The yellow wallpaper and.., p.14
The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, p.14Charlotte Perkins Gilman
That, of course, is the keynote of the whole distinction—their children.
From those first breathlessly guarded, half-adored race mothers, all up the ascending line, they had this dominant thought of building up a great race through the children.
All the surrendering devotion our women have put into their private families, these women put into their country and race. All the loyalty and service men expect of wives, they gave, not singly to men, but collectively to one another.
And the mother instinct, with us so painfully intense, so thwarted by conditions, so concentrated in personal devotion to a few, so bitterly hurt by death, disease, or barrenness, and even by the mere growth of the children, leaving the mother alone in her empty nest—all this feeling with them flowed out in a strong, wide current, unbroken through the generations, deepening and widening through the years, including every child in all the land.
With their united power and wisdom, they had studied and overcome the “diseases of childhood”—their children had none.
They had faced the problems of education and so solved them that their children grew up as naturally as young trees; learning through every sense; taught continuously but unconsciously—never knowing they were being educated.
In fact, they did not use the word as we do. Their idea of education was the special training they took, when half grown up, under experts. Then the eager young minds fairly flung themselves on their chosen subjects, and acquired with an ease, a breadth, a grasp, at which I never ceased to wonder.
But the babies and little children never felt the pressure of that “forcible feeding” of the mind that we call “education.” Of this, more later.
OUR RELATIONS AND THEIRS
THERE’S NOTHING to smoke,” complained Terry. He was in the midst of a prolonged quarrel with Alima, and needed a sedative. “There’s nothing to drink. These blessed women have no pleasant vices. I wish we could get out of here!”
This wish was vain. We were always under a certain degree of watchfulness. When Terry burst forth to tramp the streets at night he always found a “Colonel” here or there; and when, on an occasion of fierce though temporary despair, he had plunged to the cliff edge with some vague view to escape, he found several of them close by. We were free—but there was a string to it.
“They’ve no unpleasant ones, either,” Jeff reminded him.
“Wish they had!” Terry persisted. “They’ve neither the vices of men, nor the virtues of women—they’re neuters!”
“You know better than that. Don’t talk nonsense,” said I, severely.
I was thinking of Ellador’s eyes when they gave me a certain look, a look she did not at all realize.
Jeff was equally incensed. “I don’t know what ‘virtues of women’ you miss. Seems to me they have all of them.”
“They’ve no modesty,” snapped Terry. “No patience, no submissiveness, none of that natural yielding which is woman’s greatest charm.”
I shook my head pityingly. “Go and apologize and make friends again, Terry. You’ve got a grouch, that’s all. These women have the virtue of humanity, with less of its faults than any folks I ever saw. As for patience—they’d have pitched us over the cliffs the first day we lit among ’em, if they hadn’t that.”
“There are no—distractions,” he grumbled. “Nowhere a man can go and cut loose a bit. It’s an everlasting parlor and nursery.”
“And workshop,” I added. “And school, and office, and laboratory, and studio, and theater, and—home.”
“Home!” he sneered. “There isn’t a home in the whole pitiful place.”
“There isn’t anything else, and you know it,” Jeff retorted hotly. “I never saw, I never dreamed of, such universal peace and good will and mutual affection.”
“Oh, well, of course, if you like a perpetual Sunday school, it’s all very well. But I like Something Doing. Here it’s all done.”
There was something to this criticism. The years of pioneering lay far behind them. Theirs was a civilization in which the initial difficulties had long since been overcome. The untroubled peace, the unmeasured plenty, the steady health, the large good will and smooth management which ordered everything, left nothing to overcome. It was like a pleasant family in an old established, perfectly run country place.
I liked it because of my eager and continued interest in the sociological achievements involved. Jeff liked it as he would have liked such a family and such a place anywhere.
Terry did not like it because he found nothing to oppose, to struggle with, to conquer.
“Life is a struggle, has to be,” he insisted. “If there is no struggle, there is no life—that’s all.”
“You’re talking nonsense—masculine nonsense,” the peaceful Jeff replied. He was certainly a warm defender of Herland. “Ants don’t raise their myriads by a struggle, do they? Or the bees?”
“Oh, if you go back to insects—and want to live in an anthill—! I tell you the higher grades of life are reached only through struggle—combat. There’s no Drama here. Look at their plays! They make me sick.”
He rather had us there. The drama of the country was—to our taste—rather flat. You see, they lacked the sex motive and, with it, jealousy. They had no interplay of warring nations, no aristocracy and its ambitions, no wealth and poverty opposition.
I see I have said little about the economics of the place; it should have come before, but I’ll go on about the drama now.
They had their own kind. There was a most impressive array of pageantry, of processions, a sort of grand ritual, with their arts and their religion broadly blended. The very babies joined in it. To see one of their great annual festivals, with the massed and marching stateliness of those great mothers; the young women brave and noble, beautiful and strong; and then the children, taking part as naturally as ours would frolic round a Christmas tree—it was overpowering in the impression of joyous, triumphant life.
They had begun at a period when the drama, the dance, music, religion, and education were all very close together; and instead of developing them in detached lines, they had kept the connection. Let me try again to give, if I can, a faint sense of the difference in the life view—the background and basis on which their culture rested.
Ellador told me a lot about it. She took me to see the children, the growing girls, the special teachers. She picked out books for me to read. She always seemed to understand just what I wanted to know, and how to give it to me.
While Terry and Alima struck sparks and parted—he always madly drawn to her and she to him—she must have been, or she’d never have stood the way he behaved—Ellador and I had already a deep, restful feeling, as if we’d always had one another. Jeff and Celis were happy; there was no question of that; but it didn’t seem to me as if they had the good times we did.
Well, here is the Herland child facing life—as Ellador tried to show it to me. From the first memory, they knew Peace, Beauty, Order, Safety, Love, Wisdom, Justice, Patience, and Plenty. By “plenty” I mean that the babies grew up in an environment which met their needs, just as young fawns might grow up in dewy forest glades and brook-fed meadows. And they enjoyed it as frankly and utterly as the fawns would.
They found themselves in a big bright lovely world, full of the most interesting and enchanting things to learn about and to do. The people everywhere were friendly and polite. No Herland child ever met the overbearing rudeness we so commonly show to children. They were People, too, from the first; the most precious part of the nation.
In each step of the rich experience of living, they found the instance they were studying widen out into contact with an endless range of common interests. The things they learned were related, from the first; related to one another, and to the national prosperity.
“It was a butterfly that made me a forester,” said Ellador. “I was about eleven years old, and I found a big purple-and-green butterfly on a low flower. I caught it, very carefu
“Everybody congratulated me. The children all over the country were told to watch for that moth, if there were any more. I was shown the history of the creature, and an account of the damage it used to do and of how long and hard our foremothers had worked to save that tree for us. I grew a foot, it seemed to me, and determined then and there to be a forester.”
This is but an instance; she showed me many. The big difference was that whereas our children grow up in private homes and families, with every effort made to protect and seclude them from a dangerous world, here they grew up in a wide, friendly world, and knew it for theirs, from the first.
Their child-literature was a wonderful thing. I could have spent years following the delicate subtleties, the smooth simplicities with which they had bent that great art to the service of the child mind.
We have two life cycles: the man’s and the woman’s. To the man there is growth, struggle, conquest, the establishment of his family, and as much further success in gain or ambition as he can achieve.
To the woman, growth, the securing of a husband, the subordinate activities of family life, and afterward such “social” or charitable interests as her position allows.
Here was but one cycle, and that a large one.
The child entered upon a broad open field of life, in which motherhood was the one great personal contribution to the national life, and all the rest the individual share in their common activities. Every girl I talked to, at any age above babyhood, had her cheerful determination as to what she was going to be when she grew up.
What Terry meant by saying they had no “modesty” was that this great life view had no shady places; they had a high sense of personal decorum, but no shame—no knowledge of anything to be ashamed of.
Even their shortcomings and misdeeds in childhood never were presented to them as sins; merely as errors and misplays—as in a game. Some of them, who were palpably less agreeable than others or who had a real weakness or fault, were treated with cheerful allowance, as a friendly group at whist would treat a poor player.
Their religion, you see, was maternal; and their ethics, based on the full perception of evolution, showed the principle of growth and the beauty of wise culture. They had no theory of the essential opposition of good and evil; life to them was growth; their pleasure was in growing, and their duty also.
With this background, with their sublimated mother-love, expressed in terms of widest social activity, every phase of their work was modified by its effect on the national growth. The language itself they had deliberately clarified, simplified, made easy and beautiful, for the sake of the children.
This seemed to us a wholly incredible thing: first, that any nation should have the foresight, the strength, and the persistence to plan and fulfill such a task; and second, that women should have had so much initiative. We have assumed, as a matter of course, that women had none; that only the man, with his natural energy and impatience of restriction, would ever invent anything.
Here we found that the pressure of life upon the environment develops in the human mind its inventive reactions, regardless of sex; and further, that a fully awakened motherhood plans and works without limit, for the good of the child.
That the children might be most nobly born, and reared in an environment calculated to allow the richest, freest growth, they had deliberately remodeled and improved the whole state.
I do not mean in the least that they stopped at that, any more than a child stops at childhood. The most impressive part of their whole culture beyond this perfect system of child-rearing was the range of interests and associations open to them all, for life. But in the field of literature I was most struck, at first, by the child-motive.
They had the same gradation of simple repetitive verse and story that we are familiar with, and the most exquisite, imaginative tales; but where, with us, these are the dribbled remnants of ancient folk myths and primitive lullabies, theirs were the exquisite work of great artists; not only simple and unfailing in appeal to the child-mind, but true, true to the living world about them.
To sit in one of their nurseries for a day was to change one’s views forever as to babyhood. The youngest ones, rosy fatlings in their mothers’ arms, or sleeping lightly in the flower-sweet air, seemed natural enough, save that they never cried. I never heard a child cry in Herland, save once or twice at a bad fall; and then people ran to help, as we would at a scream of agony from a grown person.
Each mother had her year of glory; the time to love and learn, living closely with her child, nursing it proudly, often for two years or more. This perhaps was one reason for their wonderful vigor.
But after the baby-year the mother was not so constantly in attendance, unless, indeed, her work was among the little ones. She was never far off, however, and her attitude toward the co-mothers, whose proud child-service was direct and continuous, was lovely to see.
As for the babies—a group of those naked darlings playing on short velvet grass, clean-swept; or rugs as soft; or in shallow pools of bright water; tumbling over with bubbling joyous baby laughter—it was a view of infant happiness such as I had never dreamed.
The babies were reared in the warmer part of the country, and gradually acclimated to the cooler heights as they grew older.
Sturdy children of ten and twelve played in the snow as joyfully as ours do; there were continuous excursions of them, from one part of the land to another, so that to each child the whole country might be home.
It was all theirs, waiting for them to learn, to love, to use, to serve; as our own little boys plan to be “a big soldier,” or “a cowboy,” or whatever pleases their fancy; and our little girls plan for the kind of home they mean to have, or how many children; these planned, freely and gaily with much happy chattering, of what they would do for the country when they were grown.
It was the eager happiness of the children and young people which first made me see the folly of that common notion of ours—that if life was smooth and happy, people would not enjoy it. As I studied these youngsters, vigorous, joyous, eager little creatures, and their voracious appetite for life, it shook my previous ideas so thoroughly that they have never been re-established. The steady level of good health gave them all that natural stimulus we used to call “animal spirits”—an odd contradiction in terms. They found themselves in an immediate environment which was agreeable and interesting, and before them stretched the years of learning and discovery, the fascinating, endless process of education.
As I looked into these methods and compared them with our own, my strange uncomfortable sense of race-humility grew apace.
Ellador could not understand my astonishment. She explained things kindly and sweetly, but with some amazement that they needed explaining, and with sudden questions as to how we did it that left me meeker than ever.
I betook myself to Somel one day, carefully not taking Ellador. I did not mind seeming foolish to Somel—she was used to it.
“I want a chapter of explanation,” I told her. “You know my stupidities by heart, and I do not want to show them to Ellador—she thinks me so wise!”
She smiled delightedly. “It is beautiful to see,” she told me, “this new wonderful love between you. The whole country is interested, you know—how can we help it!”
I had not thought of that. We say: “All
“Tell me about your theory of education,” I said. “Make it short and easy. And, to show you what puzzles me, I’ll tell you that in our theory great stress is laid on the forced exertion of the child’s mind; we think it is good for him to overcome obstacles.”
“Of course it is,” she unexpectedly agreed. “All our children do that—they love to.”
That puzzled me again. If they loved to do it, how could it be educational?
“Our theory is this,” she went on carefully. “Here is a young human being. The mind is as natural a thing as the body, a thing that grows, a thing to use and to enjoy. We seek to nourish, to stimulate, to exercise the mind of a child as we do the body. There are the two main divisions in education—you have those of course?—the things it is necessary to know, and the things it is necessary to do.”
“To do? Mental exercises, you mean?”
“Yes. Our general plan is this: In the matter of feeding the mind, of furnishing information, we use our best powers to meet the natural appetite of a healthy young brain; not to overfeed it, to provide such amount and variety of impressions as seem most welcome to each child. That is the easiest part. The other division is in arranging a properly graduated series of exercises which will best develop each mind; the common faculties we all have, and most carefully, the especial faculties some of us have. You do this also, do you not?”
“In a way,” I said rather lamely. “We have not so subtle and highly developed a system as you, not approaching it; but tell me more. As to the information—how do you manage? It appears that all of you know pretty much everything—is that right?”
This she laughingly disclaimed. “By no means. We are, as you soon found out, extremely limited in knowledge. I wish you could realize what a ferment the country is in over the new things you have told us; the passionate eagerness among thousands of us to go to your country and learn—learn—learn! But what we do know is readily divisible into common knowledge and special knowledge. The common knowledge we have long since learned to feed into the minds of our little ones with no waste of time or strength; the special knowledge is open to all, as they desire it. Some of us specialize in one line only. But most take up several—some for their regular work, some to grow with.”
The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman / History & Fiction / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes