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In her autobiography, published in 1935, Gilman wrote of the “dragging weariness … Absolute misery” following the birth of her daughter that led her to consult Dr Mitchell.The story can also be seen as a rich account of neurasthenia or nervous exhaustion, a disorder first defined by Mitchell in his book Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked in 1871.Though later gaining recognition as a journalist and social critic rather than an author of fiction, Gilman is best known for this brief and extraordinary piece of writing published in 1892.
Behind it, dim shapes get clearer by the day, sometimes of many women, sometimes one, stooping down and creeping about behind the pattern.
At the end of the story the narrator takes the opportunity of her husband’s absence to lock the door and tear away the wallpaper, the women now creeping outside in the garden.
Though many details are changed, the story is semi-autobiographical, drawing on Gilman’s own health crisis and particularly her fraught relationship with Dr Silas Weir Mitchell – who carved a reputation for treating nervous exhaustion following his experiences as a Civil War doctor – and who was brought in to treat her in 1886.
In Gilman’s own words, he drove her to “mental agony” before she rejected his treatment and began once again to write. The narrator is brought by her physician husband to a summer retreat in the countryside to recover from her “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency”.
The narrator spends much of her days being cared for – and often left alone – in this room, reading, attempting to write (though the subterfuge this involved leaves her weary, she noted) and, increasingly, watching the wallpaper, as it starts to take on a life of its own.
The story highlights the plight of many women during the 19th century.The Conversation is funded by the National Research Foundation, eight universities, including the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Rhodes University, Stellenbosch University and the Universities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Pretoria, and South Africa.It is hosted by the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Western Cape, the African Population and Health Research Centre and the Nigerian Academy of Science.Neurasthenia took hold in modernising America in the closing decades of the 19th century, as incessant work was said to ruin the mental health of its citizens.Women were reported to be putting themselves at risk of nervous collapse with their eagerness to take on roles unsuited to their gender, including higher education or political activities.Hilary Marland does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.University of Warwick provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.Not all doctors condemned women for their ambition – many advocated more rounded lives embracing intellectual and physical pursuits alongside domestic roles.Other patients treated by Mitchell, including the critic and historian Amelia Gere Mason and writer Sarah Butler Wister, tailored their treatments to suit their lifestyles, with Mitchell encouraging their intellectual and creative pursuits.Perhaps, the narrator muses, it had once been a nursery or playroom.It is the room’s wallpaper, a “repellant” and “smouldering unclean yellow”, with “sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin” that forms the centrepiece of the story.