The Beautiful Bureaucrat: Background information when reading The Beautiful Bureaucrat"/>
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A Comparison Between "The Yellow Wallpaper" and The Beautiful Bureaucrat: Background information when reading The Beautiful Bureaucrat

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The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips X
The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2015, 192 pages
    May 2016, 192 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
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About this Book

A Comparison Between "The Yellow Wallpaper" and The Beautiful Bureaucrat

This article relates to The Beautiful Bureaucrat

Print Review

The Yellow WallpaperBecause I was not familiar with Helen Phillips, I did a little research. One review of The Beautiful Bureaucrat pointed me to the Huffington Post's 18 Brilliant Books You Won't Want To Miss This Summer. The early review there said "A little bit of Kafka, a little bit of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' – intriguing." I didn't know "The Yellow Wallpaper", so I searched and found the late-19th century short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. After reading this powerful story, which I highly recommend, my immediate conclusion was that while there are some similarities between the two stories, there are large differences that shouldn't be overlooked.

The most obvious overlap is that both Josephine (one of the main characters in The Beautiful Bureaucrat) and the wife in Gilman's story spend a good deal of time in ugly rooms that disturb them. However, these rooms affect the two women in very different ways. In Gilman's story, the room's walls are the trigger that set off her growing insanity. On the other hand, the state of Josephine's room and her reaction to it are only one set of symptoms of her increasing discomfort.

Another similarity is that both these women have husbands who are very much in love with them. Their devotion leads them to be protective – sometimes overly so. In both instances, this becomes part of the problem for the wives. In Gilman's story, the husband, who is a doctor, seems to have missed that his wife is suffering from postpartum depression (which makes sense, as I doubt there was much awareness of this at the time). All his remedies to cure his wife of her problems only make things worse. In Phillip's book, Joseph's unannounced disappearances increase Josephine's anxiety by adding to her other worries; partially because his love for her is so strong that it is uncharacteristic for him not to come home without letting her know.

If there is anything else these two stories have in common, it can only be how powerfully they end, despite having very different outcomes and divergent writing styles. Gilman's protagonist is literally going insane, but despite some indications otherwise, Josephine isn't. Gilman's protagonist imagines that her surroundings are her problem, and fixing them will make things better. On the other hand, Josephine isn't imagining anything at all; she just doesn't understand what is around her, and this is why she acts somewhat crazy. In other words, these two stories, while slightly similar, actually have completely opposite basic premises. Gillman's basic premise is that an unstable person may grab onto external stimuli and place her hopes of redemption on fixing those things. Phillip's premise is more like Joseph Heller's line from Catch-22: "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."

Despite this, I'm glad that the Huffington Post review led me to Gilman's story. Of course, it is always nice to read an excellent short story, which now makes me want to read more by this fascinating and talented author. Taking up the challenge to compare and contrast the two stories has helped me understand both of them much better.

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Article by Davida Chazan

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Beautiful Bureaucrat. It originally ran in September 2015 and has been updated for the May 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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