Charlotte Perkins Gillman (1860-1935)
Contributing Editor: Elaine Hedges
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students respond well to "The Yellow Wall-Paper." They like the story and don't have serious difficulty understanding it, and they enjoy discussing the meanings of the wallpaper. They may, however, oversimplify the story, reading the ending either as the heroine's victory over her circumstances, or her defeat. Have students choose and defend one or the other of these positions for a classroom debate (with the aim of showing that there is no easy resolution). Students might also want to debate (attack or defend) the role of the husband in the story.
Background information on medical treatment of women, and specifically white, middle-class women, in the nineteenth century, especially Dr. S. Weir Mitchell's "rest cure" (mentioned in the headnote) is useful.
Naive students sometimes wonder why the woman in the story can't just leave; they need to understand the situation of white, middle-class married women in the nineteenth century: The censure against divorce, and their limited opportunities in the paid labor force.
"Turned," like "The Yellow Wall-Paper," deals with the situation of women inside marriage, but it offers a wife who takes matters into her own hands and recreates her life. The two stories can thus be profitably compared and contrasted. Significant differences, of course, include the greater freedom (she is childless) and professional training (she can support herself) of the wife, Mrs. Marroner, in "Turned." Gilman, in her major sociological work, Women and Economics, argued that only economic independence would release women from their subordination within marriage, and Mrs. Marroner is an example of this thesis. One might note the changes in her attitude toward Gerta, from a class-biased one to one of female bonding. "Turned" is also noteworthy as a frank treatment of an issue--an employer's sexual abuse of a female domestic--that wasn't openly discussed in fiction at the time.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Consider both stories as critiques of male power, including sexual power, and of marriage. Students can be asked how relevant these critiques are today: whether similar or comparable situations still exist.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
In "The Yellow Wall-Paper," less sophisticated students may identify the narrator with Gilman, since the story is based on an episode in her life. Discussion of the literary convention of the first-person point of view and of differences between an author and her persona are useful. The dramatic immediacy of the first-person point of view (versus the use of the third person in "Turned") can be demonstrated.
Although Gilman's intention in both stories was didactic (she wrote "The Yellow Wall-Paper," she said, to warn readers against Dr. Mitchell's treatment), discussions of form and style can suggest how a text can transcend its author's intention or any narrow didactic purpose. In what ways is "Turned" more clearly didactic than "The Yellow Wall-Paper"?
"The Yellow Wall-Paper" is, of course, highly appropriate for a discussion of symbolism: how it emerges and operates within a text. Students enjoy discussing the symbolism of the wallpaper and of the room to which the narrator is confined.
I discuss Gilman's difficulty in getting "The Yellow Wall-Paper" published, and ask students to consider why it might have disturbed her contemporaries. (It was rejected by the editor of the Atlantic Monthly on the grounds that it would make readers too miserable.) Gilman received letters of praise for the story from readers who read it as an accurate clinical description of incipient madness. In 1899 a few reviewers read it as a critique of marriage and of medical treatment of women.
Readers in Gilman's time would have been familiar with Poe's stories. Might "The Yellow Wall-Paper" have been perceived as similar to a Poe story? In what significant ways is it different from Poe's stories?
"Turned" is one of about two hundred short stories Gilman wrote and published in her magazine, The Forerunner. They were intended to dramatize the ideas she expounded in her nonfiction about women's roles and status in society, and to suggest reforms. The Forerunner never had a circulation of more than a thousand copies. Today, however, more and more of these stories by Gilman are being reprinted. For others, see Barbara H. Solomon, editor, HERLAND and Selected Short Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Penguin USA, 1992, and Robert Shulman, ed., "The Yellow Wall-Paper" and Other Stories, Oxford, 1995.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
In the same section of the anthology, other texts dealing with marriage and with male-female power relations include: Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's, some of Kate Chopin's, and Mary Wilkins Freeman's. One could also contrast the Gilman pieces with the comic/satiric treatment of husband-wife relations in Marietta Holley.
Two of Emily Dickinson's poems provide useful contexts for "The Yellow Wall-Paper": "Much madness is divinest sense" and "She rose to his requirement."
Elaine Hedges, "Afterword," The Yellow Wall-Paper, Feminist Press, 1973, has an analysis of the story and a brief biography of Gilman.
Catherine Golden, ed., The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on "The Yellow Wallpaper," Feminist Press, 1991, reprints a good selection of both nineteenth-century materials relevant to the story and contemporary critical treatments of it.
Ann Lane, ed., The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, Pantheon, 1980, includes a selection of Gilman's stories and excerpts from her longer fictions, including the utopia, Herland. See also Denise D. Knight, ed. "The Yellow Wall-Paper" and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, University of Delaware Press, 1994.