How Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" Inspired My Novel "A White Room"


“The Yellow Wallpaper”  is about a woman diagnosed with hysteria and confined to her bed as a form of treatment. Her doctor husband won’t allow her to do anything but rest because it was believed stimulation would worsen her condition. The story is written as if it were a journal she is sneaking as her writing was discouraged too. She keeps talking about how the only thing she can do all day is stare at this horrendous wallpaper in her room. She becomes obsessed with it, and starts seeing it move, starts seeing a woman trapped behind it.

Public Domain Photo
She goes mad, and in the last scene, she is “creeping” around the room peeling the yellow paper from the walls and laughing as everyone who had acted as her jail-keepers watches in horror. She has freed the woman behind the paper and in doing so becomes her, a wild thing freed from her bounds. Her husband faints. I interpreted this as her finding freedom through madness as she no longer cares what her husband says or what society expects.

The first thing in A White Room that people recognize as reminiscent of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the situation of a husband taking his wife to an isolated and disturbing country home and forcing her to rest as a form of treatment for hysteria. I re-envisioned the element of something inanimate coming to life with the house and furniture. I chose those elements instead of the wallpaper because I didn’t want to rewrite “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I wanted A White Room to stand on its own. Further, the house represents the white room in my metaphor. I wanted that white room and that white house to be the element that drove my character insane rather than the yellow wallpaper.

I incorporated the furniture after I discovered Victorian Art Nouveau. This style of furniture and decor had a lot of scrolling and winding designs that reminded me of the descriptions of the wallpaper in Gilman’s story. Plus, the designers incorporated either a life form or a suggestion of movement into every piece, so the objects practically look as though they are coming to life already. The combination of house and furniture was perfect as it embodies domesticity, which is the role and situation Emeline has been forced into.  
Art Nouveau sculture Loïe Fuller by François-
Raoul Larche (Worldwide Public Domain)

There are a variety of other more subtle elements that I took from the story, as well. The narrative is told from a limited and unreliable first-person perspective, so certain characters, like the husband, were strangers to the reader, and certain events may have occurred differently than how we are told. I used this point of view in A White Room and made Emeline's husband a stranger to the reader, at least until the very end.

The language I used in the novel is also highly inspired by “The Yellow Wallpaper.” When I reread the short story and realized I wanted to use it as my inspiration, I studied the language, assuming late 19th century vernacular would be very different from our own, but I was surprised at how modern it read. People could read this story today and think it is a contemporary piece of short fiction. It is so easy to read that I chose that route as opposed to a more flowery Victorian verbiage.

There is also a very distinctive mood created in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It's a sense of isolation, despair, unease, and mystery characteristic of a haunted house story, but with an uncertainty of whether or not the things the main character sees are ghosts or her own hallucinations. This was one of the most complicated things to recreate. It was difficult to incite an uncertainty in the reader without causing confusion. The fact that it is not clear whether or not the house is haunted or if Emeline is seeing things is a reflection of that uncertainty in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” However, Gilman later explained that her story wasn’t meant to be a ghost story, and I can say the same thing about A White Room.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” ends with the wallpaper having driven the heroine insane, but in her madness she has discovered a sense of freedom. I still wanted my character to find freedom through insanity, but I didn’t want that to be the entire story. Instead, I made it so that Emeline is only able to pursue her passion after she goes insane because only then has she stopped caring what her husband says, what her family wants, and what society expects.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Public Domain Photo
Where I really strayed from “The Yellow Wallpaper” is in the second half of the novel. My first inclination was to have Emeline leave her husband whose treatment felt so unkind, but I wanted to do something unexpected with John because when you really look at his character in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it’s not so clear as to whether he is in fact a monster or if he is simply ignorant and insistent because of his concern for his wife. I decided I could use the unreliable narrator to go in a direction with John that was unexpected.

Taking the story into the underground world of unlicensed nursing and the professionalization of medicine was the biggest split from “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I went in that direction because I wanted Emeline to have the desire to seek out a profession. I wanted her to have a dream to go after once she was free to do as she pleased. I was attracted to the nursing profession because of the history of how doctors and authorities went after midwives and unlicensed nurses in a way comparable to the witch trials.

I wanted to create an interesting juxtaposition. The witch trials were a movement of mass hysteria and in response to a belief that women were naturally flawed with a weakness for evil. This is comparable to why hysteria exploded in the late 19th century. It also dealt with the belief that women were flawed, only instead of evil, it was the belief that they were vulnerable to emotional and mental instability.

Also going with a medical theme allowed me to stick with Gilman’s portrayal of the professional doctor as the enemy, but I took it in a different direction playing on other historical trends in addition to that which impacted hysteria. Further, instead of making her husband a doctor, I turned him into a lawyer for the doctors.

Amazon US ReviewGood women's history, gripping suspense, and a great period piece. The reality of 19th-century American middle-class life for women is almost unrecognizable to us, no matter how many times we've read Little Women or Little House on the Prairie. I want everyone to read this book, and I want professors to use it in college classes. It is reminiscent of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf.

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