This short story, written in the last decade of the 19th century, tells the story of a sad woman’s descent into madness. The lead is an upper-class lady, wife of a doctor, and is staying in a rented mansion with her husband and her husband’s sister (who acts as their housekeeper) through the summer. The protagonist has been diagnosed with a depressive disorder with hysterical tendencies, and the story serves as an indictment of the way in which mental illness was treated.
It’s not clear what the true nature of the protagonist’s mental or emotional infirmity was at the beginning of her move to the summer-house, but it’s clear that the treatment makes her state of mind much worse. That treatment was a so-called “rest-cure,” and it prohibited her from working, writing (which is now known to be quite therapeutic), or doing much else, save for staring at the walls – hence the title. As happens when the mind is shut-off from external stimuli, it starts to form its own stories that become projected into the individual’s world in the form of hallucinations. In the protagonist’s case, these hallucinations play out in (and behind) the irregular wallpaper pattern.
The fact that the woman’s husband is a doctor, ironically, contributes to her worsening condition because she accepts his “treatment” as being formulated by a great authority. As much as it is an indictment of the specific treatment offered (i.e. “rest-cures”), it may be even more of an indictment of the belief that there exists an infallible authority on the mind. A humbler doctor might have listened to his patient, and adjusted course when it became clear the patient was getting worse under the existing treatment.
This is a very quick read. It may be slow in places, as one might expect of a story that involves a substantial amount of staring at, and contemplation of, wallpaper, but as her condition becomes more serious the story becomes gripping and the nature of reality more in question. The edition that I read contained drawings.
I found this story both intriguing and thought-provoking, and would recommend it for all readers.