Sunday, February 19, 2017

Feminist Stories from the Past

Herland and Selected Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman


Back when I was writing a review of the dystopian novel "The Beautiful Bureaucrat," I read a review that likened that book (in part to Kafka and in part) to a short story called "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Having never heard of this writer, I was curious to see if that story might give me some further insights into that book (knowing full well that sometimes reviewers like to show off how well read they are by namedropping in this way. I'm not well read, and I will admit here that I haven't read more than snippets of Kafka, but that's beside the point). After reading that story, I didn't believe this reviewer made much of an appropriate comparison, but I also realized that I needed to read more by Perkins Gilman.

Of course that meant I had to go looking for a book to buy. The collection I found included this well-known short story, along with several others, together with her novella "Herland." To preface this review, it is important to note that Perkins Gilman was a late-19th-early 20th century writer known for her outspoken feminism - in other words, a woman well ahead of her time, whose real life is echoed in the stories she wrote (you can read more about her here).

To begin with, the novella "Herland" was nothing like I expected. I'd read that it portrayed a mythical land inhabited with only women. I was not expecting that the narrator of this story would be one of the three men who discovered this place, and ended up living there for some time - initially as prisoners. His observations of their experiences in this land, combined with the very different ways that the three of them react to and interact with these women allow the reader with an outsider's view of this utopian civilization. One fascinating thing about "Herland," is how timeless it seems. Yes, there are some dated elements, but overall, it felt surprisingly modern for something written over a century ago. Another thing I found interesting was how Perkins Gilman essentially boiled down the male gender into three types of men. There's the kind who studies and learns and tries to see the pros and cons in both worlds; there's the kind that wholeheartedly accepts that everything he thought prior to this time was wrong, and; there's the kind who refuses to see any good in anything that doesn't fit his preconceived ideas.

Perkins Gilman somewhat echoes this "trifecta" of male personalities in one of the subsequent short stories where she tells the tale of a woman pursued by three suitors. Of course, the one she chooses is no surprise, mostly because we already know from the stories that precede this that Perkins Gilman does not portray women as inherently stupid or gullible, although sometimes it takes a while for them to discover this. In fact, the recurring theme in almost all these stories is women figuring out how they can gain, regain or retain control their own lives, often despite seemingly insurmountable odds. The men, of course, have three choices - object and be gone; accept and comply; or agree to a compromise that suits them both. This may sound formulaic, and therefore a bit redundant, but Perkins Gilman is very creative in finding new ways to frame these dilemmas. Mind you, some of the solutions to the problems of these women may feel antiquated to our modern lives, but we must recall when these stories were written, and appreciate them for how revolutionary they must have been at the time.

The one exception to this rule is certainly her most famous story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," which not only breaks the mold regarding positive outcomes from detrimental situations, but is also written in an almost completely different style than the rest of this collection. All the other stories here felt light and breezy, and even sometimes humorous, as if Perkins Gilman believed that a softer touch to the narrative would make them less threatening to the readers. "The Yellow Wallpaper" on the other hand, while it starts out with that same gentle tone, it increasingly gets harsher and darker. This is probably one of the most powerful stories I've ever read, which fully justifies its classic status. Moreover, while some of these stories seem dated, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is feels extremely relevant, even today.

Overall, I'm glad I decided to read these stories, and thrilled that they're still available after all this time. Through these stories, Perkins Gilman gives us a glimpse back at a time when women were just starting to realize that they weren't as powerless as the men around them wanted them to think they were. Although many of these stories came out before women even had the vote, I'm sure they were an inspiration to suffragists and feminists of the time as well as for decades to come. For all this, I think that although some of the stories here bordered on being almost silly, the significance of their publication dates, and their subsequent influence on society makes me believe I should give this book a full five stars!



"Herland and Selected Stories" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook of Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

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