The yellow wallpaper and.., p.2
The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, p.2Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Her personal myth, in any event, was not about romance but salvation—through work—from imprisoning dogma. Freed by her own initiative, the myth’s heroine, naturally always right, undertakes to lead society to freedom. Reason and discipline triumph over the murky, unreliable impulses of emotion and tradition. Between the lines we may—we are obliged to—see conflict and perplexity. For one thing, the woman who extolled motherhood chose not to raise her own child: not an unnatural mother, but perhaps an ordinary ambivalent one. And why did she say so little of her second marriage if it illustrated her ideals? Contradictions are rampant, as in any valorous life. Yet in the larger sense, her myth was accurate. She did battle successfully with fate, and given her aspirations, her work was eminently right.
Any coherent feminist theory must study and span the social pillars of economics and sexuality—Freud’s subjective “love and work” gone public. Unlike many feminists today, Gilman stresses the economics and downplays the sex: economic independence is her first and indispensable requirement for personal freedom. But more fundamental than either is a vision of history and society to account for the present and to project the future. The Man-Made World, her most original and farsighted book (though critics give top billing to Women and Economics), traces that vision.
Its premise is that historically, the notion of human characteristics has been mistakenly and disastrously restricted to what are actually male qualities. Small wonder, since in our “androcentric” culture, history has been “made and written” by men; also no wonder that its themes have been desire and combat, the propelling male instincts. Once men succeeded in “monopolizing” human activities, naming them man’s work, women effectively dropped out of history, out of production, out of everything except a service role. So The Man-Made World seeks, slightly disingenuously, to isolate specifically male qualities from the more fundamental traits common to all. To defend this undertaking, Gilman acidly cites the many treatises seeking to define women, some even debating whether they are persons at all or merely females.
From this half tongue-in-cheek opening develops a witty and pointed analysis of social institutions: the family, originally evolved for the nurture of children, has become “the vehicle of his comfort, power and pride”; history and literature, notably popular fiction, rooted in love and adventure (desire and combat again), are oblivious of the real adventures of more than half the race. Even women’s love for men, as shown in fiction, “is largely a reflex; it is the way he wants her to feel, expects her to feel. Not a fair representation of how she does feel.” Law and government are cumbersome, authoritarian, and competitive; the lust for combat exalts warfare, making “each man-managed nation an actual or potential fighting organization.”
These sweeping judgments focus less on particular manifestations than on the spirit that informs society and conceives and achieves its destiny. That this spirit can be more fully human, more humane, has always been a revolutionary idea. Gilman does not suggest it is found exclusively in women—quite the contrary—simply that it has been undervalued if not ignored. “The female is the race-type—the man the variant” may sound high-handed but, under the circumstances, is an effort to right the balance. She was influenced, too, by the work of Lester Ward, the pioneering American sociologist who claimed that woman “is the unchanging trunk of the great genealogical tree upon which the male is simply grafted.”17
Women and Economics was Gilman’s most widely read book, going through seven American editions, translated into seven languages, and bringing her renown in Western European feminist circles. Its version of marriage no doubt appalled many readers: after demonstrating that wives are neither paid servants nor equal partners nor professional mothers, she coolly likens their services to those of prostitutes. In brief, “the female of the genus homo is economically dependent on the male. He is her food supply.”
According to Gilman, since primitive times, when men first set this pattern by force, women have been “modified” and shaped accordingly, their sexual attractions overprized and other talents left dormant. Her analysis is uncharitable toward the middle-or upper-class wife, consumer par excellence by necessity, whose idleness and social amusements are unproductive of anything but her continued comfort. Change the social conditions, Gilman briskly advises—Darwinian for the moment—and the women will change soon enough.
On the subject of the home she is even more outrageous: no “haven in a heartless world,” but rather a narrow, confining space generating wearisome friction. Home life is minimal life; ideally it should prepare young people to step into the world—into, not out to, she carefully distinguishes—and make wider social connections. To facilitate this more worldly life, she would eliminate the home’s sacred center, the kitchen, in favor of communal eating establishments. (Curiously, some urban apartments designed for single people or young working couples nowadays have cursory kitchens or none at all; Gilman would approve of them, if not of the gourmet restaurants supplanting the vanquished kitchens.)
Her thoughts on domestic life and food preparation (simple, nutritious, en masse) were elaborated in The Home, published in 1902, the year in which, according to the social historian Carl Degler, President Theodore Roosevelt
castigated the educated classes in general and college-trained women in particular for what he called “race suicide,” for…even if the “new women” married, they bore few or no children. The reasons for this undeniable shunning of marriage and childbearing by the new women are too complex to analyze here.18
Surely they did not appear so very complex to Gilman, who leaves little doubt as to why women who could be independent might so choose. Still, she consistently held that given the chance to live full, productive lives under conditions of equality, most women would gladly marry and bear children too.
Human Work (1904), which she regarded as her most important book, is Gilman’s socialist blueprint. She opens by cajoling her readers to accept the need for change, in precisely the tone of one assuring a child that the feared medicine will help, not hurt—a telling gauge of inferred resistance. Her pervasive theme is optimistic: our unity as a species and interdependence as parts of a living organism; her faith in human reason and malleability is remarkable. The new order requires no uprising, violent or otherwise, merely “certain simple, swift, and easy changes of mind by which we may alter our processes as to avoid…suffering and promote our growth and happiness.”19 Poverty, crime, disease, and ignorance are “rudiments” sure to vanish when “economic errors and superstitions” are corrected.
The errors turn out to be the foundations of capitalism: the ethic of “getting” as opposed to “doing,” of self-aggrandizement through making money; the principle of supply and demand; the rich man’s notion that adversity—for the poor—builds character. Gilman would substitute a radically idealistic concept of human work. Work has gotten a bad name, she asserts, starting from Adam’s curse in Genesis and right up to the present, when hiring or enslaving others to do one’s work is a source of pride: here she echoes Thorstein Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899, complemented her ideas. In truth, work is the highest human function and delight, the process binding society together, an “expression of social energy for social use.”20
With collective—but not government—ownership of the means of production, a new society would “ensure to the individual those things which are essential to his social service.”21 The product would belong to the consumer, as much of it as needed. This is transcendentalized Marxism, as it were, class struggle replaced by community and mutual concern, economic reform as a means to the happier evolution of humanity. “Working is humanity’s growing. In the act of working the individual is modified, and by the work accomplished humanity is modified.”22
Gilman’s utopianism finds full expression in the novel, Herland, which she serialized in The Forerunner in 1915. Situated in an inaccessible valley near a “great river,” in “savage” territory, Herland is an all-fe
Herland’s guiding principle is motherhood, which may seem curious from an author whom motherhood plunged into depression. Then again, motherhood minus the trappings of husband, home (kitchen), and family is quite another matter. The women are mothers “not in our sense of helpless involuntary fecundity…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.” Babies are conceived in a most ingenious way: a Herland instructor explains,
“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.” When a woman chose to be a mother, she allowed the childlonging 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.
The smooth running of otherwise naturalistic Herland rests on this expedient but preposterous modus operandi. Yet most utopias rely on elements of the absurd, so Herland need not be an exception. In any case, parthenogenesis allows Gilman to dispense with men entirely—the issue of sex and marriage was vexing enough in her own life—and thereby dispense with the dilemmas of men and women finding a viable way to be together.
Herland’s children need no surnames: they are the children of all the mothers, raised communally, taught by specialists with a natural gift for the work. (Gilman would not have joined feminists of recent years in supporting the biological mother in the Baby M case, though who can say, seeing her inventiveness, what she would have made of surrogate motherhood?) Children are limited to one per woman—birth control posing no problem but that of will—to avoid the evils of overpopulation.
Herland is an almost perfect place, presented light-heartedly, and touching in its way. With the best will in the world—human nature having been refined to a faultless state—its residents have admirably arranged every facet of public and private life: gardens, farms, and forests thrive, redolent of fruit-bearing trees; cities and towns are sensibly and skillfully designed and well kept, with charming, convenient houses; education is humane and enjoyable, food wholesomely simple, clothing practical and comfortable. Everyone works at suitable, useful, and healthy tasks. The government, though hierarchical, is democratic, with no apparatus for punishment—the rare wrongdoers are regarded as ill and treated accordingly. Nor do judgment and damnation have any place in religion: the Loving Power is maternal; religious feeling filial. Rather like the young Charlotte Perkins, the Herlanders,
being nothing if not practical,…set their keen and active minds to discover the kind of conduct expected of them. This worked out in a most admirable system of ethics. The principle of Love was universally recognized—and used.
…They had no ritual, no little set of performances called “divine service.”…But they had a clear established connection between everything they did—and God. Their cleanliness, their health, their exquisite order, the rich peaceful beauty of the whole land, the happiness of the children, and above all the constant progress they made—all this was their religion.
One of the many refractory human traits that have quite disappeared is sexual desire. Aside from the urge to motherhood, the women have only vestigial sexual instincts and no coquetry whatsoever, which makes for droll scenes when the three intruders fall in love: courtship is stymied if women will not entice in order to succumb. (Some scenes are not so droll. When Terry, a lady-killer type, tries to force sex on his Herland wife, he gets kicked in the groin and universally denounced as a monster.) Gilman chided her contemporaries for being “oversexed,” meaning that the whole spectrum of sociosexual rites was emphasized disproportionately, yet its absence in Herland is disproportionate too. Or at least begs the question. On the other hand, her aim was to illustrate how women, left to their own devices, can create a superior society.
Herland is a clever book. It avoids a good deal of didacticism by setting its argument in an adventure story with a narrative line, dramatic structure, and suspense. Gilman deftly exploits the transforming possibilities of context: commonplace American mores are shown up as absurd and unjust when seen through Herlanders’ eyes. Cultural contrasts make for wit, if occasionally of too easy a sort. Above all, the novel is brimming with the cheerful, resolute faith in progress shared by most reformers of the era.
Gilman was the first to grant that her fiction was not the stuff of great literature. “I have never made any pretense of being literary. As far as I had any method in mind, it was to express the idea with clearness and vivacity, so that it might be apprehended with ease and pleasure.”23 Of her seven novels serialized in The Forerunner she remarks, “I definitely proved that I am not a novelist.”24
Apart from “The Yellow Wallpaper,” her short stories are exercises in problem-solving, parables reminiscent—in form only—of perennially popular women’s magazine fiction. The difference is that, far from urging the beleaguered housewife to stretch her patience further and adapt, Gilman’s solutions are innovative, aimed at getting people out of self-destructive ruts, not deeper in.
When Mary Main, in “An Honest Woman” (1911), is abandoned by the disreputable father of her child, she seems doomed to the role of fallen woman. Instead she moves to another town, runs a boardinghouse, educates her daughter, and earns a reputation for probity. Years later the prodigal lover returns to find himself unneeded, unwanted. Similarly, in “Turned” (1911), on realizing that her husband has gotten the naive servant girl pregnant, well-bred Mrs. Marroner’s first response is to weep despairingly—a “struggling mass of emotion.” But she quickly pulls herself together to resolve on a course of action. Eventually the two women and the baby form an independent unit; in a devastating closing scene, the treacherous man is dismissed as superfluous. Perhaps in writing these parallel and very righteous scenes, Gilman was rectifying or avenging a cruelty to her own mother: when dying of cancer Mary Perkins had begged to see her former husband once more, but he never came.
“Making a Change” (1911) is a story somewhat closer to the bone. Julia Gordins, former musician and now distraught housebound mother of a wailing infant, is driven to a suicide attempt. Her wise mother-in-law, who has a talent for babies, saves her by starting a day-care center (as recommended in Women and Economics) and sending Julia back to work—all unbeknownst to the simpleminded husband. When he discovers their solution, his manly pride is hurt, but only for a moment; then he marvels at their ingenuity.
Again, in “The Widow’s Might” (1911), the older woman proves more daring and imaginative than the young. While three mean-spirited children bicker over which will bear the burden of their newly widowed mother—“all of fifty…and much broken,” one laments—the vigorous widow turns out to have resources and plans of her own. And in a reversed situation, “Mr. Peebles’ Heart” (1914) looks at the plight of a man stifled by a pampered, idle wife and rescued by his sister-in-law, a doctor, who shows the way to a freer life and a better marriage in the bargain.
These fictional resolutions, invariably affirmative and invigorating, are possible only when reason governs character, with no ambiguity permitted to balk common sense. In other words, Gilman’s exemplary stories are self-justifying: if she reclaimed her future by logic and will, why shouldn’t everyone else? Why not society as a whole? Not only her brilliant nonfiction, then, but even her less brilliant fiction reflects its creator: rigorous and farseeing; long on reason and short on psychological penetration; immensely optimistic and intelligent; shaped by the contradictions at the heart of her life. Few writers ha
In many ways, some noble, some constricting, Gilman was a typical progressive of her time. Her splendid originality lay in keeping faith with her convictions to their natural results, in living as well as in writing. In dying too, for when, in 1932, she learned that she had breast cancer, she determined to end her life when her usefulness had ended, which she did in 1935.
The time is approaching when we shall consider it abhorrent to our civilization to allow a human being to die in prolonged agony…. Believing this open choice to be of social service in promoting wiser views on this question, I have preferred chloroform to cancer.25
In her vision and struggles, she set a pattern for a more sane and rich human life and fulfilled her own myth. The succeeding generations she longed to reach have yet to summon the wits and resilience to follow where she led.
—LYNNE SHARON SCHWARTZ
1. Human Work. (New York: McClure, Philips and Co., 1904, p. 201.)
2. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. (New York: Arno Press, 1935, p. 39.)
3. Ibid., pp. 332–333.
4. Human Work, pp. 29, 32.
5. Ibid., p. 331.
6. Writing of Women. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1985, pp. 78–79.)
7. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, p. 10.
8. Ibid., p. 20.
9. Ibid., p. 21.
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