I shouldn't have been surprised to find that some believe Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper to be little more than a one-sided and "quite bald piece of propaganda" (from a comment on GoodReads.com) - BUT I was.
More surprising to me was that after reading a few well-formed and qualified opinions and reviews, I can see why they might believe that.
From my favorite GoodReads.com reviewer, Keely, comes this:
Roland Barthes talked about 'writerly' and 'readerly' books. I've struggled for a long time, myself, in trying to come up for terms to talk about the differences between conscientious works and those which are too bumbling, too one-sided, or too ill-informed to make the reader think.
While The Yellow Wallpaper brings up interesting points, it does not really address them. The text has become part of the canon not for the ability of the author, which is on the more stimulating end of middling, but because it works as a representational piece of a historical movement.
As early feminism, this work is an undeniable influence. It points out one of the most apparent symptoms of the double-standard implied by the term 'weaker sex'. However, Gilman tends to suggest more than she asks, thus writing merely propaganda.
It's may be easy to say this in retrospect when the question "is isolating women and preventing them from taking action really healthy?" was less obvious back then. However, I have always been reticent to rate a work more highly merely because it comes from a different age. Austen, the Brontes, Christina Rossetti, and Woolf all stand on their own merits, after all.
This symbolism by which this story operates is simplistic and repetitive. The opinions expressed are one-sided, leaving little room for interpretation. This is really the author's crime, as she has not tried to open the debate so much as close it, and in imagining her opinion to mark the final word on the matter, has doomed her work to become less and less relevant.
This is the perfect sort of story to teach those who are beginning literary critique, because it does not suggest questions to the reader, but answers. Instead of fostering thought, the work becomes a puzzle with an accurate solution to be worked out, not unlike a math problem. This is useful for the reader trying to understand how texts create meaning, but under more rigorous critique, we find it is not deep or varied enough to support more complex readings.
Unfortunately, this means it is also the sort of story that will be loved by people who would rather be answered than questioned. It may have provided something new and intriguing when it was first written, but as a narrow work based on a simplistic sociological concept, can no longer make that claim.
The story is also marked by early signs of the Gothic movement, and lying on the crux of that and Feminism, is not liable to be forgotten. The symbolism it uses is a combination of classical representations of sickness and metaphors of imprisonment. Sickness, imprisonment, and madness are the quintessential concepts explored by the Gothic writers, but this work is again quite narrow in its view. While the later movement was interested in this in the sense of existential alienation, this story is interested in those things not as a deeper psychological question, but as the literal state of the woman.
Horror is partially defined by the insanity and utter loneliness lurking in everyone's heart, and is not quite so scary when the person is actually alone and mad. Though it all comes from the imposition of another person's will, which is very horrific, the husband has no desire to be cruel or to harm the woman, nor is such even hinted subconsciously. Of course, many modern feminists would cling to the notion that independent of a man's desire to aid, he can do only harm, making this work an excellent support to their politicized chauvinism.
I won't question the historical importance or influence of this work, but it is literarily very simple. A single page of paper accurately dating the writing of Shakespeare's Hamlet would also be historically important, but just because it is related to fine literature does not mean it is fine literature.
Your point is valid and I'd agree that in retrospect The Yellow Wallpaper may be seen as bordering on sensationalism - but I HAVE to propose that Gilman MAY have presented only one side of the argument INTENTIONALLY to reflect the lack of options presented her - and her female contemporaries.
Does not her presentation of a concrete, resolute stance on the issue exactly mirror the speaker's husband's stance on the rest cure? Maybe the frustration you feel as a reader is supposed to mimic the frustration Gilman's speaker feels.
Ama brought up Gilman's own doctor whose words, "Live as domestic a life as possible … and never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live," were taken as law - not to be questioned or acted against.
Maybe I'm giving Gilman far too much credit... but it's a possibility. And what fun are criticism and analysis without dissent?
love your reviews btw.
What say you?
UPDATE: Keely has responded and misunderstood my argument, thinking that I had suggested Gilman's work was meant as satire. Not the case. My 2nd response:
I'm not suggesting that The Yellow Wallpaper was written satirically at all. I'm suggesting that Gilman chose to position herself so firmly that the reader could experience the constriction she and her speaker felt. In mirroring her husband's unflappable views, it would have been detrimental to her argument to present them as equally flawed because her husband didn't think his methods flawed in the least.
He earnestly believed he was doing what was best for her and smotheringly so. I think that Gilman was recreating her experience for the reader - no *wink wink*.
And I'd have to agree that Gilman creates a formidable ENEMY against whom the reader barely has a choice to side, but, as seen in the case of your review, there's plenty dialogue to be had because of it.
**and if you're reading this, leave a comment. This blog has been up for ALMOST a month now and I've only gotten 2 comments so far, though my traffic tracker tells me LOTS of people are passing through. I'd LOVE for this to become a dialogue - or any of my other posts for that matter.