“The Yellow Wallpaper” begins optimistically enough if we are to believe Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s exhausted and sheltered narrator Mary, a young mother recovering from childbirth.

Tis very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer. A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity – but that would be asking too much of fate!

But even on the first page of the short story, there are signs of trouble ahead for our hopeful heroine.

Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.

Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?

John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.

John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.

John is a physician, and perhaps – (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind – ) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.

You see he does not believe I am sick!

And what can one do?

Within the grim, sticky pages of “The Yellow Wallpaper” that follow, Gilman spins a brooding tale of psychological unraveling, ensnaring her readers in her tangled web. As Mary’s sanity frays, she merges with the “creeping woman” behind the wretched wallpaper, and we, the readers, become one with Mary, sharing her eyes, her thoughts, and her harrowing descent into madness. Let’s peel back the craft techniques that Gilman uses to bind reader and protagonist in an embrace as inescapable as the yellow wallpaper’s alternate reality.

Gilman correctly theorized that the post-partum depression treatment of the day, the so-called “rest cure,” which she herself experienced, was as dangerous as the illness itself. Read the short story informed by her experience for free at the National Library for Medicine’s online exhibition The Literature of Prescription: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Yellow Wallpaper.

Trap the reader in the narrator’s head.

At the heart of Gilman’s brilliance lies her choice of narrative. Through Mary’s journal, we peer directly into her thoughts, insecurities, and growing obsessions. We stand witness as her mind unravels. We observe her, trapped in her nursery, in much the same way she observes the creeping woman trapped behind the wallpaper. This narrative choice forces us to creep alongside Mary during her slow descent into madness. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” takes a similar approach with those famous opening lines:

It’s true ! Yes, I have been ill, very ill. But why do you say that I have lost control of my mind, why do you say that I am mad? Can you not see that I have full control of my mind? Is it not clear that I am not mad? Indeed, the illness only made my mind, my feelings, my senses stronger, more powerful.

First-person perspective creates an intimate experience with readers, inviting them into your character’s mind and holding them captive there.

Tap into the collective unconscious.

Mary’s journey into madness is one of isolation. She is confined in her top-floor nursery and prohibited from all activity by an overzealous doctor. She is ignored and patronized by her doting but ill-informed husband. She is tormented by her own visions as they manifest in the grotesque yellow wallpaper. Though these are all idiosyncratic ordeals, Mary’s fears mirror our collective anxieties of being misunderstood by our loved ones, doubted by people in power, and ostracized by our community, left to suffer alone.

My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

So I take phosphates or phosphites, whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

But what is one to do?

We all, rightly, fear being separated from our pack – or rejected or found to be wanting – because we all have a deep-sinking primal instinct about our chances of survival on our own. As writers, crafting relatable characters means tapping into the collective lizard brain fears, desires, and insecurities of our readers. Let your characters’ struggles mirror the unspoken fears that bind us all.

Evoke an empathetic response with familiar feelings.

Gilman’s own battle with mental illness casts a shadow over Mary’s story. Gilman knew what she was talking about when she talked about post-partum psychosis and its treatment; she had experienced it first-hand. This real-world connection contributes to her visceral descriptions and makes the story more immediate to readers. Mary’s journal entry after a Fourth of July event would be familiar to anyone who has experienced depression:

I don’t feel as if it was worth while to turn my hand over for anything, and I’m getting dreadfully fretful and querulous.

I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time.

Of course I don’t when John is here, or anybody else, but when I am alone.

And I am alone a good deal just now. John is kept in town very often by serious cases, and Jennie is good and lets me alone when I want her to.

Realistic, relatable emotions invite readers to form personal bonds with your characters. As you spin your own tales, remember that a writer’s main challenge is to create a character that readers can connect with emotionally, even one-hundred years later.

Listen to a reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

The Classic Ghost Stories podcast hosted by Tony Walker is one of my favorite places to go for horror storytelling inspiration, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” was his first selection when he started the show.

Welcome the creeping embrace of storytelling.

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Mary’s metamorphosis into the creeping woman is a testament to the power of narrative transformation. Her descent mirrors our own into the depths of empathy, connection, and shared experience. The creeping woman becomes a metaphor for our journey as readers, as we transform into companions, witnesses, and fellow explorers of Mary’s mind. As writers, we should welcome the creeping embrace of storytelling, where the walls between character and reader blur, and we all become one with the tales we tell.

Have you read “The Yellow Wallpaper” yet? What did you think? Tell me in the comments.

Writing Challenge

Craft a short horror scene or story that employs a first-person perspective to immerse readers in your character’s thoughts and emotions. Curse your character with a maddening challenge to evoke unease in the reader. Integrate a real-world fear or personal phobia into the narrative to make it more deeply unsettling. Your aim is to create a chilling tale that grips readers and lingers in their minds.

But wait, there’s more!

If you’re local, and you find that you’ve got a five-minute thriller on your hands, come out to the Carteret Writers’ event Ghosts of the Coast. We’ll be meeting at the Morehead City Library on October 19, 4 pm – 6 pm, to share and scare at a Halloween-themed open mic. Learn more.