So I will let it alone, and write about the house.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-Paper”
I am not the first woman to go mad looking at a wall.
I was staying home with our toddler, pregnant and depressed. Most days, I pushed the stroller past houses, calculating their value. Walking was cheaper than childcare. It killed time, gave me time, and besides, I wanted ideas to remodel our house. Fifty years had made the once-affordable 1960s tract houses each look slightly different, but they were still mostly cramped ranches, tri-levels and raised ranches. They were in Boulder, however, and living in Boulder rather than a bedroom community reminded me that I was still an adult with dreams, not only the parent I had become.
I paid a lot for that reminder. I was considering paying more: there was a consensus that the houses could be improved by opening the closed kitchens. Houses had been places to sleep. I had not cared what they looked like until I became a mother, the house became my business, and I wanted to change it. I wasn’t alone. Newcomers to Boulder discussed their houses with a passion that made them an almost exclusive topic of conversation. We were overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly overeducated, and overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the cost of the houses we called home. We admitted in whispers that our sanctuaries were not our houses but the cars, offices, screens and daydreams in which we could escape spouse and children.
The kitchen had flaws. But the obsessive energy with which I’d stare at my kitchen wall, calculating the odds that its plaster pattern contained asbestos, was proof enough that something more than dislike of the house was at stake. I suspected that I thought about the house only because I was too often in it—and that if I went back to work, I’d never think about it again. And then there was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose most famous story, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892), tells the story of a woman who goes mad looking at her wallpaper.
“The Yellow Wall-Paper” is the story an unnamed narrator who develops what we’d now call a postpartum depression or psychosis following the birth of her child. The narrator’s husband, John, takes her to a rented country house for convalescence while their own house is being repaired. There, he forbids her to work while his sister assumes the housekeeping. Told not to think about her condition, the narrator resolves to “let it alone, and write about the house” (In the version of this story published in the New England Magazine, this line reads: “So I will let it alone and talk about the house.”) And so she does, secretly obsessing in her journal over the horrid yellow wallpaper in the nursery and the places where she sees evidence that children previously damaged the home. She sees in the wallpaper destructive images reminiscent of pregnancy, babies, and motherhood that coalesce into visions of trapped women and express her conflicted feelings towards motherhood and domestic ideology. By the story’s end, she has become one with the women she sees in the wallpaper, creeping round the nursery over the sprawled body of her shocked and fainted husband.
“The Yellow Wall-Paper” is a remarkable account of a new mother’s frustration. More specifically, it’s a critique of the fantasy that women can escape various gendered burdens by finding homes of their own from an author who would become an advocate for housing reform. In Gilman’s story, the house and its wallpaper are not merely objects on which the narrator projects the psychodrama of her pregnancy and depression, nor are they associated merely with entrapment. Rather, the home is both a central driver of her depression and a space through which she hopes to escape it. More than many writers, Gilman longed for the safety, economic security, and self-expression associated with home. As critic Jill Bergman observes in Charlotte Perkins Gilman and a Woman’s Place in America, however, the perspective of home as a sanctuary contrasted with how Gilman experienced the patriarchal houses of her time. Bergman explains that “she did not find houses all that comforting, nurturing, progressive, or dedicated to the right sorts of social arrangements and commercial enterprises.” In “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Gilman explores how middle-class women of her time can rarely obtain the emotional satisfactions associated with home when households are built on their sacrifice and labor.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was frequently houseless, first as a child, then as a financially struggling writer. Her father, Frederic Beecher Perkins, left the family shortly after she was born, leaving her mother, Mary Perkins née Fitch Westcott, to raise her two surviving children alone in itinerant poverty. Gilman, however, was harsher in judging her mother than her father. Although she viewed her mother as thwarted by circumstances, she also saw her as complicit in them: In her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gilman explains that “[a]fter her idolized youth, she was left neglected. After her flood of lovers, she became a deserted wife. The most passionately domestic of home-worshipping housewives, she was forced to move nineteen times in eighteen years, fourteen of them from one city to another.” In her daughter’s eyes, Mary Perkins passively embraced the role of home-worshipping housewife, which ironically left her—and her daughter—homeless. She was a warning for her daughter of what not to become and a lesson in the precarity that can overtake women who pursue genteel domesticity.
At eighteen, Gilman met artist Charles Walter Stetson, who quickly proposed marriage. She refused. Stetson persisted. Scholar Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz documents how Gilman experienced this period of courtship as a time, in Gilman’s words, of “wild unrest” as she felt unable to reconcile “two strong natures” within her: her desire for domesticity and her desire to work outside the home. Despite her misgivings, Gilman married Stetson on May 2, 1884. Within weeks, she was pregnant. Childbirth was a traumatic curtailing of her capacity. She largely blamed herself for her unhappiness, writing in her autobiography:
You did it yourself! You did it yourself! You had health and strength and hope and glorious work before you—and you threw it all away. You were called to serve humanity, and you cannot serve yourself. No good as a wife, no good as a mother, no good at anything. And you did it yourself.
Her depression didn’t end. In 1887, she was infamously ordered by a doctor to abandon her art, lead “as domestic a life as possible” and “[h]ave your child with you all the time.” She consequently suffered “mental torment” so severe that she would “crawl into remote closets and under beds—to hide from the grinding pressure of that profound distress,” a moment she later revisited in “The Yellow Wall-Paper.”
We are past the age of rest cures. We are not past the age of women blaming themselves, I think, as I consider the series of accommodations that brought me to stare at my kitchen wall: I had given up pursuing a PhD in literature and practicing law in order to follow my spouse to academic positions. Now I was staying home, unable to decide what someone should do who is burned out of career reinventions. I’m tempted to apologize, to say my depression is my fault. That staying home is my choice. It would be convenient for others if I did. But I don’t. I keep thinking about my kitchen.
I’m potential, interrupted.
Like me, the narrator of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” clings to the hope that an intervention in her housing can pluck her from the circumstances causing her depression. The story opens with the narrator extolling the summer house they have rented while their own home is being repaired to address an unspecified deficiency. And not just any house, but a “colonial mansion” and “hereditary estate” that promises both luxurious comfort and Gothic potentials to its possessor. In “Who is Jane?” critic William Veeder suggested that her relocation to this mansion enacts the fantasy of moving back to a childhood home where she lacks responsibilities. “It is very seldom,” she writes, “that mere ordinary people like John and I secure ancestral halls for the summer.” (The New England Magazine version says “John and myself” rather than “John and I”). As Veeder explains, “[t]he heroine’s principal verb here is important: not ‘rent’ or ‘lease’ or ‘sublet.’ Her verb is ‘secure’ because security is her paramount concern.” She wants security. She wants an ancestral home. She seldom gets it.
The narrator grasps that her fantasy is flawed. Women can’t escape the work and ideologies surrounding the domestic by merely embracing a more appealing version of it. The homemaker has no separate sphere to which she can retreat when her labor is done. She describes the beautiful garden on the estate, for example, only to undercut by wistfully writing, “There were greenhouses too, but they are all broken now.” Like the mothers with whom I whisper at the park, her talk comes around to the cusp of a confession that maybe she isn’t so happy in this dream house. Her perspective as a homemaker quickly destroys the illusion as she notices the scratched floors, dug-out plaster, and mauled bed that she attributes to the “ravages” of children—imagery suggesting how thoroughly she views motherhood as an attack on both her body and the space in which she dwells.
She knows intuitively that a house that would provide the independence she wants would not include her family. Indeed, part of the rental’s appeal is that it has been “empty for years and years.” She wants the explanation for its emptiness to be that the house is haunted, which she’d consider “the height of romantic felicity.” It’s an interesting statement when we consider that her husband, John, has an “intense horror of superstition.” Her height of romantic desire is her husband’s terror: her preference for a haunted house the slimmest of veils over the admission that her ideal house might not include—in fact, would terrorize—her husband. Reality reminds us that she cannot escape the specter of family entanglements even in a seemingly empty house: it’s empty because the heirs are fighting over it. Babies have split the ancestral home apart.
The refuge she craves from an ancestral hall is not compatible with the dependency and exhaustion that comes with being a wife and mother. For a woman in her position, the fantasy of a sanctuary is every bit as lethal as a terrorizing ghost, because it’s predicated on the absence of her spouse, child, and homemaking responsibilities. The ancestral hall is both nurturing and broken, problem and solution, because it cannot both house her family and sustain her individually.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman learned from her mother’s example that to embrace the role of housewife was to risk loss of self and self-sufficiency, the paradoxical result of which is being unable to sustain a home. And that’s precisely what happens to the narrator of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as she finds her identity absorbed into the home’s wallpaper and its images of maternity—symbolically achieving a home of her own and separation from her family at the cost of her own debility. As a postpartum mother, the narrator is confronting the trauma and self-loss of becoming a parent herself. More terrifying than lacking parental love is the haunting fear that the parental love we remember is tinged with our parents’ self-sacrifice; that to become a mother is to occupy a position of honored erasure or become coextensive with the houses to which we assign women; that a mother is always searching for home because her house is not for her.
To long for home is to look for comfort in the place domestic ideology tells us we should find it, the same ideology that absorbs women’s identities into the houses they are tasked with maintaining. In the final episode of “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” the narrator leans into this fantasy at great cost—claiming the house as her own but abandoning her spouse and child as well as her capacity to function as a wife and mother. On her last day in the house, she locks herself in the nursery, ties herself to the room with a rope, and peels off the wallpaper. She asserts full control over her space, evicting others and asserting, “But I am here, and no person touches this paper but me, —not alive!” The woman who longed to secure an ancestral hall is now fastened to it. The woman who wanted to be seen on her own terms insists that she is “here,” but it’s a here that only removes her farther from social action. Our final glimpse finds her walking alone in circles over her fainted and dispatched husband, tied to an imprisoning house that can never provide what she needs and was never designed for her.
Call the house an ancestral hall, a colonial mansion, or a hereditary estate. The illusion of security is built on ignoring the bodies of people whose labor built it. Call the house haunted. Its comforts rest on what we do not see. Call my desire for a different home the wish to be free again to pursue my dreams and profession without the constraints of familial responsibilities. Except that the childhood home I want to recreate was never without responsibility. My life was enabled by my parents’ labor. Becoming a parent just forced me to see that more closely.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman understood that the fantasies we associate with home are not easily available to the women on whose bodies homes are made. Convinced that women could not find happiness in the kinds of homes she saw around her, Gilman became an advocate for housing better suited to women’s needs. In books like Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898) and The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), she argued that women are thwarted by their economic dependence on men and relegation to domestic duties. Women could not achieve their full human potential, Gilman believed, unless housework was decoupled from the marital relation. Central to her prescription for reform was the idea that houses should be remodeled to remove their kitchens. Housework and cooking would be professionalized, freeing women for labor outside the home.
Gilman’s utopian ideas for reform largely failed, as most do. She’d be disappointed to learn that kitchens are now popularly considered the heart of the home, which brings me back to my own. Remodeling would cost roughly the same amount as attending our local college, because this is Boulder, where we trumpet inclusion but maintain exclusionary policies. The problem isn’t my house. I am angry because the house is the latest accommodation I have made for my family: it’s close to my spouse’s work, associated with good schools, and comes with a mortgage that steals from my desires.
I don’t need to remodel my house. I need to write about it.
The New England Magazine made edits to “The Yellow Wall-Paper” manuscript without consulting Gilman prior to its publication. In this essay, I have quoted from the manuscript version and added parenthetical asides documenting significant differences that appear in the New England Magazine version.
Natalie Brown put her children in preschool and used her time to complete a dissertation at Columbia University on homesickness and housing precarity in nineteenth-century literature. She postponed remodeling until things began to break. She lives in Boulder, CO.