The yellow wallpaper and.., p.13
The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, p.13Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Do what they would, however, there soon came a time when they were confronted with the problem of “the pressure of population” in an acute form. There was really crowding, and with it, unavoidably, a decline in standards.
And how did those women meet it?
Not by a “struggle for existence” which would result in an everlasting writhing mass of underbred people trying to get ahead of one another—some few on top, temporarily, many constantly crushed out underneath, a hopeless substratum of paupers and degenerates, and no serenity or peace for anyone, no possibility for really noble qualities among the people at large.
Neither did they start off on predatory excursions to get more land from somebody else, or to get more food from somebody else, to maintain their struggling mass.
Not at all. They sat down in council together and thought it out. Very clear, strong thinkers they were. They said: “With our best endeavors this country will support about so many people, with the standard of peace, comfort, health, beauty, and progress we demand. Very well. That is all the people we will make.”
There you have it. You see, they were Mothers, not in our sense of helpless involuntary fecundity, forced to fill and overfill the land, every land, and then see their children suffer, sin, and die, fighting horribly with one another; but in the sense of Conscious Makers of People. Mother-love with them was not a brute passion, a mere “instinct,” a wholly personal feeling; it was—a religion.
It included that limitless feeling of sisterhood, that wide unity in service which was so difficult for us to grasp. And it was National, Racial, Human—oh, I don’t know how to say it.
We are used to seeing what we call “a mother” completely wrapped up in her own pink bundle of fascinating babyhood, and taking but the faintest theoretic interest in anybody else’s bundle, to say nothing of the common needs of all the bundles. But these women were working all together at the grandest of tasks—they were Making People—and they made them well.
There followed a period of “negative eugenics” which must have been an appalling sacrifice. We are commonly willing to “lay down our lives” for our country, but they had to forego motherhood for their country—and it was precisely the hardest thing for them to do.
When I got this far in my reading I went to Somel for more light. We were as friendly by that time as I had ever been in my life with any woman. A mighty comfortable soul she was, giving one the nice smooth mother-feeling a man likes in a woman, and yet giving also the clear intelligence and dependableness I used to assume to be masculine qualities. We had talked volumes already.
“See here,” said I. “Here was this dreadful period when they got far too thick, and decided to limit the population. We have a lot of talk about that among us, but your position is so different that I’d like to know a little more about it.
“I understand that you make Motherhood the highest social service—a sacrament, really; that it is only undertaken once, by the majority of the population; that those held unfit are not allowed even that; and that to be encouraged to bear more than one child is the very highest reward and honor in the power of the state.”
(She interpolated here that the nearest approach to an aristocracy they had was to come of a line of “Over Mothers”—those who had been so honored.)
“But what I do not understand, naturally, is how you prevent it. I gathered that each woman had five. You have no tyrannical husbands to hold in check—and you surely do not destroy the unborn—”
The look of ghastly horror she gave me I shall never forget. She started from her chair, pale, her eyes blazing.
“Destroy the unborn—!” she said in a hard whisper. “Do men do that in your country?”
“Men!” I began to answer, rather hotly, and then saw the gulf before me. None of us wanted these women to think that our women, of whom we boasted so proudly, were in any way inferior to them. I am ashamed to say that I equivocated. I told her of certain criminal types of women—perverts, or crazy, who had been known to commit infanticide. I told her, truly enough, that there was much in our land which was open to criticism, but that I hated to dwell on our defects until they understood us and our conditions better.
And, making a wide detour, I scrambled back to my question of how they limited the population.
As for Somel, she seemed sorry, a little ashamed even, of her too clearly expressed amazement. As I look back now, knowing them better, I am more and more and more amazed as I appreciate the exquisite courtesy with which they had received over and over again statements and admissions on our part which must have revolted them to the soul.
She explained to me, with sweet seriousness, that as I had supposed, at first each woman bore five children; and that, in their eager desire to build up a nation, they had gone on in that way for a few centuries, till they were confronted with the absolute need of a limit. This fact was equally plain to all—all were equally interested.
They were now as anxious to check their wonderful power as they had been to develop it; and for some generations gave the matter their most earnest thought and study.
“We were living on rations before we worked it out,” she said. “But we did work it out. You see, before a child comes to one of us there is a period of utter exaltation—the whole being is uplifted and filled with a concentrated desire for that child. We learned to look forward to that period with the greatest caution. Often our young women, those to whom motherhood had not yet come, would voluntarily defer it. When that deep inner demand for a child began to be felt she would deliberately engage in the most active work, physical and mental; and even more important, would solace her longing by the direct care and service of the babies we already had.”
She paused. Her wise sweet face grew deeply, reverently tender.
“We soon grew to see that mother-love has more than one channel of expression. I think the reason our children are so—so fully loved, by all of us, is that we never—any of us—have enough of our own.”
This seemed to me infinitely pathetic, and I said so. “We have much that is bitter and hard in our life at home,” I told her, “but this seems to me piteous beyond words—a whole nation of starving mothers!”
But she smiled her deep contented smile, and said I quite misunderstood.
“We each go without a certain range of personal joy,” she said, “but remember—we each have a million children to love and serve—our children.”
It was beyond me. To hear a lot of women talk about “our children”! But I suppose that is the way the ants and bees would talk—do talk, maybe.
That was what they did, anyhow.
When a woman chose to be a mother, she allowed the child-longing to grow within her till it worked its natural miracle. When she did not so choose she put the whole thing out of her mind, and fed her heart with the other babies.
Let me see—with us, children—minors, that is—constitute about three-fifths of the population; with them only about one-third, or less. And precious—! No sole heir to an empire’s throne, no solitary millionaire baby, no only child of middle-aged parents, could compare as an idol with these Herland children.
But before I start on that subject I must finish up that little analysis I was trying to make.
They did effectually and permanently limit the population in numbers, so that the country furnished plenty for the fullest, richest life for all of them: plenty of everything, including room, air, solitude even.
And then they set to work to improve that population in quality—since they were restricted in quantity. This they had been at work on, uninterruptedly, for some fifteen hundred years. Do you wonder they were nice people?
Physiology, hygiene, sanitation, physical culture—all that line of work had been perfected long since. Sickness was almost wholly unknown among them, so much so that a previously high development in what we call the “science of medicine” had become practically a lost art. They were a clean-bred, vigorous lot, having the best of care, the most
When it came to psychology—there was no one thing which left us so dumbfounded, so really awed, as the everyday working knowledge—and practice—they had in this line. As we learned more and more of it, we learned to appreciate the exquisite mastery with which we ourselves, strangers of alien race, of unknown opposite sex, had been understood and provided for from the first.
With this wide, deep, thorough knowledge, they had met and solved the problems of education in ways some of which I hope to make clear later. Those nation-loved children of theirs compared with the average in our country as the most perfectly cultivated, richly developed roses compare with—tumbleweeds. Yet they did not seem “cultivated” at all—it had all become a natural condition.
And this people, steadily developing in mental capacity, in will power, in social devotion, had been playing with the arts and sciences—as far as they knew them—for a good many centuries now with inevitable success.
Into this quiet lovely land, among these wise, sweet, strong women, we, in our easy assumption of superiority, had suddenly arrived; and now, tamed and trained to a degree they considered safe, we were at last brought out to see the country, to know the people.
THE GIRLS OF HERLAND
A STILL DAY—on the edge of the world, their world. The two of us, gazing out over the far dim forestland below, talking of heaven and earth and human life, and of my land and other lands and what they needed and what I hoped to do for them—
“If you will help me,” I said.
She turned to me, with that high, sweet look of hers, and then, as her eyes rested in mine and her hands too—then suddenly there blazed out between us a farther glory, instant, overwhelming—quite beyond any words of mine to tell.
Celis was a blue-and-gold-and-rose person; Alima, black-and-white-and-red, a blazing beauty. Ellador was brown: hair dark and soft, like a seal coat; clear brown skin with a healthy red in it; brown eyes—all the way from topaz to black velvet they seemed to range—splendid girls, all of them.
They had seen us first of all, far down in the lake below, and flashed the tidings across the land even before our first exploring flight. They had watched our landing, flitted through the forest with us, hidden in that tree and—I shrewdly suspect—giggled on purpose.
They had kept watch over our hooded machine, taking turns at it; and when our escape was announced, had followed alongside for a day or two, and been there at the last, as described. They felt a special claim on us—called us “their men”—and when we were at liberty to study the land and people, and be studied by them, their claim was recognized by the wise leaders.
But I felt, we all did, that we should have chosen them among millions, unerringly.
And yet, “the path of true love never did run smooth”; this period of courtship was full of the most unsuspected pitfalls.
Writing this as late as I do, after manifold experiences both in Herland and, later, in my own land, I can now understand and philosophize about what was then a continual astonishment and often a temporary tragedy.
The “long suit” in most courtships is sex-attraction, of course. Then gradually develops such comradeship as the two temperaments allow. Then, after marriage, there is either the establishment of a slow-growing, widely based friendship, the deepest, tenderest, sweetest of relations, all lit and warmed by the recurrent flame of love; or else that process is reversed, love cools and fades, no friendship grows, the whole relation turns from beauty to ashes.
Here everything was different. There was no sex-feeling to appeal to, or practically none. Two thousand years’ disuse had left very little of the instinct; also we must remember that those who had at times manifested it as atavistic exceptions were often, by that very fact, denied motherhood.
Yet while the mother process remains, the inherent ground for sex-distinction remains also; and who shall say what long-forgotten feeling, vague and nameless, was stirred in some of these mother hearts by our arrival?
What left us even more at sea in our approach was the lack of any sex-tradition. There was no accepted standard of what was “manly” and what was “womanly.”
When Jeff said, taking the fruit basket from his adored one, “A woman should not carry anything,” Celis said, “Why?” with the frankest amazement. He could not look that fleet-footed, deep-chested young forester in the face and say, “Because she is weaker.” She wasn’t. One does not call a race horse weak because it is visibly not a cart horse.
He said, rather lamely, that women were not built for heavy work.
She looked out across the fields to where some women were working, building a new bit of wall out of large stones; looked back at the nearest town with its woman-built houses; down at the smooth, hard road we were walking on; and then at the little basket he had taken from her.
“I don’t understand,” she said quite sweetly. “Are the women in your country so weak that they could not carry such a thing as that?”
“It is a convention,” he said. “We assume that motherhood is a sufficient burden—that men should carry all the others.”
“What a beautiful feeling!” she said, her blue eyes shining.
“Does it work?” asked Alima, in her keen, swift way. “Do all men in all countries carry everything? Or is it only in yours?”
“Don’t be so literal,” Terry begged lazily. “Why aren’t you willing to be worshipped and waited on? We like to do it.”
“You don’t like to have us do it to you,” she answered.
“That’s different,” he said, annoyed; and when she said, “Why is it?” he quite sulked, referring her to me, saying, “Van’s the philosopher.”
Ellador and I talked it all out together, so that we had an easier experience of it when the real miracle time came. Also, between us, we made things clearer to Jeff and Celis. But Terry would not listen to reason.
He was madly in love with Alima. He wanted to take her by storm, and nearly lost her forever.
You see, if a man loves a girl who is in the first place young and inexperienced; who in the second place is educated with a background of caveman tradition, a middle-ground of poetry and romance, and a foreground of unspoken hope and interest all centering upon the one Event; and who has, furthermore, absolutely no other hope or interest worthy of the name—why, it is a comparatively easy matter to sweep her off her feet with a dashing attack. Terry was a past master in this process. He tried it here, and Alima was so affronted, so repelled, that it was weeks before he got near enough to try again.
The more coldly she denied him, the hotter his determination; he was not used to real refusal. The approach of flattery she dismissed with laughter, gifts and such “attentions” we could not bring to bear, pathos and complaint of cruelty stirred only a reasoning inquiry. It took Terry a long time.
I doubt if she ever accepted her strange lover as fully as did Celis and Ellador theirs. He had hurt and offended her too often; there were reservations.
But I think Alima retained some faint vestige of long-descended feeling which made Terry more possible to her than to others; and that she had made up her mind to the experiment and hated to renounce it.
However it came about, we all three at length achieved full understanding, and solemnly faced what was to them a step of measureless importance, a grave question as well as a great happiness; to us a strange, new joy.
Of marriage as a ceremony they knew nothing. Jeff was for bringing them to our country for the religious and the civil ceremony, but neither Celis nor the others would consent.
“We can’t expect them to want to go with us—yet,” said Terry sagely. “Wait a bit, boys. We’ve got to take ’em on their own terms—if at all.” This, in rueful reminiscence of his repeated failures.
“But our time’s coming,” he added cheerfully. “These women have never been mastered, you see—” This, as one who had made a discovery.
“You’d better not try to do any mas
We couldn’t do anything with him. He had to take his own medicine.
If the lack of tradition of courtship left us much at sea in our wooing, we found ourselves still more bewildered by lack of tradition of matrimony.
And here again, I have to draw on later experience, and as deep an acquaintance with their culture as I could achieve, to explain the gulfs of difference between us.
Two thousand years of one continuous culture with no men. Back of that, only traditions of the harem. They had no exact analogue for our word home, any more than they had for our Roman-based family.
They loved one another with a practically universal affection, rising to exquisite and unbroken friendships, and broadening to a devotion to their country and people for which our word patriotism is no definition at all.
Patriotism, red hot, is compatible with the existence of a neglect of national interests, a dishonesty, a cold indifference to the suffering of millions. Patriotism is largely pride, and very largely combativeness. Patriotism generally has a chip on its shoulder.
This country had no other country to measure itself by—save the few poor savages far below, with whom they had no contact.
They loved their country because it was their nursery, playground, and workshop—theirs and their children’s. They were proud of it as a workshop, proud of their record of ever-increasing efficiency; they had made a pleasant garden of it, a very practical little heaven; but most of all they valued it—and here it is hard for us to understand them—as a cultural environment for their children.
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