Doing it for themselves

William Morris wallpaper design (detail)

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Other Stories
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Dover Thrift Editions, 1997 (1892-1914)

Seven extraordinary tales of what may almost be called ménages désenchaînées are collected here. The epithet ‘extraordinary’ is well deserved because these short stories composed in the score or so years preceeding the Great War are remarkable not only for describing sisters doing it for themselves but also for their literary style.

Gilman offers us tales of women achieving some large measure of agency, overcoming social mores and conventions, initiating change for themselves and others, and challenging contemporary prejudices surrounding supposed female feebleness of mind, body and aptitude.

The title story of this collection may be the best known but I also relished the other six offerings in this selection — and not solely for their feminist perspective, because Gilman’s observational skills emphasised individual propensities to change and adapt in positive ways for the benefit of all, women and men. In this she demonstrated an approach that could really be called humanist.

Fred Elwell, ‘My Neighbour’s House’ (1929) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is justly famous. Often characterised as a woman’s descent into madness, this stark description doesn’t do the story justice. Yes, it echoes what we now know as postnatal or postpartum psychosis, a condition suffered by Gilman herself before she wrote her story in which delusions and hallucinations are common. Many may remember seeing faces in non-representational shapes scrutinising us in childhood — an instinct known as eidolia — but the narrator of this story, prescribed bedrest in a former nursery with the absence of any stimulation, imagines another woman creeping around behind the wallpaper seeking release. It is not until the woman is able to take control and thus counter the misguided remedies of her physician husband that a change in her condition can be effected.

Gilman’s writing is recognisably modern when compared to her contemporaries such as, say, Edith Wharton or Henry James: in this story, presented as journal entries in monologue form, short or truncated sentences capture the immediacy of the woman’s emotions and render them more vivid, more authentic in fact, than a third person account might. This is a powerful and realistic narrative of genuine experiences, sympathetically told.

Many of the other pieces show a woman — by and large middle class, one or two professional — facing a life-changing decision, sometimes focused on a house. ‘Three Thanksgivings’ has a widow pressured by her adult children to give up her large family home; ‘The Cottagette’ has another individual encouraged to be more housewifey when her inclination is to pursue her artistic ambitions; meanwhile, in ‘Turned’ can a woman and a wronged servant girl find independence living away from a wayward husband?

Personal fulfilment can be found in ways other than in a ménage désenchaînée, and a couple of the stories look these out. ‘If I Were a Man’ is almost a magic realist parable when a woman finds herself in the head of her husband, seeing things from his point of view and perhaps being surprised. Then there’s ‘Mr Peebles’ Heart’ in which the titular character is prescribed an unusual remedy for his malaise by his physician sister-in-law. Finally, ‘Making a Change’ offers a woman choice between rejection and rapprochement, the resolution to which is as neat and satisfying as any of the other stories in this selection.

These fictions proved revelatory to me, not just as examples of early feminist writing but as models of effective narrative writing: simple without being simplistic, profound without trying to appear clever, and ultimately satisfying, as tales well told should be.

24 thoughts on “Doing it for themselves

  1. HELLOOOOOOooooooo, my friend! I hope you had a beautiful Christmas holiday. I was just talking to my daughter about this…why was I…oh! There was a commercial about the new Fantastic Beasts 3 movie, and she was really surprised I wasn’t excited for it. Since she’s excited to build up her writing skills, I decided to dive into my Writer-Reasons: that for whatever reason, be it Rowling or the movie studio, they wanted those Fantastic Beasts movies to follow the same plot as the Harry Potter movies. Just because a plot worked for one series does NOT mean it will work for another, and you as a writer should not feel like you have to make ALL the stakes super-epic, that the WORLD is at stake again, that there is an eeeevil SUPER-villain all over again with his army and so on and so on. The little stories say a lot, too. Little adventures helping animals, for instance, which is what Fantastic Beasts SHOULD have been about. I just read Nightmare Alley, and that’s not exactly “epic” in scale, but it certainly covers the depths of human nature…hoping to write about it this week!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello again, Jean, and thank you, yes, I did have a lovely Christmas break (and of course it’s still continuing now) and I hope you did too! Pardon me for not following up on your podcast posts as I’ve only recently got into them but need to be doing something practical at the same time, like painting and decorating the hallway or sorting through junk, to give them my full attention. But I can see they’ve proved popular so I’m really pleased for you!

      I agree about the Fantastic Beasts franchise, and it’s a charge I’d level at most cinematic fantasy epics these days. There’s always a similar narrative arc with at least one supervillain, spectacular but frankly unbelievable special effects, and a hero with a personal problem to overcome. They may all be variations on Campbell’s Hero’s Journey but I yearn for something as profound but less derivative and preferably ploughing new furrows.

      And here’s the thing about these Charlotte Perkins Gilman stories: they may mostly have upbeat endings but she always takes the path less travelled to get there in her explorations of domestic set-ups of the period. A refreshing change! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. YES! The formulas are so gosh darn old, and when they’re all that’s going for the “story,” that just hurts any more. Formulas do not *have* to be bad–we just watched SCROOGED the other night, the Bill Murray version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Do we know the plot points? Sure, we do! Do we still enjoy the film? YES. Why? Because sooo much else ploughs those new furrows with the characters, how they interact, the effects of modernization on the story, etc. The Hero’s Journey is a powerful experience. But it needn’t go through all the same plights with the same villians with the same supporting cast and so on and son. Oh, it grinds m’writing gears….

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  2. How interesting, I read Wallpaper back at University when doing a women’s lit course, but I hadn’t grasped she’d written other short fiction (and probably didn’t have the life experience to really understand Wallpaper, either – I’m pretty sure I still have my copy, so might revisit it!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, do revisit it, Liz, and especially explore her other tales—-they were truly a revelation to me. And knowing someone especially close to me who had a similar psychosis after childbirth meant I appreciated (in a way I never would have before) what Gilman was describing in the title story. That also meant I trusted more in the verisimilitude of her other stories, and that they weren’t just fables or wish-fulfilling fairytales.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like a fascinating collection. Like many, I’m aware of Gilman mostly in the context of “The Yellow Wallpaper;” unlike many, I haven’t even read that one. I am thinking the time is ripe to remedy this hole in my reading, particularly as I really like the Dover editions (I have several).

    I love your illustrations to your post BTW, particularly the Elwell painting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First, I do recommend Gilman’s short stories, and obviously the ones I’ve read in this slim Dover edition. Secondly, I’m glad you liked the illustrations; in fact, I discuss the Elwell painting in a post which you may also enjoy: I was reminded of the picture after Gilman’s depiction of so many domestic interiors.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I see you read the Virago edition, and am now wondering what other stories may have been included (I can’t see what the ‘Other Writings’ might be from their website). I’m encouraged to read more of her work, maybe the odd novel as well,as these were so effective.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. JJ Lothin

    This is another gap in my literary knowledge which clearly needs filling. And as a paperback is more likely to rise quickly up my reading pile than a Kindle sample – and as I’ve managed to find a Dover Thrift edition on Evil Amazon for the ridiculous price of £1.99! – that gap should be filled sooner rather than later!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good for you, even if it involved Am*z*n! I think I got my Dover Thrift copy for £1.00 from a local charity shop, for which I feel marginally more virtuous. I hope you appreciate itz contents as much as I did. 😊

      Liked by 2 people

      1. JJ Lothin

        Couldn’t get up to the level for “free delivery” without giving the Evil Ones even more money for things I don’t really need, but for another 63p, I’ve got it from Book Depository!

        (Are Book Depository owned by the Evil Ones these days? Just can’t keep up!)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. apparently acquired its UK rival The Book Depository, based in Gloucester, in 2011, so yes, it sold its soul to the Evil One so he now can fly into space at will in his phallic spaceship…

          Liked by 1 person

  5. As with Liz, I have read TYW but was unaware CPG had written other short fiction. I almost didn’t read TYW, having read and despised Herland. I’m glad that I persisted, though, and your review here makes me want to read her other shorts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Though this selection was doubtless carefully put together to illustrate her range and brilliance I’m keen to read her other short fiction just now more than her novels. Herland sounds to be more polemical, but I don’t know enough about it to be drawn to it or rebuffed.

      Liked by 1 person

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