Review: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is perhaps most famous for her story: The Yellow Wallpaper. Nearly every high school student in the US has read that story, and assumed that she was a writer of Gothic Horror. By the end of this story the yellow wallpaper in the upstairs dormitory has detrimentally affected every member of the household, and both the husband and the wife are stark, raving mad by the end of the story.
When at last I found a collection of her other stories, I was amazed to see that they were not horror stories at all, but stories of women finding hope and fulfillment in doing the work they loved — whatever it happened to be. The women in her other stories often chose not to get married at all, but instead to form groups with other women. We might call them adopted families. In her stories they often bought a home together, and spent their days creating the art they loved. These stories were written during the early years of the women’s liberation movement, and while we might see them today as being somewhat fatuous; after all it is harder to find peace and fulfillment than one might think, especially in today’s world where the middle class is fast disappearing. Some women have tried her approaches — to follow their dreams, even if those dreams did not include marriage and children. The life styles Charlotte Perkins Gilman recommended demand far more work and perseverance than she ever described in her stories.

Charlotte said that the reason she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper is as follows:

“For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia — and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to "live as domestic a life as far as possible," to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again" as long as I lived. This was in 1887.

“I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

“Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and went to work again — work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite--ultimately recovering some measure of power.

“Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.

“The little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate--so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.

“But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.

“It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”

The above quote was prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for courses in The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Last modified: Tuesday 8 June 1999.

This was experienced by a woman before the advent of drug therapy for mental illness, with all the side effects that those drugs provide. Experiences such as hers would be a wonderful addition to our knowledge of mental illness. For much of what we call mental illness, activities that satisfy our desire to create, spending time with friends, and regular exercise out in the fresh air, go a long way towards preventing and curing mental illness.

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