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Historical Context in The Yellow Wallpaper

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1890, near the end of the Victorian Period and at the beginning of the Progressive era. In the United States, the Progressive era was a time of widespread social activism and artistic creation intended to promote critical thought about social, economic, and political issues. Gilman’s works were no exception; they aimed specifically to increase conversation and awareness surrounding taboo topics like mental illness and women’s rights. Although categorized as a gothic short story, Gilman’s stream-of-consciousness narration is ahead of its time, anticipating the style of authors like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. One of her most innovative, politically-engaged, and forward-thinking works, “The Yellow Wallpaper” remains a chilling feminist classic to this day.

Historical Context Examples in The Yellow Wallpaper:

The Yellow Wallpaper

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"If we had not used it, that blessed child would have! What a fortunate escape! Why, I wouldn't have a child of mine, an impressionable little thing, live in such a room for worlds...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, talking about mental illness—especially regarding women—was taboo in many cultures. At the time, postpartum depression was not recognized as a legitimate mental health issue. It was especially difficult to diagnose women who displayed affection for their babies but still exhibited symptoms of depression and exhaustion. Today, research has help shed light on this mental health condition and it is generally understood that such behavior is very common among women who suffer from postpartum depression.

"Weir Mitchell..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell was a real physician who originated the idea of the “rest cure” in the late 1800s, which he prescribed mostly for women—including Gilman herself—who suffered from “nervous disorders.” The rest cure involved a forced period of bed rest, isolation, total dependence on the part of the patient, and often forbade reading and writing.

"debased Romanesque..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Romanesque art flourished from approximately 1000 AD to the middle of the 13th Century, when Gothic art became prominent. Romanesque art is characterized by the use of primary colors, flourishes, natural imagery, and architectural patterns. Since religious and Biblical iconography were common is Romanesque art, the description of a "debased" Romanesque suggests an unholy pattern, something that isn't sanctified or harmonious.

"nervous condition..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

While Gilman's narrator has been diagnosed with hysteria, that was frequently used as a "catch-all" for a variety of different diagnoses. Most likely, she is suffering from postpartum depression and resultant psychosis. In the late 19th and early 20th century doctors didn't recognize postpartum depression as an illness and didn't take a woman's mental health very seriously, which resulted in many cases of misdiagnosis.

"hysterical tendency..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Hysteria was once a very common medical diagnosis ascribed to women who displayed certain unruly habits and behaviors or seemed to be suffering from a nervous condition. Hysteria was thought by the ancient Greeks to be caused by a "wandering womb" and was in the 19th and 20th centuries treated with "massages," many of which were performed with vibrators.

"one reason I do not get well faster..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

At the time of this story's writing, women suffering from a wide variety of conditions were prescribed "rest cures," which consisted largely of lying in bed and not moving or doing anything. Gilman was very vocal about having written this story to prove the rest cure wrong after her own damaging experience. It was specifically aimed at Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a major proponent of the rest cure.

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