The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
First published in 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper is written as the secret journal of a woman who, failing to relish the joys of marriage and motherhood, is sentenced to a country rest cure. Though she longs to write, her husband and doctor forbid it, prescribing instead complete passivity. In the involuntary confinement of her bedroom, the hero creates a reality of her own beyond the hypnotic pattern of the faded yellow wallpaper--a pattern that has come to symbolize her own imprisonment.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a powerful, yet utterly horrifying, story of the Victorian rest cure for women. In those days, female mental illness was almost always put down to hysteria, with women being institutionalised for the remainder of their lives. In this short story, Gilman gives us a woman subjected to imprisonment by her physician husband due to what we'd recognise today as postpartum depression. Deprived of any sort of mental exercise, she focuses on the one thing in the room she can - the horrendous wallpaper. This soon becomes a tormenting obsession, and can be argued is the sole contributor to a descent into madness.
The sadness here is in the husband's actions and inactions. The Victorian cures leave a lot to be desired, with us being the fragile sex and all, so of course, hubby knows best. His refusal to listen to our narrator's pleas for mental stimulation, his inability to see her decline, and his clear opinion that his wife was a mere object in his life to be polished for best, were all guilty factors in the ultimate tragic end. The true tragedy is the implication that, had our narrator been given what she'd asked for, she could have had the ability to overcome the problems in her mind.
Gilman uses the wallpaper itself to symbolise the rapid loss of sanity; the further she sinks, the more the patterns on the walls undulate and morph, giving our narrator a feeling of unease, and then a grip of mania as she attempts to remove the paper. It's gothic, and Gilman's descriptions of the movements of the patterns creates an eerie, supernatural feel. When one remembers all of this is the work of the narrator's mind, rather than ghosts, it becomes all the more real and macabre.
I was very, very impressed with this little story and would urge you to read it. The other two in the edition were worthwhile inclusions, but truly paled in comparison to the titular story.