At the turn of the twentieth century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a celebrity—acclaimed as a leader in the feminist movement and castigated for her divorce, her relinquishment of custody of her daughter, and her unconventional second marriage. She was also widely read, with stories in popular magazines and with dozens of books in print. Her most famous short story, the intensely personal “The Yellow Wallpaper,” was read as a horror story when first published in 1892 and then lapsed into obscurity before being rediscovered and reinterpreted by feminist scholars in the 1970s.
Noted anthologist Barbara Solomon has put together a remarkable collection of Gilman’s fiction, which includes twenty short stories and the complete text of Herland, the landmark utopian novel that remained unavailable for more than sixty years. From “The Unexpected,” printed in Kate Field’s Washington in 1890, to such later tales as “Mrs. Elder’s Idea,” published in Gilman’s own periodical, The Forerunner, readers can again encounter this witty, original, and audacious woman who dared to challenge the status quo and who created fiction that continues to be fresh and timeless.
Edited and with an Introduction by Barbara H. Solomon
Release date: September 2, 2014
Print pages: 400
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Herland and Selected Stories
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I would like to acknowledge the role of the Iona students studying “Images of Women in Modern American Literature” during the fall of 1991. Their enthusiastic reception of Herland helped to make my work on this text very rewarding. To Kenneth Hedman and Charlotte Snyder of the United States Military Academy Library at West Point, I am indebted for considerable help in locating Gilman materials. A great deal of assistance was offered by Mary A. Bruno and the staff of Iona’s Secretarial Services Center: Teresa Alifante, Patti Besen, Nancy Girardi, and Teresa Martin, as well as by Adrienne Franco and Anthony Todman of Ryan Library. At the Department of English, I was cheerfully aided by two student assistants: Susan Pavliscak and Shigeko Yamaguchi.
In the spring of 1887, a depressed and desperate young woman from Providence, Rhode Island, traveled to Philadelphia to consult Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, the famous physician and specialist in nervous disorders. She had been ill for about three years, experiencing symptoms which today might well lead to a medical diagnosis of clinical depression. Moreover, her situation and misery were perfect examples of the condition which would be described so accurately three-quarters of a century later by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique as “The Problem That Has No Name.”
After a month of treatment at S. Weir Mitchell’s sanitarium, the young woman was discharged with the following prescription: “Live as domestic a life as possible. . . . Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.”
Fortunately for posterity, the patient, who was Charlotte Perkins Gilman (though at the time she was Charlotte Perkins Stetson), found it impossible to live according to the doctor’s instructions. She later wrote in her autobiography that those directions caused her to come very close to losing her mind.
Thus, in the fall of 1888, still in poor health and with little money, Charlotte Perkins Stetson did the unthinkable. She left Walter Stetson, her husband of four years, and traveled with her three-year-old daughter, Katharine, to Pasadena, California. There she began a life characterized by the independence, determination, and hard work which were to be her salvation.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman did not become America’s leading feminist writer and lecturer at the turn of the century through a casual or purely intellectual inclination. She had attempted to live her life according to the collective wisdom of her era about women, and she had found the precepts handed down to women by respected authorities to be not merely misguided or wrong, but deadly, leading to unlived lives, to stultification, depression, and desperation. Gilman turned to writing both fiction and nonfiction as she explored her own personal experience as girl and woman, as wife and mother, and as she studied the economic and social facts of the communal experience of American women. Like the majority of women of her generation, Charlotte was reared in a world that considered her being female as the foremost fact about her. Thus, she was raised to take her place in the domestic sphere in which it was assumed all normal women would find happiness and fulfillment. As she attempted to live in the sphere assigned to women, with the goals which were described in her era as “the cult of true womanhood,” she learned firsthand that no matter how fervently the religious, political, and social leaders expounded upon the responsibilities and duties of women to their parents, husbands, and children, a life lived vicariously was not a real life at all.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s experience of the destructiveness of America’s cult of feminine domesticity began in infancy with the relationship of her parents. Soon after Charlotte’s birth, her mother, Mary Perkins, was abandoned by her husband, Frederick Beecher Perkins. He may well have left after being told by a physician that his wife must never again become pregnant. A member of the illustrious Beecher family, which included the preacher Lyman Beecher, the famous authors Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Beecher, as well as the abolitionist minister and writer Henry Ward Beecher, Frederick, in contrast, was an unsuccessful and debt-ridden man who seemed eager to avoid all family responsibilities. Mary was forced to raise her two young children alone, often living in the households and on the charity of relatives. She, Charlotte, and Thomas, who was a year older than his sister, were forced to move some nineteen times during Charlotte’s youth.
Mary Perkins appears to have been a woman with few inner resources and little wisdom. Suffering pathetically from the lack of her husband’s love, she thought that if she denied all signs of affection to Charlotte, her daughter would never need nor long for them. Mary only revealed her love or tenderness for Charlotte when she believed that the child was asleep. Having discovered this pattern, the affection-starved girl tried to remain awake until her mother came to her bed, “even using pins to prevent dropping off. . . . Then,” writes Gilman in her autobiography, “how carefully I pretended to be sound asleep and how rapturously I enjoyed being gathered into her arms, held close and kissed.”
By the time she was a young woman, Charlotte had formed unusual and strong resolutions against marrying. In a journal entry written when she was twenty-one, she recorded a number of reasons for remaining single, which included her desire for “freedom,” for having her own “unaided will” in all matters, and her preference for providing for herself rather than trusting another to provide for her. She added a description of one of her goals: “I love to be able and free to help any and every one, as I never could be if my time and thoughts were taken by that extended self—a family.”
Ironically, only a few days after writing this diary entry, Charlotte met Charles Walter Stetson, an attractive artist. He assiduously courted her, overcame her misgivings and objections, and two years later, they were married. As we have seen from the disastrous effects and psychological distress Charlotte suffered during the years they lived as husband and wife, their marriage brought together two people whose characters, ambitions, values, and needs made them totally unsuited for one another.
One aspect of Walter’s character that would prove destructive to Charlotte was his romanticized ideal of male dominance. Even during their courtship, Walter had noted his desire to have Charlotte “look up to me as if I were superior . . . that my love of her has conquered.” He resented her independent nature and recorded his pleasure in his belief that her “spirit is broken.”
Often well-meaning, and certainly not malicious, Walter was simply a rather conventional specimen of a turn-of-the-century American male, one who resented the idea of his wife’s having ambitions and desiring accomplishments other than those associated with the roles of wife and mother. Vulnerable as a painter who was struggling to win recognition of his own work, he undoubtedly thought of Charlotte’s desire for literary achievements as unnatural and as reflecting unfavorably upon him.
Their inevitable problems were exacerbated by the birth of Katharine less than a year after the marriage and the straitened circumstances of the household. Unable to function as a wife or mother, unable to cope with her deteriorating mental and physical state, and unable to find helpful medical advice, Charlotte left Providence, never to return to Walter.
She settled in Pasadena, choosing to live near the Channing family. Charlotte had become very close to them, particularly to Grace Ellery Channing, during the years when they had lived in Providence. William F. Channing, his wife, and two daughters were an affectionate, lively, and well-educated family. In their congenial household, Charlotte had enjoyed stimulating discussions and literary activities in a cheerful and relaxed atmosphere. They were sympathetic to Charlotte and willing to help her as much as they could, even locating the small wooden house in Pasadena that Charlotte rented for Katharine and herself.
Charlotte and Grace were especial girlhood friends who had a great deal in common. Grace, too, wrote fiction and poetry, and the two women had amused themselves by writing a comic play together during a vacation trip. Interestingly, their friendship was not destroyed by Grace’s subsequent marriage to Walter not long after he and Charlotte had finalized their divorce. On the contrary, because Charlotte knew Grace to be a gentle, affectionate, and dependable woman, and because during that period Charlotte was traveling extensively and preoccupied with earning a living, she arranged for Katharine, then nine years old, to live with Grace and Walter when they married in 1894.
When Charlotte first arrived in Pasadena, she struggled to support herself and her child, but the move to California proved to be curative and revitalizing. Within a surprisingly short time, she began to earn money through writing and lecturing. Her poem “Similar Cases” (published in 1890 in the Nationalist) brought her work to the attention of William Dean Howells, the influential author and the editor of the Atlantic Monthly. She began to establish first a local and later a national reputation as an inspiring speaker on women’s issues and on socialism. The topics of her lectures anticipated those which would be discussed in American women’s consciousness-raising groups of the late 1960s and 1970s. She recognized that women’s economic dependence, relegation to drudgery in the home, exclusion from work in the professions, industry, and commerce, and submission to male authority were preventing women from leading fully human and productive lives. Most important, she understood that women’s problems were not individual or isolated instances, and that only reform on a national, system-wide basis could ameliorate their conditions. Gilman crisscrossed America for more than three decades preaching the need for economic, political, and social reform in the ways that people live together as families and work at their occupations.
Her successful career as a lecturer was inextricably linked to her career as a writer. The themes of her first and best-known work of nonfiction, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898), were those she had been presenting in her provocative lectures.
During the time Charlotte was writing this book, in which she focused in a public way on the most important issues of her life, she was also writing about herself in a private way in an extraordinary series of letters to her cousin, George Houghton Gilman. Charlotte and Houghton had been fond acquaintances as children. An unusually scholarly and cultured individual, he had become a New York attorney. Although he was obviously competent and professional in his work, he was not particularly ambitious or career-oriented. After a brief meeting in 1897, he and Charlotte began to correspond. Her letters became increasingly lengthy and introspective as she found herself describing her fears, self-doubts, needs, hopes, and beliefs to this gentle and understanding relative.
During this courtship by correspondence—for this is, indeed, what it turned out to be—Charlotte revealed all of the character traits and aspirations that she must have imagined had made her unlovable. To her great delight, she found that these self-revelations did not dismay Houghton at all. Instead, he repaid her confidences with an approval and affirmation of her innermost self that made true intimacy possible. In 1900 they were married.
As Charlotte recalled her thirty-four-year marriage to Houghton in her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she judged that they had “lived happily ever after.” Always thinking as a writer, she added, “If this were a novel, now, here’s that happy ending.”
Secure as a beloved wife and increasingly self-confident as a famous author of national stature, Gilman followed Women and Economics with four additional and closely related volumes: Concerning Children (1900), The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), Human Work (1904), and The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture (1911).
Although she had written and published poetry and short stories for more than two decades, with the founding of her own monthly magazine, the Forerunner, in 1909, Charlotte Perkins Gilman entered an astounding creative period of eight years. The magazine, which was entirely written by Gilman, typically contained one fully developed short story, one very brief and didactic story, a chapter of a novel (generally serialized over the twelve issues of a single year), as well as several poems, articles, and book reviews. During Gilman’s lifetime, three of the novels serialized in the Forerunner were subsequently published as separate books: What Diantha Did (1910), The Crux (1911), and Moving the Mountain (1911). The other novels preserved in the issues of the Forerunner are Mag-Marjorie (1912), Won Over (1913), Benigna Machiavelli (1914), Herland (1915), and With Her in Ourland (1916).
A prolific writer and tireless activist for women’s rights, Charlotte Perkins Gilman believed that far-reaching change could be brought about through education and experience. If human beings could abandon their caves, their huts, their tenements to embrace the well-built and technologically sophisticated homes of the best modern architects, they could also abandon their ideas about women’s and men’s lives, which were just as primitive and useless as a cave home would be to a modern family.
Gilman believed in her work of bringing this message to women everywhere, much in the same way that her Beecher ancestors had preached about sin and salvation to their throngs of listeners. In spite of a painful and terminal illness, cancer, she struggled to write and lecture during her last months of life. Knowing that the end must come soon, Gilman returned to Pasadena, the sanctuary to which she had fled so many years earlier and now the home of her married daughter, Katharine. During Charlotte’s final weeks, Grace Channing Stetson—now, like Charlotte, a widow—also returned to help care for her old and dear friend. With Charlotte’s days of work behind her and only the agony of an incurable disease ahead, Charlotte Perkins Gilman ended her life, by chloroform, in the summer of 1935.
During subsequent decades, it appeared that Gilman had been greatly mistaken about the significance of her work, especially her writing. Descriptions of her life and contributions simply disappeared. For example, the 1962 edition of The Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature profiles three Gilmans, Arthur Gilman, Daniel Gilman, and Lawrence Gilman. No Charlotte. Similarly, the 1965 edition of The Oxford Companion to American Literature includes sketches of Caroline Howard Gilman and Daniel Gilman. No Charlotte. But at about this time, a burgeoning interest in feminist issues led historians, social critics, teachers, and students to search for the best sources about the conditions of women. And their search inevitably led to Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Thus, 1966 marked the republication of Women and Economics, the first of her numerous works to be reissued during the following years. Although the readers’ interest appeared to be concentrated on Gilman’s nonfiction, the publication of The Yellow Wallpaper by the Feminist Press in 1973 led to a rediscovery and appreciation of Gilman as a powerful American literary force.
* * *
Ironically, Gilman’s best-known and most artistically successful story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is not typical of her fiction in three important aspects: the point of view, the use of symbolic imagery, and the unhappy ending. The story, originally published in 1892, records the anguish and decline of a young wife and mother who is being treated for mental illness by her physician husband. The wife, the first-person narrator, explains that although she has “nervous troubles [that] are dreadfully depressing,” her husband, John, believes that she must use her “will and self-control” and that “there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency. . . .” John’s treatment, including a tonic, specific foods, isolation, and a great deal of rest with “a schedule prescription for each hour in the day,’’ is obviously exacerbating his wife’s psychological problems, although he is oblivious to all of the signs that this is so. The woman believes “that congenial work, with excitement and change” would be good for her, but of course the views of the sufferer are not to be taken seriously. The wife is subject to her husband’s authority in her two central roles: as a dutiful, subservient turn-of-the-century wife and as a fanciful, emotional female patient.
The powerful imagery of the story revolves around the pattern of the wallpaper in the couple’s bedroom—the room that John has chosen—in the country house he has rented for a three-month stay. Early in the story, the wife examines her reactions to the wallpaper:
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
As the story progresses and the wife becomes more severely ill, her perceptions of the wallpaper become increasingly dramatic and are clearly linked to her own condition. At night, the pattern is revealed to her as a series of bars behind which a woman is imprisoned. The narrator describes her discovery:
The front pattern does move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!
Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.
Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.
And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so: I think that is why it has so many heads.
The behavior of the woman trapped in the wallpaper is a symbolic parallel for the situation of the wife who is trapped by her severe mental illness and by a husband and household in which control of her life has been taken from her. Increasingly, the narrator behaves like a hostage, hiding her writing and her thoughts from her husband/captor. The story concludes with the ultimate breakdown of the narrator, in an unusual—but fitting—ending.
With the exception of one or two very early stories, most of Gilman’s fiction ends very differently from “The Yellow Wallpaper.” An analysis of “Three Thanksgivings” (1909), which was among the first stories Gilman published in the Forerunner, reveals a number of the conflicts, heroines, and important themes that are characteristic of her fiction.
Delia Morrison, a widow with two married children, would prefer to live in her own spacious house, but needs to generate an annual income as well as to raise $2,000 to pay off the mortgage. Her financial problems would be resolved if she were to accept the marriage proposal of Peter Butts, a man she does not love.
Andrew and Jean, Mrs. Morrison’s children, have suggested that their mother sell her house and live with one of them. She visits each on two successive Thanksgiving holidays and discovers the kind of life she would experience in their households.
Andrew, a minister, and his wife, Annie, live in a house that Delia finds overheated and small. The “home” they offer is, in fact, a room that measures twelve by fifteen feet. Annie, who has no children, is a precise and efficient housekeeper who needs no help from her mother-in-law. Delia is invited out with the couple:
Waited upon and watched over and set down among the old ladies and gentlemen—she had never realized so keenly that she was no longer young. Here nothing recalled her youth, every careful provision anticipated age.
During the second Thanksgiving, Mrs. Morrison stays with Jean and her husband, Joseph, for a week. They have four small children including a new baby. The room they provide is about the same size as the one in Andrew’s house, but it has a sloped ceiling and is an additional flight up.
There was no going visiting here. Jeannie could not leave the babies. And few visitors; all the little suburb being full of similarly overburdened mothers. Such as called found Mrs. Morrison charming. What she found them, she did not say.
A final similarity of the offers of both children concerns the funds that would be realized by the sale of Delia’s large house when she moves. Andrew believes he can profitably invest the money on his mother’s behalf and Joseph, her son-in-law, wants to put the money into his own store and pay interest for its use. Both children assume that she will be financially dependent upon them and send Mrs. Morrison the fare for her Thanksgiving visits.
When Delia returns home after the first visit, she evaluates her situation. Her house is quite large and comfortable, but she has accommodated boarders in the past and thoroughly disliked running a boardinghouse. She lives with an energetic black servant, Sally, who has carefully preserved many of the assets of the house: napkins, tablecloths, towels, and china. Mrs. Morrison briefly considers the possibility of opening either a hotel or a girls’ school, but rejects these ideas as unattractive and impractical. Her solution to the problem, founding and running the Haddleton Rest and Improvement Club, is one that enables Delia to continue to live independently, to use her management skills, to enjoy her pleasant home, and to serve other women.
Delia Morrison typifies the women Charlotte Perkins Gil-man depicted in stories written during more than three decades. Sensible and intelligent, she is at an economic disadvantage as a woman in a society with low expectations for women. She is one of a number of older heroines, about fifty years of age, such as Mary Crosley of “Old Mrs. Crosley,” Mrs. Gordins of “Making a Change,” and Grace Elder of “Mrs. Elder’s Idea,” who are dismayed to find that although they feel competent, are energetic, and want to perform satisfying work, they have been written off by family members as old ladies who should confine themselves to porch rocking chairs.
Since the most crucial events of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s life were leaving her husband and reconstructing her life around her work, it is not surprising that one of Gilman’s major lifelong themes was the need of women to do useful and meaningful work. Clearly, the benefits of a congenial occupation go far beyond simply earning a salary. Gilman was one of America’s first writers to understand the ways in which paid labor outside the home helped women to achieve a strong identity and a healthy sense of self-respect.
“Three Thanksgivings,” which is representative of much of Gilman’s fiction, also dramatizes the social good that is accomplished by Delia Morrison in her newly established business. Her organization responds to the pressing needs of the farm wife. When she travels to town for the day, she often feels isolated and weary. She lacks the companionship and support of other women who lead similar lives. The streets of the town are filled with shops where she is welcome as long as she is a customer who is spending money. The usual cafés or restaurants of the town are places she would find too expensive, but also they are places where she would be expected to eat a meal without lingering.
Like Delia Morrison, numerous Gilman heroines find that in addressing their own desire to do meaningful work, they can aid other women, bringing about significant and much-needed social change. The changes or improvements are generally in areas in which American politicians have shown little interest or initiative.
For example, Mrs. Joyce, in “Martha’s Mother,” longs to live in the city and to be surrounded by people, as well as to use her talent and energy in working. The enterprise that provides a solution to her problems also improves the lives of urban working girls. Similarly, the resolution of the crisis of Julia Gordins and her mother-in-law leads to the establishment of a child-care facility which would be the envy of any contemporary community.
In much of Gilman’s fiction, the satisfying work undertaken by women leads to both reasonable profits and community enrichment. Among the realistic details Gilman’s heroines very willingly supply in several stories are an accounting of their costs for supplies, labor, and rent, as well as the resulting income. In “Three Thanksgivings,” for example, we learn that
on Saturday Mrs. Morrison hired two helpers for half a day, for half a dollar each. She stocked the library with many magazines for fifty dollars a year. She covered fuel, light and small miscellanies with another hundred. And she fed her multitude with the plain viands agreed upon, at about four cents apiece.
Even when a woman’s work does not particularly benefit others, the wealth she earns can enrich her own life in admirable ways. In “Her Beauty,” for example, the clothes which Amaryllis Delong designs and sells are well made and flattering, but not inexpensive. There is, however, nothing frivolous in the way Amaryllis uses her profits from the clothing business:
She was able to travel, to study to her heart’s content, to meet people, to hear lectures, to read books, to see pictures, to attend plays, to feed her soul with knowledge and to enjoy, as far as it exists in the modern world, the beauty she desired.
As dramatized by Gilman, independence is usually the essential goal of a woman’s occupational success. The heroine who performs work efficiently, has original ideas, is well organized, and has a successful career is a woman who can make choices based on her preferences. She will not be coerced by economic circumstances. Furthermore, marriage is not the only option for such a woman, not her only way of attaining respect, social status, and financial support.
Delia’s proposal from Peter, in “Three Thanksgivings,” introduces another of Gilman’s recurring motifs, the evaluation of possible or existing marriages from the perspective of whether they are desirable for the woman. Peter Butts is an unpleasant suitor in several respects. In the first place, Delia has known him since girlhood and has never found him attractive. In the second, as a self-made, affluent man, he is pompous and tactless. Finally, he has no qualms about trying to manipulate Delia through his economic power over her and envisions possessing her as his experienced wife-housekeeper. Obviously, if Delia is to triumph, she must reject Butt’s unwanted proposal.
In an era in which so much popular fiction concluded with a proposal signaling a happy ending for the heroine, Gilman often portrayed marriage as an impediment to a woman’s continued growth and happiness, depicting inappropriate suitors who were not admirable or marriageable males. Instead, the wise Gilman heroine knows that a single life in which she finds fulfilling work is a better choice than a marriage based on such elements as the need for economic security or on the flattering attentions of an admiring male. For example, in one of her earliest stories, “My Poor Aunt” (1891), Gilman briefly surveys the marriages of three sisters, Ellen, Lucy, and Kate. The youngest, Kate, had divorced her husband many years before the opening of the story because “she found the shame and injury heaped upon her by the scoundrel she had so trustfully married too much for a woman to bear in honor.” The two conventional sisters who remained married—one wealthy, one impoverished—have led difficult and equally unrewarding lives, filled with “uninterrupted trials and disappointments.” Surprisingly, their experiences as wives have not made them very perceptive or critical
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