Hi! I know that this is a bit late. My holiday interfered, and I JUST got to a typewriter. This is a comparison of Gilman and Greenidge
I am a bit unsure of how to process We Love You Charlie Freeman. This seems to be how I start out every post! The book was extremely visceral, with moments of physicality that felt uncomfortable, and made me feel morally itchy. Freeman’s use of social taboos such as breastfeeding a chimpanzee reminded me almost forcibly of Ellison’s Trueblood. Beyond the taboos, there were uncomfortable descriptions of binge-eating and child abuse. All of this in the name of social science and the dangers of pretending that there was never a history of Black oppression in the United States. I feel as if this novel has ties to pretty much everything that we have read this semester, whether in narrative style (the multiple narrators reminded me of Lodge’s Thinks…) or in social implications (as seen in Invisible Man and Du Bois’ works). I felt that thematically, this book had the most in common with Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper.
Both Gilman and Greenidge break apart the nuclear family with deft hands, exposing the aftermath of the explosion this causes in their works. In The Yellow Wallpaper, Jane is distanced from her child in a way that many in her time would have found to be unnatural. Her baby is genderless, faceless, nameless. The complete disassociation from the “mother character” leaves the narrator in uncharted territory. In typical Victorian fashion, the breakdown of the family unit was a harbinger of worse tidings, and sure enough, Jane falls apart as her household does. Perhaps one is an allegory to the other. The person cannot exist outside of the family framework. Perhaps in Gilman’s mind, the family was part of how she envisioned the human mind to work. Once the family is broken, the mind is damaged.
In WLYCF, the characters are in a family unit that I am ashamed to say struck me as odd. Being a modern novel, there should be nothing strange about a high-achieving mother whose job is the cause of a family’s relocation. I suppose stereotypes are hard to get rid of, though I do try. I wondered why the mother was the main voice. I assumed that it was a deliberate choice. Laurel is the odd-man out in this novel. Her name is the only non-“C” name, making her the outsider. By the way, am I the only one who found it creepy that there was no reference to the fact that the husband and chimp shared a name? Charlotte gets upset that her name is being taken, yet Charles never mentions that his name was ACTUALLY taken by Charlie? As in The Yellow Wallpaper, the mother distances herself from her family. The mothering roles are given over to another (her husband), and she becomes completely involved in the study to the point where nothing else matters. She is eaten alive, with not even her sense of self, identity, or family left intact.
In Gilman’s work, we are given unlimited access to what we suppose to be the writer’s mind. We are able to hear her concerns and understand just how little she is able to identify with those around her. We are only left to wonder about what those around her are thinking. In Greenidge’s work, Laurel is the enigma. She narrates the novel very briefly (in the form of a flashback), and we are never shown what is “inside of her head”, so to speak. We are given access to her entire family, but she remains untouched. This seems to mesh well with her character, who seems withdrawn and untouchable. I wonder what would have happened had this book been narrated by Laurel. I think that we might have seen a Yellow Wallpaper-esque scene. What state must Laurel’s mind have been in to allow her to associate with the Toneybee Institute once learning of their racial experiments in the past. How did she justify this to herself? Even if that were possible, given her investment in the project, how could she let her daughters become so devastatingly unhappy without noticing? She must have noticed, but justified it to herself. I imagined Laurel’s thought processes so much that she might as well have been a character. Why did she let Charlie near her chest in the first place? How could she continue? While she may have been able to justify her family’s disintegration as something outside of her control, Charlie’s nursing habits were something that she must have initiated, or at least allowed. Her justifications to Charlotte seem shallow and unconvincing to her daughter, and therefore to the audience. Could she have believed herself?
“I think this could be a good thing. I think it could be good to have a secret with each other,” Laurel tells a horrified Charlotte. Secrets seem to play a key role in both Gilman and Greenidge’s works. Jane keeps her diary a secret from John and his sister. Her pleasure from writing seems secondary to her pleasure from keeping the secret. She talks a lot about how sneaky she has to be to write, to study the wallpaper, and to even get up from bed. Jane seems to enjoy keeping these secrets from Jenny, and seems to gain a sense of autonomy and power from these secrets. Almost all of the characters in WLYCF have secrets, as do most actual people, I would guess. Laurel has the most to hide. She is aware of the history of the Institute, and is allowing Charlie access to her chest. Charles seems the least secretive, with his dislike of Charlie being one of the only things that he leaves unsaid. Callie hides her unhappiness and her resulting binge-eating. The main secret-keeper is the main narrator, Charlotte. She hides most of what she feels, in typical teenager style. She feels the most REAL of the characters created in this novel. Her sexuality, unhappiness, and knowledge of her mother and the Institute’s secrets are all kept out of sight of the public.
While they differ in what makes a family whole and in the modes of narration, Gilman and Greenidge both seem to come to the conclusion that once the basic family unit is crushed to pieces, the members of that family are allegorically destroyed as well. I would argue that family is not necessarily as clean as both authors seem to depict it as, but I believe that it is an effective device to show chaos. Both these works were incredibly uncomfortable reads with unstable mother figures. The collapse of sanity naturally followed.