Mirror, Mirror on the Wall-Paper: Reflecting on a Digital Surrogate of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Seminal Story

Hathitrust Digital Library, digitized copy of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” from The New England Magazine 1891-92, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924080769783&view=1up&seq=655. Accessed 12 May 2020.

First published in The New England Magazine in 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is considered a seminal work of American feminist literature. The semi-autobiographical story is narrated by an unnamed woman whose physician husband has prescribed her a rest cure after she suffers a postpartum “temporary nervous depression.” Confined to an upstairs nursery, the narrator becomes progressively more unreliable with each journal entry. Deprived of intellectual stimulation, she fixates on the “sickly” yellow wallpaper in the room, her vivid descriptions revealing her increasingly questionable perceptions of reality. She comes to believe that there is a woman trapped in the wallpaper and, by the end of the story, convinces herself that she is the woman. 

Pointing to the narrator’s delusions, feminist critics have interpreted the story as a vilification of how medicine and the patriarchy served to subjugate women during the 19th century (Lola). In part due to its republication by the Feminist Press in 1973, it “evolved from a relatively obscure and subversive magazine piece… to a formative feminist course classic” that epitomizes “the widespread cultural feminist movement that fostered the reemergence of women’s voices in society” (St. Jean 397). Before its rediscovery by the educational nonprofit organization that aims to promote women’s rights and amplify feminist beliefs, the story was first reprinted as a book by Small, Maynard & Company, a defunct publishing house located in Boston, in 1899. The Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library offering free universal to collections of millions of digitized materials, makes accessible a digital surrogate of the book. The following question arises: What does this digital surrogate offer, and what does it lack?

The Archive provides present-day readers with a number of affordances that print would not. It allows readers to flip through the pages of the book without needing to obtain a decomposing physical copy. In addition, the magnification tool makes the text easier to view. Furthermore, the Archive offers readers a variety of download options: ABBYY GZ, which allows the conversion of image documents into editable electronic formats; Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY), an audio substitute for print material designed for use by individuals with print disabilities such as dyslexia, impaired vision, and blindness (“DAISY/Print Disabled Books on Open Library”); EPUB, characterized as the format of choice for packaging content for its compatibility with most computers, tablets, smartphones, and e-readers; searchable full text; Kindle, since EPUB, though the most widely supported vendor-independent XML-based e-book format, is not supported by Kindle unlike most other hardware readers (Price); PDF and text-searchable PDF, which preserve graphic integrity by displaying “the exact same content and layout no matter which operating system, device or software application it is viewed on” (“What is a PDF?”); and Torrent, which makes the process of downloading a file faster and more convenient (Charles).

However, the Internet Archive’s digital surrogate of the book, despite its platform-based advantages, lacks the illustrations that appears in HathiTrust’s digital surrogate of the magazine. (HathiTrust Digital Library is a collaborative digital preservation repository of content from online sources and research libraries.) These illustrations enhance the reading experience by evocatively rendering the narrator’s descent into insanity through a supplementary mode. However, the lack of illustrations is no fault of digitization, of course; they were not included in the 1899 reprint of the story, appearing only in The New England Magazine seven years prior. 

Hathitrust Digital Library, digitized copy of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” from The New England Magazine 1891-92, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924080769783&view=1up&seq=651. Accessed 12 May 2020.
Hathitrust Digital Library, digitized copy of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” from The New England Magazine 1891-92, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924080769783&view=1up&seq=656. Accessed 12 May 2020.

Regardless, the Internet Archive’s digital surrogate does well to make “The Yellow Wall-Paper” accessible, particularly amid today’s post-truth politics, where it is increasingly more difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. Indeed, freelance writer Sadie Trombetta posits that Gilman’s story “should be considered required reading” because “it is as relevant — and as real today as ever before,” citing how the Trump administration is “expertly implementing” gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation in which a person makes the victim question their reality, as demonstrated in John’s treatment of the unnamed narrator. As Trombetta concludes, “We must trust ourselves to see through the gaslighting, lest we all go insane and take the country down as the narrator did the maddening yellow wallpaper.”

Works Cited

Charles. “TORRENTS EXPLAINED – BENEFITS, DISADVANTAGES, ALTERNATIVES.” The VPN GURU, https://thevpn.guru/torrents-explained-benefits-disadvantages-privacy-vpn-proxy-anonymous-usenet-alternative. Accessed 12 May 2020.

“DAISY/Print Disabled Books on Open Library.” Open Library, 14 January 2019, https://openlibrary.org/help/faq/accessing. Accessed 12 May 2020.

Lola, Sophia. “The Alliance Between Medical Truth and the Patriarchy in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper.’ WordPress, 5 April 2020, https://literaryarchive.wordpress.com/2020/04/05/the-alliance-between-medical-truth-and-the-patriarchy-in-charlotte-perkins-gilmans-the-yellow-wall-paper/. Accessed 12 May 2020.

Price, Dan. “The Different Ebook Formats Explained: EPUB, MOBI, AZW, IBA, and More.” MakeUseOf, 27 July 2018, https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/ebook-formats-explained/. Accessed 12 May 2020. 

St. Jean, Shawn. “Hanging ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’: Feminism and Textual Studies.” Feminist Studies, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 396-415, DOI: 10.2307/3178750

Trombetta, Sadie. “Why ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ By Charlotte Perkins Gilman Should Be Required Reading In 2018.” Bustle, 20 August 2018, https://www.bustle.com/p/why-the-yellow-wallpaper-by-charlotte-perkins-gilman-should-be-required-reading-in-2018-9936873. Accessed 12 May 2020.

“What is a PDF?”. ABBYY, https://www.abbyy.com/en-me/finereader/what-is-pdf/. Accessed 12 May 2020.

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