In Charlotte Gilman’s 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” we are trivy to an artistic of Gilman’s personal struggle with postpartum depression. Her protagonist’s depression is combined with what the predominately male Victorian medical community labeled “hysterical tendency”. Gilman writes in the first person and does not name her protagonist. In “Why I wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’”, however, Gilman admits that the story connects to her personal experience, “with embellishments and additions to carry out the ideal”. What emerges is a forward thinking and independent woman’s account of a relatively affluent Victorian mother’s life in a gilded cage. Within this gilded cage, a loving physician husband secures his wife to a life of rest and separation from the world of meaningful work and engagement.
A cautionary note must precede any balanced analysis of Gilman’s story and the Victorian medical practices advocated by G. Weir Mitchell in his 1904 lecture “The Evolution of Rest Treatment” and John Harvey “Ladies Guide to Health and Disease: Sisterhood, Maidenhood, Wifehood, Motherhood”. Many, if not most economically struggling Victorian mothers might be hard pressed to envision the regimen of rest and pampered attention torturing Gilman’s protagonist and prescribed by Weir and Kellogg. Tending a half dozen screaming children single handedly and putting enough edible food on their cold water flat’s table absorbed any available energy. Had their abode contained any wallpaper, it would likely receive scant contemplation from them before they passed out in utter exhaustion. If they suffered depression or hysterical tendencies, a prescribed rest cure was probably as unfathomable to them as time transport to a futuristic era of readily available birth control, labor saving appliances, and government sponsored day care!