File this post under blasts from the past(s). As my 10 years blogiversary approaches, I was feeling nostalgic about my old, hand-coded website, so of course I looked it up on the Wayback Machine. I was braced for something really amazing, and instead I found a website with roughly ten book reviews and three recipes on it. Despite its failure to live up to my memory of it, there were some good things there, and below are reviews of Herland and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” both by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, that I wrote way back in 2003.
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I first heard about Herland in my Introduction to Women’s Studies class in Fall 2000, but I didn’t get around to reading it for almost three years. I bought a collected works of Gilman, and I’m incredibly happy with it, though it’s important to say right off the bat that this book is not for everyone. People with absolutely no interest in women’s studies, philosophy, anthropology or even cultural studies aren’t going to get much out of it, though I would still strongly recommend her short stories (particularly “The Yellow Wallpaper”).
Herland is the story of three men, all of whom are explorers, during their stay in the eponymous Herland. They stumble upon this all-female society quite by accident and attempt to learn about their culture while shielding the women of Herland from the truths about their own. They fail miserably, but are accepted into the society, and all three eventually marry. The men in the book are very much stereotypes; there is the southern gentleman who worships the women of Herland, the womanizer who goes near-insane and leaves loathing the women, and the balanced down-to-earth guy who takes his better half back to his (our) society so that she may be able to send a report back home. The women are less stereotypes, but more homogenized, they are all extremely similar and all of the women of Herland embody all of the basic values of our society, both male and female. For example: independence, intelligence, athleticism, temperance, kindness, and self-awareness to name a few.
The real strength of this book is as a work of philosophy, using fiction as an illustrative tool that serves to show how bizarre sex and gender divides really are in society and how their maintenance is out of habit more than practicality. I don’t want to judge this as a work of fiction alone because I really think it’s an amazing piece of fictional philosophy. In short: I liked this book but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone not interested in the fields it directly pertains to.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This is my one of my favorite short stories of all time and my hands down favorite Charlotte Perkins Gilman short story. There are only two stories in her whole collection that could be labeled “grotesque” and the other (“The Giant Wistaria”) is more of a mystery/ghost story. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the story of a woman with postpartum depression descending into madness due to a denial of both her condition and her autonomy as a human being. The way it’s written is wonderful and is really different from the way that most of Gilman’s other stories are structured. It’s told from the perspective of the woman, who is never given a name, and is written in the form of a letter with an unspecified recipient. The narrator’s husband, John, is at least given a first name which sets him above the narrator in the book’s power structure. Additionally, the narrator (the woman defined only as the wife of her husband) and the generically named John’s lack of true names (first and last) allow them to become representative of the male/female power structure within marriage.
Aside from the names, there are several incidences throughout the story wherein it becomes obvious that a “traditional” male/female power relationship is at work. The first example is in the very opening lines when the narrator states that she and her husband are “mere ordinary people.” Another example is that (as a doctor) John presumes that he knows what is best for the narrator and, furthermore, that she is not really sick at all. The narrator’s reaction is telling; when she states, “You see, he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?” she acknowledges her place in the power hierarchy as one of near-helplessness. Almost immediately in the story she relates that she has not been allowed to stay in the room that she chose because “John would not hear of it,” and instead she is installed in the room with the yellow wallpaper which she is immediately unsettled by. However, one of the most powerful examples of their power relationship is the recurrence of John’s laughing at the narrator throughout the story. The first instance is the fifth sentence in the story, “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that,” not only does this tell the reader that this is not a rare occurrence, but that it is to be expected from John. Between John’s incessant laughter and the fact that he does not take his wife’s opinions or feelings into account their relationship borders on being that between a father and a child.
Aside from a critique of the dangerous and gendered power relationships within marriage this short story is a critique of the “rest cure,” a cure which Gilman herself was subjected to. Postpartum depression was not an acknowledged illness at the time, not seen as appropriate or valid, and the women who suffered from it were forced into seclusion by their families on recommendation of their doctors. Another example of a well-known woman of letters criticism of the rest cure would be in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (specifically through the character Septimus Warren Smith). The Smith character is suffering from shell shock, but the causes of the two character’s problems are not so different as one might originally think. When considered, postpartum depression and shell shock are just the two (gendered) sides of the same coin. In both cases a person is trapped in a painful and often violent situation and is not fully capable of processing through it even after it has ended. At the time “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written, the cure for shell shock and postpartum depression were not only the same, but equally ineffective.
Of course, the best part of the story and my favorite level of symbolic function is the yellow wallpaper itself. It’s this hideous and disturbing pattern to begin with, and on top of that it has seemed to have met with great violence during the years that it has been on the wall. The narrator hates it but is forced to stare at it as she sits in bed all day and begins to try and figure it out; to follow the patterns to some end. I feel that the wallpaper via it’s confusing but visible attachment to the house, is very much symbolic of women’s role in society which was beginning to shift dramatically at the time. Over the course of the narration the confusing tendrils of the wallpaper pattern turn into the “strange, provoking, formless” figure of a woman who is trapped beneath the paper. The narrator begins to become obsessed with the woman trapped in the wall and takes it upon herself to free her. Convinced that her husband and his sister (who has come to help out) are trying to trap her in the wallpaper as well, she tears all of it down with her bare hands in the middle of the night. If the indecipherable wallpaper is a symbol of the role of women in society is makes sense that, in desperately trying to free the trapped woman, the narrator ends up trying to free herself.
To summarize: Best short story, ever.