpaper"
  • Search For Freedom in The Yellow Wallpaper
  • Comparing Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper; and Kate Chopin's The Story of an Hour
  • Emily's Rose
  • Importance of Symbolism and Setting in The Yellow Wallpaper
  • The Signalman by Charles Dickens, The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Social Criticism in The Yellow-Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Theme of Isolation in Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums and Chopin’s The Awakening
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Story, The Yellow Wallpaper, Isolating the Sick is not Medication
  • Manage Under Uncertainty
  • Mendelian Genetics Lab Report
  • Theory of Photometry
  • Is John A Good Husband?
  • Essay on Oppression in The Yellow Wallpaper, At the Cadian Ball, and The Storm
  • The Sound of a Hundred Feathers: The Symbolism of Richard Hook's Painting, Adoption of the Human Race
  • Jane's Psychological Problems in Charlotte Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper
  • Women and Self-Reliance, Is This Possible?
  • William Morris
  • Genetic Crosses Features: Heredity and the Environment
  • Leslie Marmon Silko's Lullaby, Storyteller, and Yellow Woman
  • Absorption Spectroscopy: Beer-Lambert Law
  • Chabot Wallpaper Company Case
  • Conflict in the Yellow Wallpaper
  • Walter Gropius and The Bauhaus Movement
  • Insanity and Feminism in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Women Breaking Free From Their Traditional Expectations
  • Leslie Silko's, Yellow Woman: An Old Myth Changed into a Modern Story
  • Psychological State of Madness
  • Essaay on Cinema as Source of Entertainment and Education
  • William Morris
  • Characterization of Women in The Yellow Wallpaper and Desiree's Baby
  • Overview of Yellow Rain
  • Experiment to Prove Light is Needed for Photosynthesis
  • A Feminist in Action in The Yellow Wallpaper
  • Exp. Observation of Chemical Changes
  • The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
  • Unknown Lab Report
  • Imprisonment of Women Exposed in The Yellow Wallpaper
  • Lab 15
  • Moving Beyond Motherhood in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Contributing Factors for the Degradation in Mental Illness from "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "Bartleby the Scrivenor"
  • Graduation Speech
  • Founding Fathers of the United States: George Washington
  • The Struggle for Freedom in Yellow Wallpaper and Story of an Hour
  • Comparing The Story of an Hour, by Kate Chopin and The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Response to The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Brazil Under Lula: Off the Yellow Bric Road
  • The Many Meanings of Stephen Crane's The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky
  • The Influence of Masculine Gender Roles in "The Yellow Wallpaper"
  • The Effect of Major Symbolic Elements
  • A Critical Analysis of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Women's Issues in The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Souls Belated by Edith Wharton
  • Group Decision Making Report
  • Essay on Escape in A Rose For Emily and Yellow Wallpaper
  • Analysis of A Rose for Emily, by William Faulkner and The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • The Importance of Literary Elements in Barn Burning
  • Movie Review: the Help
  • Essay on Condemnation of a Patriarchal Society in Yellow Wallpaper
  • LSM3232 Medicinal Microbiology Lab Report
  • Winter in the Blood by James Welch
  • Stephen Crane's The Bride Comes To Yellow Sky
  • Form Versus Chaos
  • The Disease Yellow Fever
  • JordanF DNA RNA Experiment 1