Charlotte Perkins Gilman may be most well-known for writing and publishing “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1892, but the short story endured a turbulent critical history before becoming a classic addition to literature courses. The story, which Gilman initially wrote to share her experience of suffering under the demands of the “rest cure,” initially faced criticism for its graphic depiction of the narrator’s declining mental condition. Horace Scudder, the editor of the prominent Atlantic Monthly magazine, refused to publish Gilman’s work because how miserable he felt after reading it. Even though a revival of gothic literature began emerging during this period, critics argued that “The Yellow Wallpaper” was too explicit in its haunting depiction of a woman going mad. The story eventually appeared in New England Magazine with little fanfare.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” remained forgotten by readers until feminist literary critics of the 1960s and 1970s rediscovered it, championing the story’s harsh critiques of Victorian gender politics. Feminist literary theory, which explores the way that writers depict the female consciousness, stems from both second-wave feminism and a boom of interest in literary theory. This critical perspective asserts that Western civilization is patriarchal, that patriarchal ideas pervade canonical literature, and that most literature through time has been gender biased. Pioneers of feminist literary theory aimed to expand the literary canon to include more female authors, and for its powerful symbolism and resonant themes, they chose to illuminate Gilman’s hidden gem of a story. 

Elements of particular interest to those examining “The Yellow Wallpaper” through a feminist lens include the clearly divergent perspectives of the narrator and John, the literal and metaphorical forms of entrapment the narrator faces, and the relationship between the narrator and the woman in the wall. These aspects of the story offer insights to key questions such as how relationships between women and men are represented in a given text and what the consequences are for women and men in the roles they fill. Questions regarding the role, position, and influence of women in a literary text guided early feminist literary theorists and continue to remain guiding tenants today.