This essay will use the works The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Stetson, ‘Fun Home’ by Alison Bechdel, and ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ by Charlie Jane Anders to contrast the ideas of the personal good and the greater good. The Yellow Wallpaper and ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ will be used to suggest that putting the greater good ahead of the personal good will lead to personal detriment and ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ and ‘Fun Home’ will be used to determine that there is no pervasive greater good, rather, each individual has their own expectations of the greater good ultimately rendering any strives towards a homogenized greater good futile. The takeaway is that whatever a person believes the greater good to be they will be better off pursuing their personal good.
‘All the Birds in the Sky’ and The Yellow Wallpaper share occurrences of external expectations equated to “the greater good.” In The Yellow Wallpaper Jane is expected to get well for the sake of her husband, John, and her child, but to get well for her own sake is an afterthought. “I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own…” (pg. 6) Jane doesn’t even think to get well for her own sake, “I must take care of myself for his sake.” (pg. 6) This lends itself to the idea that Jane is sacrificing her personal good for the greater good, in this case, being healthy to take care of her husband and child. Comparatively in ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ Laurence is expected by his colleagues and Milton to forsake his personal life and work exclusively on saving the world, or, the greater good. “Tell him you’re stuck, and he’ll send you to the facility he’s set up outside Denver where you will have zero distractions.” Laurence would be sacrificing his personal life and relationship with Patricia to go to this facility and work endlessly towards Milton’s goal. Both John and Milton are willing to sacrifice the needs of the individual, in this case Jane’s health and Laurence’s personal life, to benefit the greater good.
Where ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ and The Yellow Wallpaper differ is in how the characters accept or reject these external expectations and the outcome. In ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ Laurence initially meets expectations by going to work without outside distractions at Milton’s facility towards Milton’s goal of saving the world. During this time Milton uses a metaphor to suggest that Laurence is doing the right thing. “Sometimes things have a grain, that you have to go along with. You can’t swim against a tidal wave.” (pg. 246) In this case going along with Milton’s plan is going with the grain. Despite all the talk that suggests that Laurence is doing the right thing the world isn’t saved by Milton. It is only after Laurence rejects expectations and works with Patricia that the world is saved from the very people Laurence was working with. Compare Laurence’s journey from meeting expectations and then rejecting them to Jane’s handling of expectations. Jane meets the expectations set out for her by John. When John says that Jane should stay in the room with the yellow wallpaper Jane grits her teeth and meets expectations. Ultimately the yellow wallpaper was detrimental to her health which begs the question of whether rejecting the expectations that were placed on Jane would have had her return to health. Jane follows the grain to her detriment whereas Laurence goes against the grain when he realizes that it’s not working out and does it to great success. These examples indicate that an individual will benefit most from meeting the expectations of their personal good rather than striving towards external expectations.
The greater good and what that encompasses is subjective. An individual may be maintaining their greater or personal good but if those goods contradict the goods of another person in that person’s eyes expectations will be rejected. In ‘Fun Home’ Alison’s father rejects the expectations of his family by having affairs with other men. Alison and her mother react to this in different ways depending on their subjective greater goods. In ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ Patricia rejects the expectations of the other witches by attempting to save humanity and nature. How the other witches and how Laurence interpret this act depends on their subjective greater goods.
In ‘Fun Home’ Alison’s mother believes that the actions of her husband go against the greater good, that is to say, her ideal of the greater good. In a letter from her mother, sent after Alison came out, her mother said, “My life is tied firmly at this time to family and work, and I see your choice as a threat to both of these.” (pg. 77) Alison’s mother believes that keeping her family together is the greater good and Alison’s sexuality is rejecting the expectations of this greater good. This suggests that when confronted with her husband’s affairs that Alison’s mother believes he too is rejecting expectations, driving the family apart, and in turn is going against her greater good. Having grown tired of her husband’s rejection of the greater good Alison’s mother seeks to divorce him. Compare the reaction of her mother to Alison’s reaction when learning about her father’s affairs. When learning of her father’s affairs Alison is shocked, this knowledge causes her to reevaluate her relationship with her father and ultimately accept him. Rather than as a betrayal to the family structure Alison views her father’s repressed sexuality as a connection between them, saying, “perhaps my eagerness to claim his as ‘gay’ in the way that I am ‘gay’... is just a way of keeping him to myself.” (pg. 230) Thus Alison does not see her father’s affairs in the same light that her mother does, damaging to the family, which suggests the subjectivity of the greater good. What must also be taken into account is that Alison’s greater good is not the same as her mother’s. Alison’s greater good is that her father be there for her. “Spiritual...paternity is the important thing.” (pg. 231) In that regard Alison believes her father met his expectations despite his shortcomings. “He was there to catch me when I leapt.” (pg. 232) Thus the idea of the subjective greater good is upheld. Where Alison’s mother saw the rejection of expectations by her husband, in Alison’s eyes she saw a father who was flawed but still upheld her personal greater good.
In ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ Patricia’s actions go against the greater good of the society of witches but coincide with her personal greater good and that of Laurence. The greater good of the witches is to protect nature at any cost including using the unraveling. “It’s horrifying, but it could be the only way to restore some balance and prevent a worse outcome.” (pg. 278) Patricia rejects the expectations of the witches, both through aggrandizement and her belief that the unraveling should not be used, and ultimately rejects the witches’ greater good. “If I said I was having doubts about any of this, it would be like ultimate bonus aggrandizement.” (pg. 291) Despite this rejection of the witches’ greater good, Patricia’s personal greater good is still being upheld. Patricia sees the unraveling as another form of violence (pg. 302) and finds it at odds with her greater good that humanity and nature be preserved. Laurence shares this greater good, he believes that the unraveling is evil (pg. 290) and doesn’t believe in the other technocrats’ vision as shown by not joining them on Seadonia. Ultimately Patricia is rejecting the witches’ greater goods but at the selfsame time the actions Patricia is taking are supporting Laurence and her personal greater goods. This supports the claim that the greater good is dependant on perspective rather than concrete.
As illustrated in The Yellow Wallpaper and ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ it is clear that external expectations and the idea of the personal good do not always coincide. Jane meets external expectations that are at odds with her personal good because she believes in society’s greater good and suffers for it. By looking towards the personal good rather than attempting to meet society’s expectations Laurence is better off for it suggesting that the society’s greater good does not lead an individual to prosper. Patricia’s journey in ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ and Alison’s thoughts and experiences regarding the death of her father in ‘Fun Home’ demonstrate that the greater good is subjective. Given these ideas we can conclude that the personal good is the only knowable good and attempting to strive for some societal greater good will leave you worse off.
Author's Note: I wrote this essay in October 2017 for Women Writers.