Tim Morris reviews Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s recently reprinted 1911 novel The Crux. I’ll let you read his review and form your own opinions, because that’s not what I want to talk about (even though it is well worth the read and interesting–the review not the book, which I haven’t read).
What is of particular interest to me is his differentiation between the meaning (or value or purpose or whatever other term you want to use) of Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” in isolation as opposed to its meaning in the context of Gilman’s body of work as brought into focus by the newly reprinted novel. He marks the story as a “great masterpiece of the uncanny” on the one hand, and as “no more or less than an object lesson in social policy” on the other. Now to take my own two hands–On the one hand, I see the point that he is trying to make and it is an interesting one and certainly I can see how the obvious politico-cultural slant of her other work could inform and transform one’s reading of the story. On the other hand, the phrasing seems to imply that “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been somehow overvalued due to being examined in isolation, that a historically and culturally informed or cross-textually informed examination must lower the estimation of the work to “no more or less than…”
So, does its latent political activism lessen or change the validity of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as an eerily uncanny short story? Of course not. However, do we tend to devalue texts (especially poetry) when they have a pragmatic social goal? I think sometimes we do, and while I don’t suggest that this is what Dr. Morris was actually implying (I’m fairly sure it wasn’t), I do want to watch out for even the appearance of this in my own criticism.