‘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.
‘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.