It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892)
Old Keziah, he reflected, might have had excellent reasons for living in a room with peculiar angles; for was it not through certain angles that she claimed to have gone outside the boundaries of the world of space we know?
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a feminist, humanist, social reformer, lecturer and writer. She was born in Connecticut, and spent much of her early life in Providence, Rhode Island, H. P. Lovecraft’s home town. Like Lovecraft she had limited formal education, but was a prodigious autodidact. As with many of the more famous writers of his day, Lovecraft’s brush with Gilman was one-sided: his letters attest to an awareness of her work and as an individual, but her letters and diaries do not mention Lovecraft. His work, limited mostly to the pulps and the amateur press, either did not rise to her notice or did not merit comment.
At one point, however, there might have been a stronger connection:
“The Yellow Wall Paper” is the sole fictional effort of the feminist & social worker Charlotte Perkins Gilman—whom, by the way, my mother knew in youth. It is a most insidiously potent tale of the aura of madness, & was included by William Dean Howells in his anthology of American Short Story masterpieces.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 11 Jan 1927, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 31
My mother knew her well-since as plain Charlotte Perkins she used to be governess in the home of some friends of ours. Later her first husband was the Providence artist Stetson. She always had an affected, eccentric streak of self-conscious intellectuality.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Sep 1935, Essential Solitude 2.708
In 1883, Charlotte Anna Perkins was living in Providence, Rhode Island. She had been working as a teacher or tutor, and recounts:
I gave drawing lessons to a boy and a girl, the girl died, and the lonely little brother begged to have me come and stay with him. So I tried governessing, for ten weeks, and learned more about the servant question in that time than most of us ever find out.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography 69
According to her letters, the clients were Dr. and Mrs. Jackson of Providence; the boy was Eddie. The 1880 census lists a Walter Marsh Jackson, physician; wife, Amelia (Amy) Jackson, daughter Isabel Jackson (died 1883, age 13), and son Edward P. Jackson. The Jacksons are buried in Swan Point Cemetery, where H. P. Lovecraft and the Phillips family are also buried.
Charlotte Perkins’ ten weeks as governess of Eddie began on 16 July 1883, and part of it was spent in Maine. Sarah Susan Phillips (1857-1921) in 1881 was living at the family home, 194 Angell St. The Jacksons are the most likely candidates for a mutual acquaintance with the future Mrs. Lovecraft, but Gilman’s letters of the period do not reference a Mrs. Phillips or her sisters—so the connection is tenuous. It is interesting to note that there are two surviving letters sent by Gilman from 207 Angell St., which is less 100 yards from the Phillips’ home, so it is not impossible that the then Charlotte Perkins and Susie Lovecraft might have met on the street, or had other acquaintances in common at the time.
Their lives diverged. In May 1884, Charlotte Perkins married her first husband, the Providence artist Charles Stetson. Their daughter Katharine Stetson was born eleven months later in 1885. Her periodic depressions deepened after the birth, and in April 1887 she broke down. Women’s medicine at the time was dominated by sexist attitudes; she submitted for a period to the “rest cure” of neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, but…well, as she puts it so elegantly:
For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia-and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live a domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long a I lived.” This was in 1897.
I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over.
I then, using the remnant of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again—work, the normal life of every human being; work , in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite; ultimately recovering some measure of power.
Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” (1913)
“The Yellow Wallpaper” was actually written in 1890, and finally published in 1892 in The New England Magazine, and there is a degree of myth-making in some of Gilman’s later claims about the story, as explored by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz in Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow-Wallpaper” (2010), but that is a bit beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that by the time Lovecraft first mentions the story in his letters in 1926, “The Yellow Wallpaper” had already been established as a story of note.
Your plan for a weird bibliography is splendid, & I hope to see it carried into effect. Such a thing ought to include not only books but isolated tales in magazines as well; since some veritable masterpieces have never got beyond that form. Single tales in anthologies, also, (like Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Yellow Wall Paper” in Howells’ collection) merit citation.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 24 Dec 1926, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 26
It’s not clear when Lovecraft first read the story, but starting in 1925 he began an intensive course of reading weird fiction to write his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), so it is possible he read it during that period. The anthology he mentions is The Great Modern American Stories: An Anthology (1920), edited by William Dean Howells. In his introduction, Howells writes of Gilman’s story:
It wanted at least two generations to freeze our young blood with Mrs. Perkins Gilman’s story of The Yellow Wall Paper, which Horace Scudder (then of The Atlantic) said in refusing it that it was so terribly good that it ought never to be printed. But terrible and too wholly dire it was, I could not rest until I had corrupted the editor of The New England Magazine into publishing it. Now that I have got it into my collection here, I shiver over it as much as I did when I first read it in manuscript, though I agree with the editor of The Atlantic of the time that it was too terribly good to be printed. (vii)
Lovecraft’s response is withering:
Am surprised that Howells was concerned in a venture like this, since ordinarily he was old-womanishly opposed to the really gruesome & terrible. He made an absurd apology for including Mrs. Gilman’s “Yellow Wall Paper” in an anthology he edited.
—H. L. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27 Sep 1927, Essential Solitude 1.37
In “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft is generally positive about “The Yellow Wallpaper”:
With this foundation, no one need wonder at the existence of a literature of cosmic fear. It has always existed, and always will exist; and no better evidence of its tenacious vigour can be cited than the impulse which now and then drives writers of totally opposite leanings to try their hands at it in isolated tales, as if to discharge from their minds certain phantasmal shapes which would otherwise haunt them. Thus Dickens wrote several eerie narratives; Browning, the hideous poem “Childe Roland”; Henry James, The Turn of the Screw; Dr. Holmes, the subtle novel Elsie Venner; F. Marion Crawford, “The Upper Berth” and a number of other examples; Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, social worker, “The Yellow Wall Paper”; whilst the humourist W. W. Jacobs produced that able melodramatic bit called “The Monkey’s Paw”. […]
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in “The Yellow Wall Paper”, rises to a classic level in subtly delineating the madness which crawls over a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined.
Lovecraft’s interpretation is fair, but curious. Many readings, especially today, focus more on the “rest cure” aspect, and the suggestion of postpartum depression. The women’s horrors, as it were. Lovecraft’s reading focuses on the subtle suggestions that Gilman never makes explicit: why has this colonial manse gone untenanted so long? Who is the woman she sees in the wallpaper?—and comes to his own conclusion. He stops short of suggesting a haunting, and it seems he was aware that the focus was on the slowly devolving mindset of the protagonist, the creeping psychological horror—and writing to August Derleth a few years later, when Derleth was working on his thesis “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890”:
“The Yellow Wall Paper” is a great tale, but to me it lacks just that final touch of “outsideness” necessary to make the top grade […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 7 Jun 1930, Essential Solitude 2.265
My stand on cosmic outsideness, however, is likely to remain unchanged; for I feel that this element is eminently necessary to produce a macabre thrill of the very first water. “The Yellow Wall Paper” & “Shadows on the Wall” are excellent of their kind, but the sensation they produce is a tame & secondary one as compared with that produced by “The Willows”, “The White People”, “The House of Sounds”, or even (in my estimation, at least) “The Yellow Sign.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Jun 1930, Essential Solitude 2.268
The weird tale can, I believe, be divided into two rough classes—those hinting of cosmic evil and horror—and those only vaguely suggesting something beyond, something beyond the surface, the appearance, and range all the way from vague fright to utmost horror. You prefer the former group, to which we would according to this grouping, parcel such tales as The Yellow Sign, your Cthulhu et al[.] tales, the White People, etc.; I prefer the latter group, in which fall Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman’s tales, your own Rats in the Walls, Strange High House, my Panelled Room, etc., The Monkey’s Paw, The Yellow Wall Paper. And so on. The vast majority of the first-raters belong in this latter class.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 2 Nov 1931, Essential Solitude 2.402
However, Derleth did take Lovecraft’s reading to heart:
The Yellow Wall Paper is the story of a woman who goes mad from the effect of hideously yellow wall paper in the room where she is convalescing, and where a mad-woman was once confined. The narrator, who is being urged to fight off the delusion that there is a woman trying to escape from behind the wall paper, enters gradually and subtly into the character of the imagined person; in reality this character, composed of forces left behind by the late madwoman, enters into her. Her husband does not realize the effect of the wall paper, nor does he regard the recent presence of the madwoman as significant. The story rises to a climax with startling subtlety, and the delineation of the approaching madness is classic. […]
There is something shudderingly horrible in the thought of this woman chronicling day by day her approaching madness, and remaining stolidly unaware of it all the time. Horror lies between the lines here, and the reader must read it in to get the full force of the story. […]
There is a suggestion of the “outside” [in The Yellow Sign by Robert W. Chambers”], which neither The Yellow Wall Paper nor The Upper Berth [by F. Marion Crawford] carried […]
—August Derleth, “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890” in The Ghost (1945) 8-9
Neither Lovecraft nor Derleth denied the importance or the efficacy of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a weird tale; Derleth himself borrowed heavily from Gilman when he wrote “The Panelled Room” (written 1930, published 1933). Both counted it an important tale worth mentioning in their respective overviews of weird fiction—and in this they were perhaps a little ahead of the game; while some classify “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a Gothic story, Edith Birkhead in The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance (1921) does not list it; neither does Dorothy Scarborough in The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917). Both those women focused on supernatural horror, and as Lovecraft pointed out— “The Yellow Wallpaper” isn’t quite that. The horror is more vague, indeterminate, and we never quite know how much is real and how much is in the narrator’s mind.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is weird. So what influence did it have on Lovecraft?
In terms of direct influence, it’s hard to say. There are definitely elements of “The Yellow Wallpaper” that jive with Lovecraft’s pet themes: the question of sanity, the descent into madness, the particular focus on angles— “The Dreams in the Witch-House” might owe at least a little debt to “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Lovecraft himself, however, never offers any insights in this line. Savvy readers might point out that Gilman’s hotel in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or Walter Gilman in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” which could be glancing references, but aside from the obvious pun in the case of Innsmouth, “Gilman” is also an old established New England name—Lovecraft might have been inspired by her, or not. He is silent on the matter.
Gilman’s novel Herland was not published until long after both their deaths, so from Lovecraft’s perspective, she had only a single weird tale to her credit:
In the case of general authors who have produced a little weird material, one has to use one’s own judgment. I would, in such cases, ask (a) how typical of this author is his weird stuff, & (b) all apart from this, how important is this weird material? […] I’d admit Mrs. Gilman for her one weird tale—”The Yellow Wall Paper”—because of its great importance, though it is wholly non-typical of her.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 29 Dec 1934, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 396
There is little left to say. Lovecraft’s final word on Gilman concerns notice of her death. Suffering from breast cancer, she chose to take her own life with chloroform.
Too bad Mrs. Gilman bumped herself off—I was told of it in N Y, though I haven’t reached Aug. 17 as yet in my reading-up of back newspapers. […] Well—may she rest in peace!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Sep 1935, Essential Solitude 2.708
There are few enough women mentioned in Supernatural Horror in Literature; whether this reflected Lovecraft’s particular reading or any unspoken sexism on his part is unclear. Yet he went out of his way more than once in both that public essay and in his private letters to champion Charlotte Perkins Gilman for her weird tale “The Yellow Wallpaper”…and who can say that Gilman’s depiction of creeping madness did not strike a chord in Lovecraft, if the memory of the story stayed with him all those years?
“The Yellow Wallpaper” can be read for free online here.
Thanks to Donovan Loucks and Dave Goudsward for their help.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).