Gilman, Charlotte (Anna) Perkins (Stetson)
GILMAN, Charlotte (Anna) Perkins (Stetson)
Nationality: American. Born: Hartford, Connecticut, 3 July 1860. Education: Studied art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, 1878-79. Family: Married 1) (Charles) Walter Stetson in 1884 (divorced 1894), one daughter; 2) George Houghton Gilman in 1900 (died 1943). Career: Treated for hysteria by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, 1886; moved to Pasadena, California, 1888; playwright with Grace Channing, 1888-91; ran a boarding house, 1890s; coeditor, The Impress journal, San Francisco, 1894. Full-time writer, activist in women's suffrage movement, public speaker, and lecturer, from mid-1890s. Moved to New York City, 1900; lectured in Europe, 1905. Editor and writer, The Forerunner magazine, 1909-16. Moved to Pasadena, 1934. Died: 17 August 1935 (suicide).
The Yellow Wallpaper (novella). 1899; edited by Elaine Hedge, 1973.
The Yellow Wallpaper and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 1994.
The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories. 1995.
The Crux. 1911.
Moving the Mountain. 1911.
What Diantha Did. 1912.
Herland: A Lost Feminist Utopia, edited by Ann J. Lane. 1979.
Benigna Machiavelli. 1994.
With Her in Ourland: A Sequel to Herland. 1997.
Unpunished: A Mystery. 1997.
In This Our World. 1893.
Suffrage Songs and Verses. 1911.
The Later Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 1996.
A Clarion Call to Redeem the Race! 1890.
Women and Economics. 1898.
Concerning Children. 1900.
The Home, Its Work and Influence. 1903.
Human Work. 1904.
The Punishment that Educates. 1907.
The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture. 1911.
His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers. 1923.
The Living of Gilman (autobiography). 1935.
The Gilman Reader: "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Other Fiction, edited by Ann J. Lane. 1980.
Gilman: A Non-Fiction Reader, edited by Larry Ceplair. 1991.
The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 1994.
A Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1900. 1995.*
Gilman: A Bibliography by Gary Scharnhorst, 1985.
"Gilman on the Theory and Practice of Feminism" by Carl N. Degler, in American Quarterly 8, Spring 1956; Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist by Mary A. Hill, 1980; Building Domestic Liberty: Gilman's Architectural Feminism by Polly Wynn Allen, 1988; Gilman: The Woman and Her Work edited by Sheryl L. Meyering, 1989; To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Gilman by Ann J. Lane, 1990; The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper edited by Catherine Golden, 1992; Critical Essays on Gilman edited by Joanne B. Karpinski, 1992; Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction by Denise D. Knight, 1997; Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction by Janet Beer, 1997.* * *
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a prominent intellectual in the woman's movement in the United States early in the twentieth century, began her public career as a poet and writer of short fiction during the 1890s. A skilled and versatile writer, Gilman was also an unapologetic polemicist whose writings were fundamentally didactic.
In a pair of stories published in 1891 and 1892 in The New England Magazine, Gilman experimented in the female Gothic mode. "The Giant Wistaria" is, in its most elementary sense, a formulaic ghost story about an unwed mother—a victim of Puritan patriarchy in the person of her tyrannical father—whose spirit haunts a decaying New England mansion. Several visitors detect the presence of her ghost in and around the house. The tale is more than a superficial indictment of sexual oppression, however. By piecing together a number of disparate clues, the reader learns that the woman whose ghost stalks the house killed her child and starved to death rather than submit to her father's demand that she abandon the child and marry for appearance's sake. Under the circumstances the murder and suicide seem acts of heroic defiance that save her and her child from lives of shame. Terrorized by men in life, the woman becomes a source of terror to men in afterlife.
The story is thus a companion piece to "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman's most celebrated story, which she wrote only five months later. The narrator of this tale, who suffers from severe postpartum depression, moves with her husband and child into a rented seaside estate where she might enjoy complete rest. Her physician-husband in fact prescribes the "rest cure" popularized by the nerve specialist S. Weir Mitchell, the implied villain of the story, who had treated Gilman under similar circumstances in 1886. Over the course of several weeks, the narrator becomes progressively insane. Forbidden to read or write, she begins to discern the crouching figure of a woman trapped in the patterned wallpaper of her garret-room; that is, the narrator begins to read in the paper dim inferences of her own predicament. Every few days she records her discoveries in a concealed diary, an act of rebellion against the patriarchal strictures of her physician-husband. The tale ends as she peels yards of paper from the walls to free the trapped woman, with whom she entirely identifies in her madness.
"The Giant Wistaria" was previously unknown to modern readers, and "The Yellow Wallpaper" seemed little more than a tale of grotesque horror. Read as subtle critiques or subversions of gender hierarchies, however, these two stories rank as minor masterpieces. The heroine of the first, no less than the narrator of the second, is confined in a prison house of language. Neither woman is permitted to describe her predicament as a victim of the patriarchal order; indeed, the first disappears from the story, at least in a corporeal sense, after speaking a total of three sentences, while the second writes a clandestine epistolary tale, an absolutely forbidden discourse. Each of them, rather than submit to the demands of male authority, devises a set of signs that defy patriarchal control.
After these tales appeared in the early 1890s Gilman published little fiction until she began to issue The Forerunner in 1909. She included a short story and an installment of a serialized novel in each monthly issue of this magazine over a period of more than seven years. With rare exceptions her short tales were either feminist fantasies or parables about the economic independence of women. The stories of the former type tend to be whimsical and satirical, those of the latter type more contrived and repetitive. The feminist fantasies include "If I Were a Man," in which "pretty little Mollie Mathewson" awakens one morning to discover that she has been transformed into her husband Gerald. S/he enjoys such novel experiences as the sensation of money in the pocket, and at the office s/he defends women from men's slanderous gossip. Similarly, in "When I Was a Witch," the narrator suddenly acquires the power to make her fondest wishes a reality. She metes out punishment to those who abuse animals, sell contaminated milk or meat, or shortchange their customers. At her bidding, newspapers print their lies in a different shade of ink. When she wishes that women "might realize their Womanhood at last," however, nothing happens because "this magic which had fallen on me was black magic—and I had wished white." Such a conclusion betrays Gilman's fear of the resiliency of traditional gender roles.
Gilman's parables of economic independence were more conventional, certainly more formulaic and predictable, than her satirical fantasies. In each of these success stories the heroine is freed from dependence upon men, often as the result of death or temporary separation from her husband, often with the aid of another woman who acts as her patron. In "The Widow's Might," for example, a middle-aged widow declares her intention to live on the wealth she helped her late husband accumulate rather than save it for their grown children. In "Mrs. Beazley's Deeds" the heroine is counseled by "the best woman lawyer in New York" to retain control of inherited property rather than give title to her ne'er-do-well husband. She opens a boardinghouse and becomes self-reliant while he eventually flees the state to escape his creditors. And in "Mrs. Elder's Idea" the middle-aged heroine refuses to follow her husband into retirement; instead, she begins a new career as a professional buyer. Though initially disconcerted, her husband is reconciled to the change when he realizes that she is happier than she would have been unemployed. That is, Gilman illustrated her belief that the economic independence of women, rather than a threat to the family, would improve and refine the marital institution.
Gilman allowed in her autobiography that her fiction was "more difficult" to write than her essays. Still, she published some 170 "pastels" and short stories during her career, most of them in The Forerunner. They were not "literature," or so Gilman protested, but "propaganda" with overt purpose. They were "written to drive nails with." Her protests notwithstanding, of course, Gilman attained a level of complexity and artistry in "The Giant Wistaria" and "The Yellow Wallpaper" that none of her later stories exhibit.
See the essay on "The Yellow Wallpaper."