Category Archives: Short Stories

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Women Understood

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860 – 1935) wrote influential feminist treatises.  If her treatises were as good as her short stories, they must have persuaded legions to the cause of feminism. Her short stories are themselves effective prose on behalf of the interests of  women.  Gilman understood women, and we understand her writing;  men worth hanging out with will too.  Neither strident nor boring (too often the case with heartfelt causes paragoned in literature), the stories are clever and original in character and plot, and utterly convincing in setting and atmosphere. Her stories are the only ones in recent memory (or distant memory, for that matter) to result in my actually cheering out loud!  Her writing also made me laugh, and feel warm compassion and devoted interest, all within a few short pages (her stories are short for the most part).

The lead story in The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories is unique in causing utter, chilled fear. It tells the harrowing story of a woman’s descent into madness.  Her descent seems to be aided by the husband but perhaps he is just an overly-caring but unimaginative physician, who believes only in illness of the body; illness of the mind can be ignored and it will eventually pass.  But for this poor woman, it does not.  She becomes tangled up in the yellow wallpaper of her room (cell).  She has a strong aversion to the paper and yet a connection to it as well; she perceives the nonsense pattern as symbols of her fears.  Slowly, slowly the paper becomes a living thing, and a mirror mirage of her own situation: “The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.  You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well 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.

My favorite story is almost like a fairy tale.  Two women rent a summer cottage in an artist community.  Their “cottagette” is lovely, bordered by untrammeled meadows and with views over whole counties, and with no kitchen.  Cheap and nourishing meals are taken a short walk away in a communal hall with musical and other artistic types.  Our heroine is the younger of the two women, never married, and an artist.  The other woman is older and has been married.  It was not a lovely experience and she prefers now to stay on her own.  A man enters into the picture, a writer.  He is interested in the younger woman and the older advises her to show him how domestic she can be.  The women have a basic kitchen installed in their tiny cottage and everything changes: time spent working and taking long walks is now spent in the preparing and cleaning up of meals; the carts delivering food and goods leave marks upon the meadow; and “it is astonishing how much work there is in the littlest kitchen.  You go in for a minute, and you see this thing and that thing, and the other thing to be done, and your minute is an hour before you know it.”  (Every mother I know can identify with that sentence.) I won’t give away the ending but it is wonderful and funny, and a lovely twist on who does what in the pursuit and then the conduction of marriage.

Gilman’s primary themes in her stories are the importance of a woman having a life beyond that of the domestic hearth; a woman needs her own interests, her own earned income if possible, and independence absolutely; and a woman must feel confident in her own mind and abilities. A few years ago a book came out called The Feminist Mistake in which the author criticized women of my generation for turning away from our careers and educations and choosing to take over full time care of homes and children.  She interviewed me for her book and taunted me with the statistics of marriages, implying it was quite likely my husband would leave me and where would I be then?  I replied that I would find a job as needed and she scoffed.  What her book should have examined, and what Gilman offers in her stories, is a prescription for allowing women (and men) to choose, within the realities of opportunities offered, having a job and children, or a job or children, or neither, if that is what is chosen!  In the high economic times, the opportunities should have flourished for meaningful part time work and for reintegrating into the workforce anyone who has taken a few years off to pursue other interests (like children, who can be so incredibly interesting and quite fulfilling, if sometimes also hungry and loud and dirt-accumulating); in our current times, I fear those programs that were initiated will be the first to go.

Gilman was a very good writer.  Her sentences and structure are so clean and cut so neat, her descriptions so original, grasping the essential quality of the thing described, she is a modern and compelling writer.  Her sensibilities are liberal and open, and her message of freedom and happiness and respect co-existing in marriage and society are uplifting and even inspiring without being moralistic or heavy-handed in any way.   She is fun to read (except when she is absolutely chilling to read), easy to cheer on, and hard to put down.  Now I must search out her treatises and become the total convert: truth is, I am already there.

Tepid in Tampico: Liliana Blum

The short stories by Liliana Blum contained in the collection The Curse of Eve (published in 2008) read as if written by an extremely pissed-off sixteen year-old. The writing is simplistic, the plots contrived, the dialog flat, the characters even flatter.  Perhaps part of the blame could be laid at the translators feet but the core aspects of plot and character are so immature, no words in any language could help.  Blum’s writing has no subtelty or nuance, it is all in your face flatness.  All is obvious and nothing is hidden.

The titles of the stories illustrate the sophomoric nature of the tales that follow: “The Curse of Eve” (guess what that’s about), “Fish without a Bicycle” (guess again), “The Avon Lady” (again).  Actually, “The Avon Lady” is one of the two stories (out of twenty-eight)  that I actually liked.  There was no contrived or coy ending, no sudden twist or false note of wisdom; not one fake “aha” moment stormed in during this story.  “The Avon Lady” and “The Book Can Still Be Mended” both proceed easily and are even quietly compelling, and best of all, they end simply.

I became quickly bored then annoyed with the stories, one after another, set in the present tense.  The ones adressed to me as “you” were eben worse. Was that “tu” or “usted” in the original, I wonder? Actually, I don’t wonder because I don’t care.  Blum does not create a scene or a person that makes us care, other than our knee jerk reactions against pedophilia, the carving up of murder victims, and wife abuse.  There are too many women dreaming of killing their hubbies (or doing it), too many children exploring what they shouldn’t or being explored as they should not be; and too many convents filled with nasty-minded nuns but whole-souled priests.  Or maybe there were just one or two, but it was all too much, and never enough.

Ben Fountain: Traveling in Search of Soul

Yesterday I read Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (published in 2008), by Ben Fountain.  His stories bring us to Haiti, Sierra Leone, 19th century Vienna, and the American south: each place and its people are fully drawn through exact yet nuanced observations, making for excellent reading. The stories are genuine, true, and captivating. His prose is perfectly created and yet very fluid and natural.  I did not feel I was reading the works of someone trained by a writers’ workshop but rather the words of a true writer.  Fountain is talented and disciplined; he is also obviously  sincere about sharing true stories of humanity, and a master at using fiction as his vehicle for conveying truth.  There is not a character that rings untrue in any of his stories, (except for the last story in the collection, “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers”, that I think is supposed to read as some kind of monstrous fairy tale).

Every story is different (and wonderful), in viewpoint and narrator, and yet the same basic truths are presented: humans do survive and cope and even flourish briefly, in the face of often crushing, or numbing, or repetitive, reality. Set in scenarios where utter grimness and hopelessness would seem appropriate (and would be so easy to portray), Fountain instead shows us a realistic optimism, which is, after all, the mechanism for survival.  To achieve the touch of optimism in stories that are so real and so sad is a gift, and Fountain is beautifully gifted.

Victorians Do Terror

Yesterday I read Victorian Tales of Terror (published 1974), a collection edited by Hugh Lamb.  I was preparing for Halloween and the chills and thrills I got in reading these great old stories were perfect!  No one tells a ghost story better than the Victorians did; they did not resort to crude and graphic descriptions of blood and gore, they used words to create bone-chilling atmosphere and hair-raising situations of restless (and sometimes evil) souls and the bizarre phenomena the ghosts occasioned to demonstrate their unhappiness in the afterlife.

Great writers like Dickens and J.H. Riddell, and De Maupassant are included, as well as the American Ambrose Bierce (the only tale with sickening physical descriptions) and writers from throughout the British isles that I am not familiar with.  The writers all told very different stories (unlike many collections of ghost stories, which are so horribly repetitive) and all share the ability to tell a great story, create a chill in the soul, and yet also give hearty and satisfying resolution at the end (restless souls appeased), thereby allowing sleep to come when I finally finished up the book close to midnight, and was ready for bed.

Another great collection of ghost stories is The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, published by Scribner.