“There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I talk about my experiences with the classics—how I share them with y’all. And I’ve realized—I’ll flesh this out more fully later—that with the classics, I’m more reactionary in my posts, when I’ve always tried to be a balance of visceral response and critique. Well. The following post is proof of this, methinks—observations and questions I took down while reading the book:

▪ The women of The Yellow Wall-paper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman[violate] every law of woman’s existence according to the canons, they still live, and often present a favorable contrast to their married sisters in both health and happiness. As to usefulness, of course, they have none. No trifles in the way of personal achievement can counter-balance the delinquency of unmarried women.

They’re not always unmarried, sure, but they’re always delinquents. [And if they’re not, they’re an example of How Not to Live.]

▪ I am always hyper-aware, when reading Perkins Gilman’s stories, that she is one of the “pioneering” feminist writers—her stories than are read mindful of how the gender roles were at the time, what she was up against as a woman and as an artist. Kind of tiring, this constant contextualizing. Yes, I know this is part of the reading of classics—but I hate feeling that the story’s being overwhelmed by the social context, by politics. Gah, yes, these stories are reacting to that atmosphere—but at times it’s a burden to this modern reader [who can’t come up with a coherent response to the question, “Are you a feminist?”]

▪ One disturbing thing about these stories: There is a lot of sarcasm. Satire, yes, but oodles of sarcasm. Also, the men in the stories are too-easily categorized: bumbling comical throwbacks, slyest of villains, the aggressors, the passives. But what is common about all of them: no angst at all. No character, even. The men in Perkins Gilman’s stories are hollow.

▪ “Through This” is the lyrical monotony of domestic life, specifically, of the woman left alone in the house—upon reading it, I realized that it bore a lot of resemblance to one of my own stories, “You Know I Love You”—hahaha, the conceit in that statement! Aherm. I mean, I find it tickling that a century and some odd years later, two stories focus on this domestic despair. Perkins Gilman’s treatment was to continually add doom and gloom to her heroine’s situation, so subtly, in the enumeration of her tasks. My treatment was to show the volatility of such a woman—one of my favorite scenes I ever wrote was off the heroine, Alice, keeping house unclothed. Why am I talking about myself?

▪ In “An Extinct Angel,” this fable, a paragon of virture, the extinct woman who is meek and keeps house and cannot read. Gahk. “The human creatures did not like intelligent angels—intelligence seemed to dim their shine, somehow, and pale their virtues.” Note that once these angels eat from the tree of knowledge, they die out. Subtle.

▪ More rampant, nose-thumbing feminism. “The Unexpected” and “Circumstances Alter Cases” and “Their House,” among others: a reversal of roles. In one, woman is—surprise—a long-admired painter and personal hero of her husband. Another presents moral and ethical arguments regarding gender roles. And in the last one, a wife turns a struggling business into a virtual conglomerate once the husband goes on an expedition.

▪ A few years ago, during a Philosophy class, our professor handed us readings on 19th Century views on hysteria and melancholia, and underneath all those obscure, obfuscating, and all-around unjust judgments on “women’s ailments,” there was a short story about a woman locked in a horrid room with wallpaper rife with symbolism: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s celebrated story, “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” Attached to the story was a short essay titled, “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wall-Paper,” in which the author shares:

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia—and beyond. For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia-and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded that there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to `live as domestic a life as possible,’ to `have but two hours’ intelligent life a day,’ and `never to touch pen, brush or pencil again’ as long as I lived. This was in 1887.

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

▪ The introduction to the book posits some questions about the story: “To what extent is the narrator’s madness a triumph, to what extent a painful, qualified liberation revealing her continuing resistance and ties to the pattern she can neither stand or completely escape?” True, true. I like to see it—and it is open to interpretation—as a liberation. Isn’t it telling that madness is a welcome release from the horrors of that life she was being forced to live?

▪ The wallpaper: “You think you have mastered it, but just as you get underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream.” Is the wallpaper an objective correlative? A giant really obvious one? What is the wallpaper a metaphor of? Her madness? Her depression? Does the wallpaper cause her madness, or has it always been in her, and she simply projects it? Is she the woman behind the pattern struggling tog et out? My gawd.

▪ At the title page of the book, I scrawled, I feel useless talking about these stories. So many others have, and more eloquently—and, more importantly, with much more emotional investment in Perkins Gilman’s aesthetics and politics, her stories. These stories mean something to a lot of people; I look upon them as a curiosity.

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4 comments

  1. I really enjoyed THE YELLOW WALL-PAPER but I haven’t read the others. I did read HERLAND. I think you’re right in that she’s very political as she writes. You can’t ignore that ths’e trying to make a point, that she wants us to know she’s a feminist, even before feminism existed as a coherent movement. Which is too bad because they are fascinating stories. Not the best writer, from my two experiences, but very interesting non-the-less.

  2. [...] one of the last two books with me as I fled to safety—I would definitely take this book and leave Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s, who definitely isn’t my cup of [...]

  3. It sounds like I’m not missing much by skipping the rest of Gilman’s catalogue. Not that I didn’t like “The Yellow Wallpaper,” though (the image of the “creeping women” on the hillside is a haunting one to this day).
    The funny thing is, my lit professor assigned it as a companion piece to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. I don’t know if you’ve read that, but Gilman is a *much* better representation of 19th century feminist fiction.

  4. [...] that she’ll disappoint me. I don’t want my reaction to her ending up similar to Kate Chopin or Charlotte Perkins Gilman who were awesome literary movers and shakers in their own right, but ultimately left me dry with [...]

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