“The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short narrative by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, originally published in The New England Magazine, is often considered an influential early work of American women's literary fiction. It's frequently anthologized and displayed together with other notable American essays such as “A Room of One's Own,” by Louis L'Amour, and “ancies,” by Edith Grossman. This collection comprises a single chapter entitled “The Woman Who Came to the Kitchen.” In this lengthy tale, Perkins Gilman presents her protagonist, a middle-aged housekeeper, Anna Lejeune, a unique role as the assumed victim of institutionalized violence within the home:
Anna Lejeune is described as a cheerful, hardworking housekeeper from rural eastern Pennsylvania who abides by a set of social expectations that are specifically geared toward women (and which, in their social circles, are typically imposed on women). She is caring and romantic, yet never sentimental; even as a young woman, she rejected the allure of love and romance. After a brief engagement, Lejeune returns home to wed her husband, Joseph, only to experience a series of abuses which leave her devastated and confused. Disenchanted by her own ability to perform the domestic duties expected of her, a series of strange incidents lead her to accept the services of a young widower whom she had never met before: Reuben Feffer. However, when Reuben dies of a bullet wound in a hunting accident, leaving Anna in charge of his estate, she is faced with the prospect of having to manage an already overcrowded household, while also attempting to navigate the complicated path of marital dissolution in order to remarry.
In this difficult-to-put-together novel, Charlotte Perkins Gilman manages to pull off several different strands of events and characters that all play off of one another to create a thoroughly enjoyable tale of housekeeping. One of the more surprising elements of the plot is the fact that Feffer – who is so focused on the task of making his fortune that he does not seem particularly concerned about running his household effectively – also seems like a genuinely kind and generous man, even if housekeeping is only a small portion of what he enjoys. One wonders if his detachment is because he feels he is simply being too involved in his work, but one also wonders if he may be capable of seeing things from a distance like the ones possessed by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
The Yellow Wallaby is also filled to the brim with a variety of colorful illustrations, adding both to the book's charm and its depth. Of particular interest to me were the many animal illustrations, especially those that I found related to the way animals behave and interact in their homes. In one scene, a cat attempts to jump on an imaginary elephant; in another, a rooster eats a pig's ear. It is easy to laugh at these silly scenes, but what is not so easy to see is how relevant these images are to real life situations and how they can influence people – particularly women – to make some small changes in their own households.
My own daughter has read the book. She admitted that she did have a lot of fun and enjoyed reading the funny stories and thinking about her favorite characters. “I think a lot of the book takes us back to childhood,” she said. “It reminds us of how important cleanliness and hygiene are. But I also found that at times, it was also funny. Some of the things that the adults in the house did – like continually trying to give the house an impenetrable appearance – made me laugh.”
I would recommend The Yellow Wallaby to readers of all ages. If nothing else, it certainly will keep them laughing. In truth, I think that it is this combination of seriousness and humor that make the book so refreshing and enjoyable to read. Charlotte Perkins has created in this book a lovely picture of childhood that is funny and clever all at the same time. It brings us back to a time when every home was not like the one we have today.