Books 22 Jun 2007 08:23 am
My wife is taking a literature course this summer, so I have been reading many of the stories on her syllabus. It is like visiting with old friends, some whom I see quite often (”The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Harrison Bergeron”) and some whom I see less frequently (The Metamorphosis).
One story I have seen with new eyes is “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a wonderfully creepy tale about a woman’s descent into madness. I never knew so much of it was autobiographical until I read the material that accompanies the story in my wife’s textbook.
Gilman wrote this New Gothic horror story as a reaction to a “rest cure” prescribed by a doctor to treat her depression. The cure appears terribly sexist, with implications that women should not indulge too much in intellectual pursuits.
Responding to an inquiry as to why she would write a story that might drive readers mad (it is powerful), Gilman responded, “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”
While fictional, the story does name a real doctor, Weir Mitchell (1829-1914), who treated the author. According to Perkins, she later sent the story to him and never received a response, but heard years later that he had altered future treatments because of it.
That puts Gilman squarely in the company of other social reformers who have changed the world for the better through their writing, including Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath).
Not bad for a humble horror story. Because it is in the public domain, you can read it free here, or do a Google search for the title.