Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper"

Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper"

Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper"

Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper"


In Wild Unrest, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz offers a vivid portrait of Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the 1880s, drawing new connections between the author's life and work and illuminating the predicament of women then and now.

"The Yellow Wall-Paper" captured a woman's harrowing descent into madness and drew on the author's intimate knowledge of mental illness. Like the narrator of her story, Gilman was a victim of what was termed "neurasthenia" or "hysteria"--a "bad case of the nerves." She had faced depressive episodes since adolescence, and with the arrival of marriage and motherhood, they deepened. In 1887 she suffered a severe breakdown and sought the "rest cure" of famed neurologist S. Weir Mitchell. Her marriage was a troubled one, and in the years that followed she separated from and ultimately divorced her husband. It was at this point, however, that Gilman embarked on what would become an influential career as an author, lecturer, and advocate for women's rights.

Horowitz draws on a treasure trove of primary sources to illuminate the making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper": Gilman's journals and letters, which closely track her daily life and the reading that most influenced her; the voluminous diaries of her husband, Walter Stetson, which contain verbatim transcriptions of conversations with and letters from Charlotte; and the published work of S. Weir Mitchell, whose rest cure dominated the treatment of female "hysteria" in late 19th century America. Horowitz argues that these sources ultimately reveal that Gilman's great story emerged more from emotions rooted in the confinement and tensions of her unhappy marriage than from distress following Mitchell's rest cure.

Wild Unrest adds immeasurably to our understanding of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, uncovering both the literary and personal sources behind "The Yellow Wall-Paper."


When Charlotte Perkins Gilman was twenty-three, she was in the middle of the central crisis of her life. In an untitled poem dated April 1, 1883, she wrote that she suffered from “wild unrest.” Her deep distress, she believed, sprang from the inner war between her “two strong natures.” One, her female side, desired a man’s love and its full expression in marriage and children. The other, the self that in her mind had no sex, felt the need to be independent to act in the world—to write, convince others of her ideas, and become famous. Which of her spirits was the true “owner” of Charlotte? Which was the “guest”?

She later posed that struggle in a different form in “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” Writing in 1890, as she neared thirty, she distilled much of her conflicted life into this harrowing short story. Since its rediscovery over a generation ago, it has been read and reread by millions in classrooms and libraries and in the privacy of dormitories and homes. More than an assignment or pleasure reading, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” continues to shock and move readers.

Today we believe that a woman can both marry and be an autonomous adult, but in Charlotte’s time and place she thought she had to make a choice. When she wrote of her wild unrest, it was 1883 and she lived in Providence, Rhode Island. She was in love and planning to wed. She was lively, beautiful, athletic, intelligent, bold, and unconventional. Her husband-to-be enjoyed all these attributes, but he wanted a traditional wife. He was buttressed by a culture of male striving and female domesticity and a legal system that recognized few rights for a woman in marriage. All around her she could see the common lot of many married women and the unusual achievements of a few who remained single. In her case, battling her aspirations and will for the single life was her loneliness and desire. She wanted to love and be loved and to find sexual fulfillment in marriage. She imagined that love and marriage would bring happiness, and that remaining alone might entail deep self-denial.

Charlotte experienced this deep conflict between love and work within the context of severe depressive episodes. Mysterious in their origin and frightening in their impact, they had come on for some years, alternating with longer periods of well-being. Living through the numbness and the dark that enveloped her during a despondent time was one thing when she was younger and alone in her mother’s house. It took on new dimensions as she matured and became intimate with a man who loved and wanted to marry her.

Two months after writing of her wild unrest, Charlotte chose to marry. A year’s wait followed; she wed in May 1884 and gave birth to a daughter almost eleven months later. In this period of marriage and early motherhood, she found not happiness but recurring and ever deepening periods of depression. When she broke down in April 1887, she sought the rest cure of the famed neurologist S. Weir Mitchell. After his therapy did not restore her health, she fought to find her own way out of despair.

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