I’ve come across The Yellow Wallpaper in a collection of short stories, The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, and it left such a vivid impression in my memory that when I saw this book (a whole book!) by the same author I just had to read it.
This book is a collection of 20 stories and various fragments from the author’s biography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935). It starts with The Yellow Wallpaper, a story of a woman who finds herself slipping into madness after being confined to her bed to rest following the birth of her child. Day after day and night after night, with nothing to do but rest, which according to her physician husband was the best cure for her illness, she feels increasingly frustrated by monotony and boredom. And having an active and imaginative mind, she focuses her attention on the room’s deteriorated wallpaper. With each passing day she is convinced that someone is watching her, someone hiding in the intricate pattern of the old and torn wallpaper.
On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.
The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.
It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream.
There is one marked peculiarity about this paper, a thing nobody seems to notice but myself and that it changes as the light changes.
When the sun shoots through the east window – I always watch for that first long, straight ray – it changes so quickly that I never can quite believe it. That is why I watch it always.
I really have discovered something at last. Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out. The front pattern does move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!
Written in 1890, at a time when a woman suffering from depression was treated with bed rest and as little intellectual stimulus as possible, this story comes as a revelation of what really goes on in the patient’s mind. Based on the author’s personal experience, it gives a detailed account of how she felt after her daughter’s birth, the severe depression she was battling and how the doctor’s recommendation utterly failed to improve her mental health.
The ending fitted very well with the gloomy, constricted, depressing atmosphere of the story – I’ve read the story twice and liked it just as much the second time. The writing is beautiful, not overly florid like you’d find in a classic story but not quite modern either – it strikes a beautiful balance and the most important thing of all, it creates a bridge between the writer and the reader that makes it easy to relate to the ideas that can be drawn from the story.
I enjoyed most of the other stories in the book, stories of women trying to find their place in society while at the same time living a fulfilling life that involved traveling, socializing and pursuing artistic occupations, things that would take them away from the traditional role of wife and mother they were expected to conform to.
In The Unexpected (1890), a young man becomes so smitten with “beautiful Mary” that he will do anything to marry her. And in the end, when he does get his heart’s desire, discovers she is not the “prudish New England girl” he thought she was, but a woman with artistic aspirations as great as his own.
An Unnatural Mother (1895) tells the story of a woman who is forced to make a terrible choice which leads to her death. Her decision is discussed and disapproved of by a group of women who knew her and criticize her upbringing, her marriage and finally the decision that took her life. Unable to see the big picture and the sacrifice she had to make, the women consider her a bad example and the attempt of the unmarried daughter of one of them who tries to bring about a different perspective is promptly dismissed.
Three Thanksgivings is the story of a woman who makes some drastic changes in order to be able to keep the house she’s always lived in. With two grown children who want her to come and live with them, and a creditor who offers to marry her in order to help pay for the house, this is the story of a woman determined to hold on to her independence even if that means she will have to resort to a daring plan. My hat goes off to you, Mrs. Morrison.
Turned – Mrs Marroner thought she was leading a charmed life – she had a loving husband, a beautiful home and a nice girl, Gerta, to help with the housework. And when two letters from the traveling Mr Marroner arrive at the house, the sweet illusion of a happy marriage comes apart in a flash.
An Extinct Angel compares women with angels, from the clothes they have to wear:
The amount of physical labor of a severe and degrading sort required of one of these bright spirits, was amazing. Certain kinds of work – always and essentially dirty – were relegated wholly to her. Yet one of her first and most rigid duties was the keeping of her angelic robes spotlessly clean.
to their duties towards the humans:
…but the fact was that the angels waited on the human creatures in every form of menial service, doing things as their natural duty which the human creature loathed and scorned.
and finally giving a reason to their extinction as a race:
But little by little, owing to the unthought-of consequences of repeated intermarriage between the angel and the human being, the angel longed for, found and ate the fruit of the forbidden tree of knowledge.
Mrs Merrill’s Duties asks an important question: can a woman be a good wife, a caring mother and a good friend, while at the same time trying to follow her own dreams? You will have to read the story to find out.
When I Was a Witch is an interesting story of one woman’s wishes come true. One day she discovers she has the power to change things by wishing, but this comes to an end when one of her wishes is different from the pattern the others were following. An interesting perspective on the nature of wishes, and a little unsettling.
These are just a few of the stories I liked from this collection; there is but one or two which I didn’t like as much as the others but I would have been surprised if I ended up liking them all.
The last part of the book, called “SELECTIONS FROM THE AUTHOR’S BIOGRAPHY” offers details about Charlotte’s life, with selected passages from various chapters describing her childhood, marriage, her depression, her work as a feminist, writing and traveling to give lectures at various gatherings. An ardent supporter of women’s rights, she wrote short stories, plays, essays and novels, trying to encourage women to see beyond their domestic roles as wives and mothers. This part of the book helped me to understand the stories better. To read a story is fine. To see where that story came from, the personal experience that was the germinating seed, growing into something impressive, that was much more satisfying for me as a reader and it added a depth to the stories itself, that certain something that would surely have been missed otherwise.
She was the niece of Harriett Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a fact mentioned in her autobiography where she described the house her aunt lived in and where, as a child, Charlotte had visited: “From her dainty flower pictures I got my first desire to paint,….”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a woman with unconventional ideas. Growing up in a broken family, with a childhood scarred by her parents’ separation followed by infrequent visits from her father, trying to obey an authoritative mother, she was a spirited child who once broke the silence in a classroom by saying a word out loud – asked by her teacher why she did that, she replied: “I wanted to see what would happen”. She had the courage to forge her own path, through depression, financial difficulties and criticism of her work.
These are just a few of the passages I liked.
After the break-up of her marriage:
Thirty years old. Made a wrong marriage – lots of people do. Am heavily damaged, but not dead. May live a long time. It is intellectually conceivable that I may recover strength enough to do some part of my work. I will assume this to be true and act on it. And I did.
The writing similarly is easy and swift expression, running at the rate of about a thousand words an hour for three hours – then it stops, no use trying to squeeze out any more. Any attempt at forced work stops everything for days.
A sympathetic lady once remarked, ‘Yes, it is a sad thing to see a strong mind in a weak body.’ Whereat I promptly picked her up and carried her around the room. ‘Please understand’, said I, that what ails me is a weak mind in a strong body.’ But she didn’t understand, they never do. Only those near enough to watch the long, blank months of idleness, the endless hours of driveling solitaire, the black empty days and staring nights, know.
On life and death:
I had not the least objection to dying. But I did not propose to die of this, so I promptly bought sufficient chloroform as a substitute. Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, misfortune or “broken heart” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.
I am most unconcernedly willing to die when I get ready. I have no faintest belief in personal immortality – no interest in nor desire for it.
The one predominant duty is to find one’s work and do it, and I have striven mightily at that.
*Read in February 2012