Today on Crash Course Literature, John Green teaches you about The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The Yellow Wallpaper tells the story of a woman who is a prisoner in her own home, in the name of caring for her mental health. The narrator stares all day the yellow wallpaper
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
Hi, I’m John Green and this is Crash Course Literature.
So for the last few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about Dystopias, imaginary societies gone wrong.
Like George Orwell’s “1984” is a world of war, surveillance, and mind control.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” portrays a toxic landscape in which healthy women are forced to produce offspring for the ruling class.
“Candide” showed us the best of all possible worlds, which was terrible.
And “Parable of the Sower” takes place in an alternate universe where a sloganeering, strongman president presides over a country,
experiencing intense social disorder thanks to climate change. Fortunately none of that stuff has happened, yet,
But today we’re gonna talk about our final dystopia of the series, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
And it’s about a dystopia that already happened.
First published in 1892 in the New England magazine, this story is less of a “what-if” dystopia
then a “this is happening to me” call to action.
So at first glance the life that Gilman describes in this story might not seem that bad, a young
woman is married to a doctor and spends all of her time in a country mansion, and I mean all of her time.
But make no mistake about it. The social order in this story is in some ways as oppressive as the others that we’ve examined.
Gilman’s narrator is imprisoned within her marriage and her social order and also her house.
And she eventually goes insane trying to preserve her perspective. Today
I want to talk about Gilman who was a feminist, humanist, sociologist, novelist, poet, and essayist.
I also want to talk about perspectives on mental health, and how they’ve changed between Gilman’s era and ours, and of course
I’m gonna talk about yellow wallpaper. Soon enough you’re gonna see it everywhere.
(Intro music plays)
So Charlotte Perkins Gilman had a fascinating life.
She was born in Hartford,
Connecticut in 1860 and she lived with her mother and brother, after her father
abandoned the family, and although she moved from school to school her childhood was really
intellectually rich, largely because of her three brilliant and famous
aunts: Isabella Beecher Hooker, suffragist and abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, best-selling author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Katharine Beecher,
education reformer and advocate for Native American rights. With some financial help from her Ne’er-do-well father, Charlotte enrolled in design school. Later
she supported herself by illustrating advertising cards and tutoring so, you know, she did know something about wallpaper
patterns. In 1884 she married Charles Walter Stetson and gave birth to a daughter,
Katherine, and in the years after her daughter’s birth Charlotte experienced a series of what were called at the time
“Nervous-Disorders”. In 1887 she visited a specialist who encouraged her to try a “rest cure”,
and this involved living as domestic a life as far as possible having
But two hours intellectual life a day, and never touching pen, brush, or pencil
again. After three months of this so-called treatment
she quote “came so near to the borderline of utter mental ruin, that I could see over.”
Gilman wanted to warn others of the dangers of this rest cure and her story she explains was not intended to drive people crazy,
but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.
We’ll get to that working bit in a second,
but back to her life. So in 1888, Charlotte left her husband and took Katherine with her to Pasadena,
California. Her professional life flourished. She organized social reform movements. She represented California at the suffrage convention in Washington DC.
She became a lecturer and edited a series of
magazines. She also wrote essays, poems, a novella, and by far her most famous story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Much of her work focused on women’s unequal status in marriage and their need for financial independence.
And she achieved financial independence and also an equal marriage in her second marriage.
Eventually she was diagnosed with breast cancer and as she had lived on her own terms,
she also died on her own terms.
She was an advocate of euthanasia, and she chose chloroform over cancer, committing suicide in 1935.
I wanted to focus a little on Gilman’s life story to emphasize that this was a person who experienced severe, disabling
mental illness and whose treatment ended up making it much worse
and yet who still went on to live a long, fulfilling, and productive life.
I think it’s really helpful to read “The Yellow Wallpaper” with that background. As for the story itself, well,
Let’s go to the thought-bubble. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the
first-person narrative of a 19th century woman
suffering from a mental breakdown after giving birth. In a secret diary this narrator describes her setting ,”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!” This narrator is confined to a room with barred windows.
It’s possible that she’s in an asylum,
But the physical setting is less important than another landscape, the shifting consciousness of her mind.
The narrator knows that she perceives reality differently from her husband, who is also her doctor. At first
She chalks this up to the expected difficulties of male-female relations. “John,” she writes, “laughs at me of course,
But one expects that in marriage.” This expectation of marriage is of course troubling in its own right,
But there’s an even darker side to their dynamic, John has almost complete control over his wife’s body. The narrator’s descriptions may be at times
Unreliable, but there are a few things we do know: she recently had a baby,
She recognizes that she is sick,
John belittles her saying that she suffers from a temporary nervous depression, a slight hysterical tendency. Meanwhile
he prescribes her a scheduled prescription for each hour in the day of phosphates or
Phosphites, the narrator doesn’t know which, and a regime of tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise.
Also, John forbids his wife from writing,
Working, or socializing and it quickly becomes clear that these so-called cures are
Exacerbating the narrator’s condition as she is left with very little to do except stare at the yellow wallpaper.
Thanks thought-bubble. So today
We would probably say that the narrator is experiencing postpartum depression and/or postpartum psychosis.
These are conditions that can result from a drop in hormones like estrogen and progesterone and are
intensified by the two central experiences of new parenthood, sleep deprivation
and anxiety. Postpartum psychosis can include the depressive symptoms of postpartum depression along with confusion, disorientation,
Hallucinations, and paranoia. Today these conditions would be treated with medication and therapy and other medical interventions,
But whatever treatment John gives his wife in “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Definitely does not work. If Gilman’s story were an argument this line from it would be its thesis, “John is a physician,
Perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.”
Admittedly the 19th century wasn’t a golden age for psychiatry,
But even so, John is
exceptionally bad at treating mental illness. At the start of the story Gilman’s narrator craves more society and
Stimulus. She writes that she must say what I feel and think in some way.
Forbidden from communicating with a living soul she secretly
Confesses her thoughts to dead paper in a journal and in her writing
She projects her mental disintegration onto the patterns that she sees on the walls.
“I never saw worse paper in my life,”
She writes, explaining that it contains “one of those sprawling
Flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.” Still she finds this pattern compelling: “it is dull enough to confuse the eye and following,
Pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study…
And when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance
They suddenly commit suicide — plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of
Contradictions.” Of course this also describes the narrator’s interior landscape
But it also describes the story, right? Like initially her narrative seems dull.
I mean plot summary woman stares at wall. But then it becomes confusing the wallpaper seems to be moving
We aren’t sure where this narrator is or if we can trust her and then something becomes
Pronounced enough to provoke our further study. Are these romantic descriptions of a house, a delicious garden,
Or it’s tattered decor? Are they intimate descriptions of a failing marriage, the desire for connection, or are they veiled
Suicidal musings, or maybe they’re attempts to find a meaning in an extremely limited
Experience, like Offred opening her hand in the sunlight in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
I’ve always been fascinated by how the narrator tries to understand her situation in terms of principles of design,
Like after she studies one breath or strip of wallpaper she concludes that its pattern is “not arranged on any laws of
radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or
Anything else that I ever heard of.” I think anybody who’s experienced mental illness can relate to that. For her each of these breaths
Exists as an isolated column of fatuity, in other words
It’s meaningless. A pattern only emerges when she considers the strips next to one another
Dim shapes appear to resemble a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. The wallpaper also
Changes as the light changes. At night the woman in the wallpapers captivity behind bars becomes as plain as can be,
So of course does the narrator’s own captivity. And also wait hold on full disclosure
I’m about to go full Freudian which I know is like a
Frustration and annoyance to many of you who are not like hardcore lit crit people
But just walk with me on this one. So the paper has this
Peculiar odor that creeps all over the house and is stronger after a week of fog and rain.
Her husband might explain it as a combination of glue and mold intensified by humidity
But smells travel through the olfactory bulb closely connected to the regions of the brain that handle memory and emotion.
That’s why smells always remind us of moments from our past.
And it seems to me the narrator’s fixation on this smell could be what Freud called the return of the repressed, or unconscious material
rising to the surface.
And maybe that’s part of why the narrator becomes determined that nobody discovered the wallpapers meaning except herself, although
She had initially craved conversation,
She decides that it does not do to trust people too much, especially with her most frightening thoughts.
I mean after all having previously trusted people with her frightening thoughts has landed her in this situation
Where she has to stare at yellow wallpaper all day.
And then eventually the narrator begins to suspect that many women are trapped inside this paper:
“I think there are great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.” The
Narrator longs to free this woman or women. On her last day in the house
She locks her door, throws the key into the garden, and tethers herself to the bed which she also bites.
She rips at the wallpaper and thinks that it would be an admirable
exercise to throw herself out the window. Then she wedges her shoulder into a smudge that runs along the lower part of the wall and
walks hunched over along the periphery of the room, a kind of
Reenactment of the woman stuck behind the wallpaper. John enters the room at last and then faints at the sight of his wife, yet
She continues her laps crawling over the body of the man who had oppressed her.
“I’ve got out at last,” she announces, “in spite of you and
Jane?” Getting out at last involves rejecting societal norms and defying John and breaking free of
Jane, a character not mentioned until this point who may be herself?
But then comes this question mark which complicates everything and makes it ambiguous. Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Transformed her experience of enduring this rest cure into a story that invites us to reconsider gender dynamics
And the treatment of mental health disorders.
At the time of its publication the story may have inspired concrete change too. In an article published in
1913 Gilman claims that her story quote “has to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate —
So terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered. But the best result is this. Many years later
I was told that my own doctor had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of
neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.” stories affect the world in mysterious ways and if “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Helped end the practice of separating the sick from the world then I am grateful.
But I think the story has served another far more personal function. It has given form and expression to many people’s
Experiences with mental illness including, I have to say, mine.
It’s a story that explores the ways that physiological brain disorders can be hurt or
Helped by treatments and by the way the social order imagines and talks about mental illness. And although we no longer
Embrace rest cures we still have a long way to go when it comes to talking about mental illness without the stigmatization that can worsen
Suffering. But then also mental illness and the way it’s discussed isn’t the only Yellow Wallpaper
Out there. I wonder
What is the wallpaper
That constrains you and who else do you feel might be
imprisoned by its pattern?
How might you escape, how might you tell your story to
Influence others? Those questions haunted me when I first read Gilman’s story in high school
And they shaped a lot of the ways that I think about writing today. More than 20 years later I’m still asking them.
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This post was previously published on YouTube.
Photo credit: Screenshot from video