“The Yellow Wallpaper” is an exaggerated account of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s personal experiences. In 1887, shortly after the birth of her daughter, Gilman began to suffer from serious depression and fatigue. She was referred to Silas Weir Mitchell, a leading specialist in women’s nervous disorders in the nineteenth century, who diagnosed Gilman with neurasthenia and prescribed a “rest cure” of forced inactivity. Weir Mitchell believed that nervous depression was a result of overactive nerves and ordered Gilman to cease all forms of creative activity, including writing, for the rest of her life. The goal of the treatment was to promote domesticity and calm her agitated nerves.
Gilman attempted to endure the “rest cure” treatment and did not write or work for three months. Eventually, she felt herself beginning to go slowly insane from the inactivity and, at one point, was reduced to crawling under her bed holding a rag doll. Unlike the protagonist in her story, Gilman did not reach the point of total madness, but she knew that her deteriorating mental condition was due to the oppressive medical regime that was meant to “cure” her. She abandoned Mitchell’s advice and moved to California in order to overcome her depression on her own. Although Gilman’s attempt was successful, she claimed to suffer from post-traumatic stress from Weir Mitchell’s treatment for the rest of her life. In 1890, Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” in an effort to save other women from suffering the same oppressive treatment. Weir Mitchell and his treatment play a key role in the narrative; in the third section of the text, the protagonist’s husband even threatens to send her to Weir Mitchell in the fall if she does not recover soon.
In 1890, Gilman sent the story to writer William Dean Howells, who submitted it to Horace Scudder, editor of the prestigious magazine, “The Atlantic Monthly.” Scudder rejected the story as depressing material, and returned it to Gilman with a handwritten note that read: “Dear Madam: W. Howells has handed me this story. I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself! Sincerely Yours, H. E. Scudder.” Eventually the story was published in “The New England Magazine” in May 1892. According to Gilman’s autobiography, she sent a copy of “The Yellow Wallpaper” to Weir Mitchell after its publication. Although she never received a response, she claimed that Weir Mitchell later changed his official treatment for nervous depression as a direct result of her story. Gilman also asserted that she knew of one particular woman who had been spared the “rest cure” as a treatment for her depression after her family read “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
The public reaction to the story was strong, if mixed. In many circles, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was perceived as nothing more than a horror story, stemming from the gothic example of Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley. It was not until the 1970s that the story was also recognized as a feminist narrative worthy of historical and literary scholarship.