Mr. [William Dean] Howells asked leave to include [The Yellow Wallpaper] in a collection he was arranging--Masterpieces of American Fiction. I was more than willing, but assured him that it was no more "literature" than my other stuff, being definitely written "with a purpose." In my judgment it is a pretty poor thing to write, to talk, without a purpose (Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (121).
Since 1973, numerous books and articles have been written about the life and work of Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, many of them centering around the short novella The Yellow Wallpaper. Largely ignored and out of print for over fifty years--the story had last been published in 1920 by William Dean Howells in The Great Modern American Stories: An Anthology (Shumaker 588)--this piece was reprinted in 1973 by the Feminist Press and almost immediately hailed as a feminist classic of the nineteenth-century (Lane 130). Since then, other interpretations have evolved, some of which I will examine in this paper in an attempt to separate the "author's purpose" from "literary interpretation" by critics. I will also address the following question: at what point does a critic's interpretation interfere with the meaning of the original work that its intended purpose has been submerged? I propose that, as readers and critics, we may be coming perilously close to losing sight of why Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper in the first place, and I will cite a sampling of readers and literary critics to show how this progression has occurred: "M.D." (1892), Brummel Jones (1892), Elaine R. Hedges (1973), Vivian Gornick (1978), Jean E. Kennard (1981), Conrad Shumaker (1985), and Susan S. Lanser (1989). These authors are not necessarily the definitive word on The Yellow Wallpaper, nor are their interpretations necessarily "incorrect." However, they do seem to move further and further away from what I view as Gilman's original purpose in writing the piece.
Interestingly enough, I first read The Yellow Wallpaper from a historical perspective in an undergraduate American history class: at the time, I was surprised that this particular piece had been assigned as a reading for a history class. However, years and many articles later, I can see clearly how Gilman might be viewed in a historical context as an important social reformer with communist leanings, although her works on economics and socialism might have been better reading choices for that history course. Still, the novella made a significant impression on me, enough that I have read some of her non-fiction works on my own. Certainly, The Yellow Wallpaper is Gilman's best and most significant work.
II. Fiction "with a Purpose"
Originally published in The CEA Critic: An Official Journal of The College English Association, 59:3 (Spring/Summer 1997): 44-57.