I Discover Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper and other Stories
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Wow. I am so, so, glad I picked up this slim little volume of short stories last week at Bluestockings. A sticker on the front said “$2.50 – What a Steal!,” so I couldn’t pass it up. And it certainly was a steal. The title story is an excellent piece of psychological horror, rating up there with The Turn of the Screw  and  The Lifted Veil.

The gist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is that a young wife and mother is suffering from postpartum depression (or something similar), and is prescribed a period of quiet rest, free from intellectual pursuits, so that she may recover her nerves. Instead, the lack of stimulation helps her spiral further down into the depths of her illness. She becomes obsessed with the repugnant yellow wallpaper plastered in her sickroom.

     …There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.
     I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere. There is one place where two breadths didn’t match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other.

It is excellent, as are the other stories (which sometimes read as parables) in the collection. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is probably the least directly preachy, but Gilman still gets her message across loud and clear. Honestly, though, even when she’s at her most instructive feminist self, I remained in awe at the pure radicalness of her ideas. Talk about ahead of her time – she’s ahead of where we are in the United States today.

I’m interested in learning more about Gilman. She wrote an autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. There are at least two biographies of her life: To Herland and Beyond: The Life of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, by Ann J. Lane, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, by  Mary A. Hill. Unfortunately, her wikipedia page shows that for all her awesome radical views on gender, she held some seriously problematic beliefs regarding race/ethnicity (why, 18th century feminists were you so full of fail when it came to intersectionality?)


5 thoughts on “I Discover Charlotte Perkins Gilman

  1. Glad you found and liked Yellow Wallpaper. It is a favorite of mine and a real classic. See Helen Horowitz, Wild Unrest, for a quick intro to her life and the ways YW is and isn't autobiographical. The bios you mention are excellent. CG's fiction tends to be pedantic, but fun if you are in the right mood. Yes, she is very, very limited on race and class, a creature of her generation's "best" thinking on them. I especially like her Women and Economics, a critque of women's dependence on men. Enjoy moe of her.

  2. Thanks for the feedback! Do you have a recommendation on which bio is preferable? I can't imagine that I'd read both, at least not within a reasonable time of each other. I do realize that she was a product of her time, but I still get frustrated with that kind of thinking. She must have had some exposure to less racist viewpoints, especially considering her cousin was Harriet Beecher Stowe. Not that HBS was perfect, by any means.

  3. Oh my, that passage about the wallpaper reminded me strongly of a time when I spent days in bed sick, looking at a houndstooth pattern curtain. To this day there is no fashion design I hate more than houndstooth. I haven't heard of the author before, so I thank you for the introduction to her work.

  4. I suggest Horowitz's little book, Wild Unrest. It does a good job of summarizing the main points in Gilman's life and thought and putting them in context.Yes, I get very frustrated at Gilman's racism, too. Actually it was because she was well read in the new field of sociology that her racism is so bad. Harriet B. Stowe may have excited outrage over slavery, but I doubt she was any more open-minded about actual blacks. A few abolotionists really sought equality for blacks, but most were depressingly unwilling to be so radical.

  5. Pingback: Jacob’s Room | Wandering in the Stacks

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