Charlotte Perkins Stetson, as she was then known,1XCharlotte Perkins Stetson is her first married name, and so, the name she used when she wrote “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” She would divorce her husband, Charles W. Stetson in 1894 after being separated since 1888 (four years before “The Yellow Wall-Paper” was published). When she remarried Houghton Gilman in 1900, she changed her name to Gilman, which is how she is most commonly remembered today. For the purpose of clarity, we have maintained the name Charlotte Perkins Stetson throughout this edition. authored one of the most famous American short stories: “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” The story of an unnamed narrator who becomes obsessed with the wallpaper in the bedroom of the house she has been confined in, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is taught in high schools and colleges alike. It was first published in New England Magazine in 1892, although it was originally written nearly two years earlier. As a fledgling author, Stetson had very little (if any) say in what changes were made from her manuscript when it was published in the periodical, the term we will be using to describe the first published version of Stetson’s short story in New England Magazine.
There has been much debate between scholars about which is the most authoritative text: Stetson’s manuscript or the first periodical publication. In 2006, Shawn St. Jean toed this line by producing a print edition that reproduced both the manuscript and 1892 periodical side-by-side. As we claim in our argument for this edition later on in this Introduction, modern technologies make a digital edition that compares the manuscript and periodical a more intuitive tool for those new to textual study. The “variants,” or changes between the manuscript and periodical, are highlighted in yellow throughout the edition, making it easier to spot the many differences between the two versions of Stetson’s short story.
Stetson’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is an important cultural artifact that has inspired countless critics and students to think about gender, medicine, and power dynamics (among other topics) in the late nineteenth century. We hope, by providing this digital edition, students and scholars will also continue to think about print history and authorship (especially gendered authorship) during the late nineteenth century.
- Deanna Stover
Publication Information and Contemporary Responses
Stetson wrote “The Yellow Wall-Paper” in two days in 1890 in the Pasadena, California heat with temperatures reaching one hundred and three, as her daughter would later write.2XSee Folder 221 at the Schlesinger Charlotte Perkins Gilman Digital Collection: http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/13726678 seq. 60 The important literary figure, William Dean Howells, submitted the short story to The Atlantic Monthly on October 5, 1890, writing in his letter to then editor Horace E. Scudder, “The author wished me to send you this. It’s pretty blood curdling, but strong, and is certainly worth reading--by you, I mean” (qtd. on Golden 27). However, in his very well-known reply, Scudder wrote to Stetson on October 18th rejecting the manuscript, explaining “I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself!”3XHowells would also later write in The Great American Stories that Scudder says “it was so terribly good that it ought never to be printed” (qtd. on Dock et. al. 57). (qtd. on 27). According to the first page of the manuscript, Stetson’s work appears to have been returned to her first husband, Charles W. Stetson, at some point although the two were separated and he lived across the United States in Providence, Rhode Island.
Of course, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” was later published in January 1892 in New England Magazine. Years later, Howells and Stetson had differing stories of how this came to happen. When Howells reprinted the story in 1920 in The Great Modern American Stories, he claimed that he placed the work in New England Magazine, but Stetson remembered that she had given the piece to an agent, Henry Austin, who never paid her for her short story.4X St. Jean and Julie Bates Dock have argued that these memories aren’t mutually exclusive. Howells may indeed have had influence in the publication of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” even if Austin was the one who sent it to New England Magazine. See St. Jean’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Dual-Text Edition, pg. xiv-xv. However it really happened, “The Yellow Wall-paper” attracted plenty of commentary in both 1892 and then again in 1899 when “The Yellow Wall-Paper” was re-released as a standalone piece with a yellow and orange cover by Small, Maynard for 50 cents.
In 1892, for instance, The Fall River Daily Herald wrote that “The Yellow Wall-Paper” was “very paragraphic and very queer generally” (“Literary Matters” 1), while The Inter-Ocean (among others) would say it “reads like the scrappy reminiscences of an opium debauch” (“Literary Notes” 10). Interestingly enough, as readers of this edition can see in the comparison of the manuscript to periodical, while Stetson often included odd large spaces in her writing, the paragraphing appears to be due to the staff of New England Magazine, who sometimes broke lines when Stetson includes long spaces in her work and sometimes did not.
Shawn St. Jean, who has written extensively on the differences between the manuscript and periodical and published his own print dual-text edition comparing the two, explains: “the most significant accidental variants (actually semi-substantives) are the 110 alterations to Gilman’s paragraphing, 87 of which were breaks where none exist in [the manuscript] and 23 of which deleted breaks present in [the manuscript]” (“Gilman’s Manuscript” 272)5XThis edition's transcription does not agree on all counts with St. Jean's transcription, however, including some interpretive decisions about whether Stetson intended a paragraph break in her manuscript or not.. This paragraphing of the document, which is one of the first things students in my courses, at least, notice when reading the periodical version of “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” is not necessarily original to Stetson’s work and drastically changes the reading of this story. As St. Jean continues: “Where [the manuscript] presents a coherent-looking, well-paragraphed narrative that becomes more and more fragmented as the narrator grows agitated, [the periodical] presents an entirely fragmented, rambling account in which, from the first, the narrator appears unable to hold her thoughts together” (272). The paragraphing introduced in the periodical, then, subtracts from both Stetson’s critique of the “rest cure” and other forms of patriarchal control, two issues addressed later on in this Introduction.
But, regardless of the paragraphing, the subject matter of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” also lent itself to critique. In a letter to the editor in the Boston Evening Transcript, a reader named “M. D.” asked, “Should such stories be allowed to pass without protest, without severest censure?” (“Perilous” 6) after complaining of its potential to lead readers with mental health issues to “deadly peril.” Needless to say, “The Yellow Wall-paper” garnered a lot of negative attention, but it must have been well-received enough to merit a second printing in 1899, seven years after the story’s first publication. After this second publication, the Journal and Tribune out of Knoxville, Tennessee would praise the work, declaring it “deservedly ranks as one of the most powerful of American short stories” (“Literary Notes” 13). That said, there seems to be a general feeling that, as The Wilkes-Barre Record laments in 1899, “It isn’t a pleasant story to read, and after one has read it he wishes he had not” (“New Books” 7), calling it “the yellowest kind of a yellow story.” That the author assumes a male reader (“he wishes he had not”) is telling, however, especially given that an anonymous review in the Time and the Hour that same year would write: “It is a strong book, a little yellow book, a well-done, horrible book,--a book to keep away from the young wife” (qtd. on Golden 85).
So, this was a story to keep away from women, and a story that men would wish they had not read. And yet, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” has endured, probably in part because, as Gilman herself would explain in her piece in her own magazine, The Forerunner, “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper,” it was written for a purpose. What that purpose is has been heavily debated by scholars, but in addition to Gilman’s “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper,” which we discuss below, her involvement in the women's movement provides some contextual clues.
- Deanna Stover and Rebecca Norton
The “Rest Cure” and “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper”
Gilman published an autobiography in 1935. Within these pages, she offers insight into the struggles she had with her mental health, and the ways doctors attempted to cure her. In the late 1800s, a new diagnosis had begun to gain traction with medical professionals: nervous prostration or neurasthenia. Stetson was diagnosed with this disease, writing in her autobiography that she “wept all day” and suffered from “constant dragging weariness miles below zero” (Gilman, The Living, 91). While it was obvious she was ill, few treatments were available at the time. She was given tonics, her diet changed, and eventually, she was prescribed, by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell6XClose readers will notice that S. Weir Mitchell is mentioned by name in “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” The narrator comments in the manuscript, for instance: “John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the Fall. But I don’t want to go there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother only more so!” (21). of Philadelphia, the “rest cure.”
The rest cure attempted to mend “hysteria” and similar proto-diseases by removing physical and mental strain from one’s routine. As Catherine J. Golden notes, “Dr. S. Weir Mitchell designed his rest cure for female versus male neurasthenics on the supposition of innate differences between the sexes: he prescribed for males a course of vigorous physical exercise (e.g. work in the west on a cattle ranch) whereas he literally put women to bed” (12). Stetson in particular was advised to “live as domestic a life as possible” (Gilman, The Living, 96). Extra rest was encouraged, as was spending time with her child. Most notably, the doctor told her to “never touch a pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live” (96). Despite this treatment being a common treatment for mental distress, Stetson’s condition only seemed to worsen as she followed the doctor's orders.
Despite sticking strictly to the treatment, Stetson began to decline rapidly. She stared blankly at walls for hours to ease her mental pain, hid under beds and in closets, and “came perilously close to losing [her] mind” (96). Her husband, Charles W. Stetson, helped her maintain treatment, trying to help her get well while tending to their child. However, in 1888, the two amicably separated and then divorced in 1894.7XNotably, the two maintained contact. As Gilman wrote to Martha Luther Lane on July 27, 1890: “When my awful story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ comes out, you must try & read it. Walter says he has read it four times, and thinks it the most ghastly tale he ever read. Says it beats Poe and Doré! But that’s only a husband’s opinion” (qtd on Golden 26). Stetson explained that it was “not a choice between going and staying, but between going, sane, and staying, insane” (97).
It was this experience of nearly going mad under the strict adherence to a doctor’s “cure” that led her to write “The Yellow Wall-Paper”–at least in part. While the story itself is a fictitious version (one that had been exaggerated and altered to be more coherent as a story), the message remained the same: the “rest cure” is not sound medical practice. The reasoning behind this story is also documented in “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper,” which details Gilman’s intention for her writing.8XAs Golden explains, “Twenty-one years separate the publication of ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper” and this Forerunner article. In that period, Gilman may have altered or exaggerated her conviction about Mitchell’s conversion in an attempt to mythologize her life” (45). Dock et. al also supports this claim, writing “Discussions of Mitchell’s career never mention Gilman’s course of treatment or her famous short story. Mitchell’s published letters contain no hint that he altered his thinking about the rest cure; on the contraray, as late as 1908 he wrote to Andrew Carnegie that he wanted to build a hospital for ‘Rest Treatment for the Poor.’ Far from abandoning his methods, Mitchell proposed to extend them beyond the middle and upper classes some sixteen years after Gilman’s story appeared” (62). As she concludes in this piece, which is also available on our site, the story “was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”
- Rebecca Norton and Deanna Stover
Stetson, Women, and John
That Stetson was also interested in women's issues is also important. Her other works include Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898); Our Androcentric Culture, or the Man Made World (1911);9XA well-known British Suffragette, Lady Constance Lytton, would even write about Gilman’s Man Made World in her memoir about the ill-treatment of Suffragettes in English prisons, Prisons and Prisoners (1914). and eventually a novella, Herland (1915), about a utopian civilization made up entirely of women. Stetson would also argue for women’s suffrage and regularly go on speaking tours. This interest in a woman’s plight is important to our understanding of “The Yellow Wall-Paper.”
Stetson’s short story was “rediscovered” in the 1970’s as a feminist text,10XThe Feminst Press published “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1973 with its famous afterword by Elaine R. Hedges. Interestingly, this edition is said to be based off of the 1899 publication of Stetson’s short story, not the original manuscript, nor the original periodical publication. Bates Dock et. al., however, says about Hedges edition that “collation shows that it reprints the 1892 . . . text and adds a few variants of its own” including typos (53). As Dock et. al. examines, there are further textual inconsistencies in later editions of Stetson’s work (54), suggesting to us that an open-access digital edition that includes transcriptions of both the manuscript and periodical along with page images of the original documents is very much needed for future scholars and students of “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” We discuss the needs for this digital edition more later in this Introduction. but modern scholars are not the first to notice the way gender is explored in the text. As The Boston Evening Transcript explained on July 13 1899:
You can read it in ten minutes--The Yellow Wall Paper--but try as hard as you may you won’t forget it in a hurry. It’s a strange story of hideous wallpaper (if you have ever been very ill you know what you can do with wallpaper designs), a woman’s nerves, a man’s--a strapping, healthy man’s ignoring of those nerves, and the woman’s--a devoted affectionate woman’s repression of them. Isn’t that a combination? It seems a blood-curdling one while you are reading the story, but it’s because of Mrs. Stetson’s way of telling it--in other hands it would seem inconsequential enough. (6)
As this excerpt shows, contemporary readers realized, at least in part, that the narrator’s husband “ignores” the narrator’s “nerves” by treating what the narrator refers to in the text as more serious cases and not listening to the narrator’s concerns.11XDock et. al. discusses contemporary reactions to the sexual politics involved in “The Yellow Wall-paper” in more detail.
That the narrator is also described as “a devoted affectionate” woman also speaks to this reader, at least, trying to make the narrator into a character who might be given sympathy for her condition, since she more closely aligns with 19th century ideals of what woman “should” be in the home. That said, that this story could be “inconsequential” also speaks to how in many ways this story of a man mistreating his wife was seen as potentially mundane–it is Stetson (herself a Mrs.) who brings life to the story of a woman driven mad by her husband’s mishandling of her medical case. But this excerpt goes to show that even contemporary reviews saw the ways in which this is a story about mistreatment and a husband and wife.
In fact, in addition to ignoring the narrator’s worries about her health, the husband is also a very controlling figure that looms throughout the text. The word “John” appears more than any other word in the story–a total of 43 times in the periodical, 42 times in the manuscript. The next most common word is “paper” with 30 occurrences in the periodical and 34 occurrences in the manuscript. Could we not stand to reason then that John is as much of the reason the narrator is driven mad as is the wall-paper in the room she is essentially confined to?
It is perhaps here that I find Stetson’s story the most compelling: the unnamed narrator can stand in for any woman, while John–a figure of institutional (he is a doctor) and domestic (he is a husband) authority–can stand in for any man in a world where “man” was typically synonymous with at least some form of power. The naming, or lack of names, in this story is important: “John” (the narrator’s husband) was already a stand-in naming convention for unknown persons (“John Doe”). So, Stetson’s choice to implement this naming convention is important to better understand the story: this is not a story of one woman, this is the story of all women trapped behind the yellow wallpaper, trying to get out of the shackles of a patriarchal society.
- Deanna Stover
An Argument for this Edition
In 2006, Shawn St. Jean published a dual-text print edition of “The Yellow Wall-paper” which makes the argument for looking at both the manuscript and periodical. In St. Jean’s article about the editorial differences, “Hanging ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’: Feminism and Textual Studies,” St. Jean writes: “As long as readers are made aware of editorial choices and contexts, a literary work can be legitimately represented by differing ‘versions’ or linguistic texts, which form the basis of competing editions. Indeed, differing linguistic texts are created, consciously or unconsciously, by varying editorial methodologies, biases, and interpretations of evidence; and differing linguistic texts are created for varying audiences and purposes” (399).
However, in another article, St. Jean argues that the manuscript “ought to be selected as copy-text” (“Gilman’s Manuscript” 268) given that we know that Stetson wrote this manuscript and sent it out for publication but we have no proof of her being involved with New England Magazine publication or its substantial amount of variants. In our digital dual-text edition, we put the manuscript and periodical side-by-side in order that readers can explore these differences in a more interactive and intuitive manner, but we tend to agree that the manuscript is the most authoritative text.
As St. Jean notes, even by 2002, “all but one [edition] use [New England Magazine] as a source text or what textualists call a ‘copy-text’” (400). St. Jean also discusses just how many variants there are between the manuscript and the periodical. By his calculations, there are “73 substantive variants (alterations in word) and 334 accidental variants (spelling, punctuation, capitalization, emphasis, paragraphing, etc.)” (401). Of course, he also notes that there is a possibility that the surviving manuscript was not the printer’s copy (401)12XSee also Shawn St. Jean, “Gilman’s Manucript” (262) , implying that Stetson might have made changes to the manuscript that are more reflective of the periodical publication. In any case, our edition joins the many editions of “The Yellow Wall-paper,” particularly Shawn St. Jean’s, in providing an example of print history and a fascinating study for students and textual scholars alike. After all, there is no evidence that Stetson ever received proofs of her short story and she was never paid for the first publication.13XShe would, however, be paid for the 1899 edition with Small, Maynard. See Shawn St. Jean’s “Gilman’s Manuscript” (261). So, while the periodical might indeed be a “collaborative product” in theory (400), it is highly likely that Gilman had no say in the final text published in New England Magazine.
So why create a dual-text digital edition when a print one already exists? Well, as St. Jean even mentions in his introduction to his own print dual-text edition published in 2006, “Can variant texts, enabled by the convenience of electronic storage and access, be far behind?” (xx). It is exactly this convenience that we have aimed to take advantage of, in part because St. Jean’s text, while admirable in its own right, is difficult to access for many students (it’s priced at over $40) and even when digital versions of this book are available via their library, it is even more difficult for students to notice or visualize the variants between manuscript and periodical.14XThis is especially true for the electronic version of St. Jean’s edition since the pages are not side-by-side as they are meant to be, but rather one after the other, making a comparison exceedingly difficult. We hope that our edition, with its yellow, interactive highlighting of variants and filtering capabilities, will be less unwieldy for those new to textual study. The addition of actual page images (provided by the Schlesinger Library Charlotte Perkins Gilman Digital Collection), too, adds a component previously made impossible by print alone; our readers can not only use our transcriptions, but double-check them according to the original manuscript and periodical pages–after all, transcription and textual editing is always an interpretive act..
- Deanna Stover
Boston Evening Transcript, 13 Jul. 1899, pp. 6.
Dock, Julie Bates, Daphne Ryan Allen, Jennifer Palais, and Kristen Tracy. “‘But One Expects That’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and the Shifting Light of Scholarship.” PMLA, vol. 111, no. 1, 1996, pp. 52-65.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland and Related Writings. Ed. Beth Sutton-Ramspeck. Broadview Press, 2012 .
—--------. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ed. Ann J. Lane. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
—--------. Our Androcentric Culture, or the Man Made World. Charlton Company, 1911.
—--------. “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper.” The Forerunner, vol. 15, no. 10, October 1913, pp. 271.
—--------. Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Small, Maynard and Co., 1898.
Golden, Catherine J. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition. Routledge, 2004.
Hedges, Elaine R. Ed. The Yellow Wallpaper. The Feminist Press, 1973.
“Literary Matters.” The Fall River Daily Herald [Fall River, MA], 2 Jan. 1892, pp. 1.
“Literary Notes.” The Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL], 2 Jan. 1892, pp. 10.
“Literary Notes.” The Journal and Tribute [Knoxville, Tennessee], 19 Feb. 1899, pp. 13.
Lytton, Constance. Prisons and Prisoners. Ed. Jason Haslam. Broadview Press, 2008.
“New Books.” The Wilkes-Barre Record [Wilkes-Barre, PA], 30 Jun. 1899, pp. 7.
“Perilous Stuff.” Boston Evening Transcript, 8 Apr. 1892, pp. 6.
St. Jean, Shawn. “Gilman’s Manuscript of ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’: Toward a Critical Edition.” Studies in Bibliography, vol. 51, 1998, pp. 259-273.
—-------. “Hanging ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’: Feminism and Textual Studies.” Feminist Studies, vol. 28, no. 2, 2002, pp. 396-415
St. Jean, Shawn, Ed. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Dual-Text Edition. University of Ohio Press, 2006.
Stetson, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” [Manuscript, 1890] Schlesinger Library Charlotte Perkins Gilman Digital Collection, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Folder 221.
—--------. “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” New England Magazine, vol. 5, 11, January 1892, pp. 647-656. [Periodical] Schlesinger Library Charlotte Perkins Gilman Digital Collection, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Folder 260.