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.