Charlotte Perkins Gilman 1860-1935
(Full name Charlotte Anna Perkins Stetson Gilman) American short story writer, novelist, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Gilman's career. For further information on her life and works, see TCLC, Volumes 9 and 37.
Gilman was a prominent social activist and a leading theorist of the women's movement at the turn of the century. She examined the role of women in society and propounded her social theories in Women and Economics (1898) and other nonfiction works, while she depicted the realization of her feminist ideals in her novels and short stories. Gilman is best known today for her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), in which she portrayed a young woman's mental breakdown.
Gilman was born in Hartford, Connecticut, to Frederick Beecher Perkins, a noted librarian and magazine editor, and his wife, Mary Fritch Perkins. Although Gilman's father frequently left the family for long periods during her childhood and ultimately divorced his wife in 1869, he directed Gilman's early education, emphasizing study in the sciences and history. During his absences, Perkins left his wife and children with his relatives, thus bringing Gilman into contact with her independent and reform-minded great-aunts: Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom's Cabin; Catherine Beecher, the prominent advocate of “domestic feminism”; and Isabella Beecher Hooker, an ardent suffragist. Their influence, along with the example of her own mother's self-reliance, were instrumental in developing Gilman's feminist convictions and desire to effect social reform. At twenty-four, Gilman married Charles Walter Stetson. Following the birth of their daughter in 1884, Gilman suffered from severe depression. She consulted the noted neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, who prescribed his “rest cure”: complete bed rest and limited intellectual activity. Gilman credited this experience with driving her “so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that [she] could see over.” She removed herself from Mitchell's care, and later, attributing her emotional problems in part to the confines of marriage, she left her husband and moved to California, where she helped edit feminist publications, assisted in the planning of the California Women's Congresses of 1894 and 1895, and was instrumental in founding the Women's Peace Party. She spent several years lecturing in the United States and England on women's rights and on labor reform, and in 1898 published Women and Economics. In 1900 Gilman married George Houghton Gilman, who was supportive of her intense involvement in social reform. From 1909 through 1916, Gilman published a monthly journal, The Forerunner, for which she wrote nearly all of the copy. As a vehicle for advancing social awareness, The Forerunner has been called her “single greatest achievement.” In 1935, having learned that she suffered from inoperable cancer, Gilman took her life, writing in a final note that “when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.”
Gilman's best-known nonfiction work, Women and Economics, had its origin in her studies of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and the writings of Lester Frank Ward, who maintained that “the elevation of woman is the only sure road to the elevation of man.” She argued that women's secondary status in society, and especially women's economic dependence on men, is not the result of biological inferiority, but rather of culturally enforced behavior. In questioning whether or not there were fundamental differences in potential between the sexes, Gilman was not expressing new ideas. However, Carl N. Degler has noted that “no one in her lifetime focused the arguments so sharply and stated them so cogently and lucidly as she did.” In other nonfiction works, including Concerning Children (1900), Human Work (1904), and The Man-Made World (1911), Gilman suggested that women should work outside of the home, fully using their talents for the benefit of society and for their own satisfaction. She proposed removing from the home such duties as cooking, laundry, and child care by arranging households in clusters of single-family dwellings or multi-family buildings with professionals in charge of domestic tasks.
In her fiction Gilman portrayed women struggling to achieve self-sufficiency or adapting to new-found independence. Gilman declared that she wrote fiction primarily to illustrate her social ideas, and many critics consider her stories and novels stylistically unimaginative. Her short stories frequently provide models showing women how to change their lives or redesign society, while her last three fictional works, Moving the Mountain (1911), Herland (1915), and With Her in Ourland (1916), are utopian novels depicting worlds in which attitudes towards women and their abilities have radically changed. Critics find that despite her shortcomings as a fiction writer, Gilman used satire deftly in Herland, challenging accepted images of women by describing the reactions of three American males who enter Herland, an all-female society that reproduces through parthenogenesis. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman's best work of fiction, is also her least typical. Rather than an optimistic vision of what women can achieve, the story is a first-person account of a young mother's mental deterioration, based on Gilman's own experiences. Although early reviewers interpreted “The Yellow Wallpaper” as either a horror story or a case study in psychosis, most modern critics see it as a feminist indictment of society's subjugation of women and praise its compelling characterization, complex symbolism, and thematic depth.
With the changes in American society since World War I, Gilman's economic theories have appeared increasingly less radical and have therefore attracted less notice. However, as women's roles continue to evolve, her sociological studies and her suggestions for nontraditional housekeeping and child care arrangements gain in significance. Many modern feminist nonfiction works reflect the influence of Gilman's ideas, and readers are rediscovering in her thought much that is relevant to contemporary problems.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman used her fiction to dramatize her vision of history, sociology, and ethics. Over the course of her career, she published close to two hundred pieces of fiction, mainly short stories, in periodicals or in her own Forerunner magazine.
Most of Gilman’s stories belong to two categories: realistic stories that deal with the unhappy situations of the everyday world and utopian stories set totally in the world of the imagination.
In her fiction, Gilman suggests changes that might be made in preparation for the future world and asserts the need to break away from the traditions that limit human potential. While she is often identified with the feminist movement, her emphasis is on a utopian society in which men and women would be equal, a society she portrays in the novel Herland. Her stories are meant to be uplifting examples of her social philosophy. Because many of these stories have an ideal ending, rather than a probable one, many critics find them didactic or formulaic. They are not well regarded for their literary qualities.
Gilman did not have literary pretensions; she wrote quickly and without much revision. She did, however, aspire to write with “clearness and vivacity,” so that her work would “be apprehended with ease and pleasure.” Her style is direct; her message is clear.
“The Yellow Wallpaper”
Of all Gilman’s fiction, “The Yellow Wallpaper” stands out as a brilliant psychological study, apart from the rest of her work in its emotional intensity and introspection. It is considered by critics the only genuinely literary piece she wrote, in the literary tradition of the nineteenth century American short story, sustaining a single effect: here, madness, loneliness, and desperation with a psychological intensity best suited to short fiction.
The story is told in the first person by a young wife and mother. The narrator’s physician-husband has ordered a rest cure for her nerves. The reference is clearly autobiographical; Gilman’s stated intent is to indict the methods of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who ordered a similar cure of complete rest and absence of intellectual stimulation for Gilman to cure her depression and breakdown following her own marriage and motherhood. According to Gilman, this medical advice brought her nearer to the brink of “utter mental ruin.” This story is unique in Gilman’s canon in not resolving happily. The narrator, according to the traditional view of wife as dependent child, believes that her husband-doctor knows best and sinks into horrifying insanity. In her own life, Gilman was able to break out and save herself by moving away from her husband and resuming her work.
John, the well-meaning husband-doctor of the story, rents a large house isolated in the country to provide his ailing wife with perfect rest. Gradually she becomes confined to the nursery at the top of the house, forbidden to write to relieve her anxiety. As her condition worsens, the woman becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in the nursery. She becomes...
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