Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Charlotte Gilman, Weir Mitchell, and “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Jack Riggs
Morgantown, West Virginia, United States

Portrait of Charlotte Perkins Gilman at age twenty-four, c. 1884. Photo by Hurd. Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman lived a complex and controversial life.1 A prolific writer and lecturer, she advocated for the social, economic, and civic liberation of women.1 She was also a nationalist, eugenicist, and white supremacist.1 Despite her prominent feminist role, “today, Charlotte is primarily remembered for her haunting story [‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’]”1 But for her encounter with S. Weir Mitchell, a father of American neurology, Gilman’s famous short story, her most recognized legacy, might not have occurred.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is now generally accepted as a vivid description of postpartum depression and psychosis.2-3 Before consulting with him, Perkins wrote Mitchell a lengthy letter of introduction:

Before marriage I had a very cheerful disposition – Since then I have scarce known a happy moment. – This agony of mind set in with the child’s coming – I understand you are the first authority on nervous diseases. – There is something the matter with my head. No one here knows or believes or cares. – But you will know.4

Perkins’ faith and trust in Mitchell, the man, were not to be realized.

Perkins’ disappointing interaction with Mitchell was the self-proclaimed impetus for writing “The Yellow Wallpaper.”5 As she explained,

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia – I went to a noted specialist – the wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure – to ‘have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as I should live’ – I went home and obeyed those instructions for some three months, and came so near – utter mental ruin – I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the wind and went to work – I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments – I never had hallucinations – sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it. – It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy.5

Although not revealing Mitchell’s name in her public explanation as to why she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,”5 Gilman did actually use the name “Weir Mitchell” in her famous fiction story.2

To be sure, Perkins did not like the male-dominated world in which she found herself. However, it does not take much scratching beneath the surface to see that she had complaints, not just with men. Perkins wrote that her mother was

urged by friends, and thinking to set my father free to have another wife – divorced him. – Divorced or not she loved him till her death – she asked to see him before she died. – He never came. That’s where I get my implacable temper – Having suffered so deeply – for lack of a husband’s love, she – determined that her baby daughter should not so suffer – Her method was to deny the child all expression of affection – so she should not be used to it or long for it.6

In the end, however, good emerged from the Perkins-Mitchell interaction. The world gained an unforgettable story now taken as an early window into postpartum depression and psychosis. Mitchell’s “rest cure” is no longer accepted treatment for “neurasthenia” (nervous exhaustion), much less postpartum depression. Putting down the pen is not the best response to repression. Even Mitchell, a great neurologist who later in life also became a writer and novelist,6 contributed in his own way to the creation of a literary work that far outshined any of his writings.


  1. Davis CJ. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, A Biography. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press; 2010.
  2. Stetson CP. The Yellow Wall-Paper. The New England Magazine 1892; 11: 647-656.https://learning.hccs.edu/faculty/selena.anderson/engl2328/readings/the-yellow-wallpaper-by-charlotte-perkins-gilman/view.
  3. Cutter MJ. The writer as doctor: new models of medical discourse in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s later fiction. Literature and Medicine 2001; 20: 151-182.
  4. Knight DD. “All the facts of the case”: Gilman’s lost letter to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell. American Literary Realism 2005; 37: 259-277.
  5. Gilman CP. Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper. Forerunner 1913; 4(October): 271. Accessed via National Library of Medicine. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/theliteratureofprescription/education/materials/WhyIWroteYellowWallPaper.pdf.
  6. Gilman CP. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, An Autobiography. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press; 1935.
  7. Earnest E. S. Weir Mitchell, Novelist and Physician. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; 1950.

JACK E. RIGGS, M.D., is a Professor of Neurology at West Virginia University.

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