Charlotte Perkins Gilman is best known for the story "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892), about a married female writer who goes mad after being confined to her room as a cure for post-partum depression, and deprived of all creative outlets. To a certain extent, it is autobiographical, although Charlotte succeeded in escaping her first marriage, moved to California, flourished as a writer, and married her cousin Houghton Gilman in 1900. She continued writing and lecturing for several decades, publishing her last article, "The Right to Die," in 1935, shortly before ending her own life in the face of an inoperable cancer.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" takes up only 15 of the 343 pages in this splendid volume. It also includes 18 other stories, 18 poems, and the 140-page novella HERLAND, together with a very full (even too full) introduction and copious notes. In a sense, you could say that if you have read her most famous story, you have got the essence of Gilman, but little of her range. While almost all the other stories in this collection are also about the imbalance of the sexes, few of the others are as tormented and gothic, and many end with the woman finding some way to reclaim her independence. I especially liked "Turned" (1911) for its arresting opening and the way its heroine makes common cause with her exploited servant, "The Chair of English" (1913) for how its heroine turns campus politics against a man who would use it to further his own ends, and "The Vintage" (1916) for its tragic exploration of the long-term effects of syphilis.
Gilman's poems were a real find. Yes, the subjects tend to be very similar, and her language is by no means in tune with her modernist contemporaries and is often even deliberately archaic. But the verse form lends itself to more subtle allusion than the prose, as in the ending of "In Duty Bound" [And they are few indeed but stoop at length / To something less than best, / And find, in stooping, rest.] or the very short poem entitled "A Moonrise":
The heavy mountains, lying huge and dim,
With uncouth outline breaking heaven's rim;
And while I watched and waited, o'er them soon
Cloudy, enormous, spectral, rose the moon.
So searing is the anger of "The Yellow Wallpaper," that it was a joy to encounter many of the more positive stories, and epecially to enter HERLAND, an Utopian country inhabited entirely by women, somewhere between GULLIVER'S TRAVELS and THE LOST HORIZON. Much of the pleasure comes in the skill with which Gilman paints the brash cameraderie of the three male explorers, ranging from the chauvinist Terry ("I have never met a woman yet that did not enjoy being mastered!") to the chivalrous Jeff. Through their eyes, she reveals a singularly attractive society: pacifist, democratic, ecologically aware, and communally involved in the shared tasks of food preparation, child-rearing, and education. There is even room for a little humor, as when one of the women, learning that American couples do not confine their sexual activities to the necessities of procreation, assumes that they must be doing this for higher ends:
"This climactic expression, which, in all the other life-forms, has but the one purpose, has with you become specialized to higher, purer, nobler uses. It has -- I judge from what you tell me -- the most ennobling effect on character."