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Book Review: The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (3/5)

31 Mar

I was given this as a gift a long time ago, I believe for Christmas in 2014. The friend who gave it to me did because I’d shared an article I read where the author says that the wallpaper in The Yellow Wallpaper was the most obvious analogy he had ever read. I hadn’t read Gilman’s stories at the time but felt that the title alone made it pretty obvious what was going on. Naturally, she called my ignorance and bought me this copy. And now, five and a half years later, I have the time to get to it. I listened to an audiobook of this collection and then realized my print edition had selected different stories and read the ones that I hadn’t listened to already.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Summary from Goodreads:

Best known for the 1892 title story of this collection, a harrowing tale of a woman’s descent into madness, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote more than 200 other short stories. Seven of her finest are reprinted here.

Written from a feminist perspective, often focusing on the inferior status accorded to women by society, the tales include “turned,” an ironic story with a startling twist, in which a husband seduces and impregnates a naïve servant; “Cottagette,” concerning the romance of a young artist and a man who’s apparently too good to be true; “Mr. Peebles’ Heart,” a liberating tale of a fiftyish shopkeeper whose sister-in-law, a doctor, persuades him to take a solo trip to Europe, with revivifying results; “The Yellow Wallpaper”; and three other outstanding stories.

These charming tales are not only highly readable and full of humor and invention, but also offer ample food for thought about the social, economic, and personal relationship of men and women — and how they might be improved.

There were some similar themes in a lot of these stories. Many focused on a woman’s happiness in marriage and motherhood and about female independence. I have to imagine that for the time they were written, these weren’t very common themes. The complaints that many of the women had and being unfulfilled were the same ones I read about in The Feminine Mystique meaning that more than sixty years later, they were still ongoing. I liked the snort and snappy stories Gilman used to highlight these problems. I think they showed the issues well and gave examples of women who were strong and independent.

It’s hard for me to comment on how credible these characters were since I don’t know very much about women around the turn of the century. I could understand the pain they felt and how they wanted to have a purpose in life aside from being mothers as I think we see that continuing into today’s culture. As far as avoiding marriage, I’m not sure how many women at the time were actively trying to avoid getting married or re-married so these characters may not be representative of the women of the time. However, they were resourceful people and I felt the way they were portrayed was very positive and a good role model for any woman who may have felt the same.

Gilman was clearly ahead of her time as a feminist. Her feminist characters want things that today are common: careers, self-determination, and the choice to marry. These are things I have (had) and can completely understand why someone who doesn’t have them would want them so strongly. I love my job and while I’ve considered having a family and staying home, I don’t think it would be long-term for me; I think I’d eventually return to the workforce in some way. I decided what I would study in school and decided to marry a man I love when I was young even when some people tried to talk me out of it. I enjoy the freedoms that Gilman was speaking about.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Image via the New York Review of Books

I can’t remember the title of the story I liked best but I think it was When I Was a Witch. It was a story about a woman who made wishes and they would come true. She used this power to meter out her form of justice amongst newspaper people who printed lies and people who owned parrots and stray cats. It was a really cute little story about a woman who discovered her own power and made changes in the world to help as many people as she could (as well as those who don’t like parrots). It was a cute and fun story.

The Cottagette appeared in the print and audio editions and I guess that it’s one of the more popular of Gilman’s stories. I wasn’t a big fan of this one, though. Two sisters take a summer cottage to practice their art at a location where meals and housekeeping are provided. One sister convinces the other to add a kitchen and keep house to impress a man who ends up not being impressed by her housekeeping but her art. It was a silly story to me and many of her other stories made much better points so I didn’t like it very much, especially after hearing so many other good stories.

The audiobook was narrated by Kirsten Potter and I enjoyed her narration. She used a good variety of voices for the different characters and her portrayal in The Yellow Wallpaper when the character was going made was great. It started as very innocent and ended up wonderfully creepy. I think I’ve heard her narrate before, she has a long list of works.

This is not radical feminism. In many cases, the women in these stories do get married but they’re doing so on their own terms. It’s a more achievable form of feminism and I think Gilman was doing well to show other women how they could stand up for themselves or have what they wanted in life without doing away with men. I hope that women who read these stories realized that they didn’t have to do away with things in life that would have made them happy or feel fulfilled.

Writer’s Takeaway: I’ve struggled to write a short story that I feel adequately ways what I want it to say. Reading these helped me understand that maybe I don’t need as much character development or as many plot points as I usually aim to cram in. Many of these stories were pretty simplistic as far as character development and plot and they were perfectly enjoyable. It’s helpful to read other people’s stories to see what I’m missing or putting too much into my own.

Overall, enjoyable but still not my favorite genre tor read. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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