Charlotte Perkins Gilman Essay - Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.”

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

In This Our World [as Charlotte Perkins Stetson] (poetry) 1893

Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (nonfiction) 1898

*The Yellow Wallpaper (novella) 1899

Concerning Children (nonfiction) 1900

The Home: Its Work and Influence (nonfiction) 1903

Human Work (nonfiction) 1904

The Punishment That Educates (nonfiction) 1907

Women and Social Service (nonfiction) 1907

What Diantha Did (novel) 1909

The Crux (novel) 1911

The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture (nonfiction) 1911

Moving the Mountain (novel) 1911

Benigna Machiavelli (novel) 1914

Herland (novel) 1915

With Her in Ourland (novel) 1916

His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers (nonfiction) 1923

The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (autobiography) 1935

The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader (short stories and novel excerpts) 1980

The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (diaries) 1994

A Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1935 (letters) 1995

Unpunished: A Mystery (novel) 1997

*This work was originally published as a short story in New England Magazine, 1892.

†These works were published serially in the journal The Forerunner.

Criticism

Linda Wagner-Martin (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Gilman's ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Centenary,” in Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work, edited by Sheryl L. Meyering, UMI Research Press, 1989, pp. 51-64.

[In the following essay, Wagner-Martin examines the relevance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” to the experience of contemporary motherhood.]

A friend is dead.

We cannot discount pain but the least bearable pain is the husband's cry of anger: You cannot die. I need you. The children need you. Your duty is to us.

The answer to that is silence....

(The entire section is 6664 words.)

Lillian S. Robinson (essay date fall 1991)

SOURCE: “Killing Patriarchy: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the Murder Mystery, and Post-Feminist Propaganda,” in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, fall, 1991, pp. 273-85.

[In the following essay, Robinson discusses Gilman's detective novel Unpunished as a political novel.]

In one of Nicole Hollander's delightful “Sylvia” cartoons, that dumpy, middle-aged standard bearer of feminist wisdom assigns a writing exercise: use the word “post-feminism” in a sentence. Sylvia's typically caustic paragraph-for-completion goes something like this: “The manuscript took me a lot longer than anticipated, and it was so late by the time I got it done...

(The entire section is 5736 words.)

Thomas Galt Peyser (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: “Reproducing Utopia: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Herland,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 1, spring, 1992, pp. 1-16.

[In the following essay, Peyser argues against prevailing interpretations of Herland, claiming that “the imagination of utopia depends on the pre-existence of a utopian imagination.”]

According to the prevailing view of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, the utopian novel suited the aims of a radical feminism by subverting the confinements of a realism dedicated to the representation of, and thus acquiescence to, a patriarchal order. Summing up this position, Susan Gubar argues that “women abused by...

(The entire section is 7239 words.)

Minna Doskow (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Herland: Utopic in a Different Voice,” in Politics, Gender, and the Arts, edited by Ronald Dotterer and Susan Bowers, Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1992, pp. 52-63.

[In the following essay, Doskow examines differences in Gilman's approach to the notion of utopia in Herland.]

From earliest times, humanity has longed for a perfect world, one in sharp contrast to whatever its particular surrounding reality happened to be. Such utopian longings are still prevalent, still written about in our literature, and still, as always, unrealized. Expressed in the story of the Garden of Eden or a lost golden age, in classic works such as Plato's...

(The entire section is 4834 words.)

Frank G. Kirkpatrick (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “‘Begin Again!’: The Cutting Social Edge of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Gentle Religious Optimism,” in Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Joanne B. Karpinski, New York: G. K. Hall and Co., 1992, pp. 129-43.

[In the following essay, Kirkpatrick discusses Gilman's female-centered theology, locating the historical context for it in late-nineteenth-century romanticism.]

The religious mood of America has oscillated historically between deep despair over the depravity of the human condition and unbounded optimism about its potential for perfection. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's religious views can only be properly appreciated within the...

(The entire section is 7612 words.)

Carol Farley Kessler (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Consider Her Ways: The Cultural Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Pragmatopian Stories, 1908-1913,” in Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference, edited by Jane L. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten, Syracuse University Press, 1994, pp. 126-36.

[In the following essay, Kessler examines the ways several of Gilman's lesser-known short stories contribute to her overall canon of literature designed to effect social change.]

The utopian fiction of Charlotte Perkins Gilman takes on as its “cultural work” the demonstration that women are not confined to one traditional mode of being—wife/motherhood—but can fill as varied social roles as...

(The entire section is 5152 words.)

Val Gough (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Lesbians and Virgins: The New Motherhood in Herland,” in Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and Its Precursors, edited by David Seed, Syracuse University Press, 1995, pp. 195-215.

[In the following essay, Gough discusses lesbianism as Gilman portrays it in Herland.]

We will be the New Mothers of a New World

—Charlotte Perkins Gilman

In her autobiography, Charlotte Perkins Gilman relates the significance that the realm of the imagination and fantasy had to her as a child: ‘Of all those childish years the most important step was this. I learned the use of a...

(The entire section is 7717 words.)

Julie Bates Dock (essay date January 1996)

SOURCE: “‘But One Expects That’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and the Shifting Light of Scholarship,” in PMLA, Vol. 111, No. 1, January, 1996, pp. 52-65.

[In the following essay, Dock discusses the publication and critical history of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”]

In the two decades since the Feminist Press issued a slim volume containing a text of “The Yellow Wallpaper” with an afterword by Elaine R. Hedges, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's remarkable work has found a secure place in contemporary literary studies. Omitting “The Yellow Wallpaper” from an American literature anthology has become almost as unthinkable as leaving out...

(The entire section is 9125 words.)

Martha J. Cutter (essay date fall 1998)

SOURCE: “Of Metatexts, Metalanguages, and Possible Worlds: The Transformative Power of Metanarrative in C. P. Gilman's Later Short Fiction,” in American Literary Realism, Vol. 31, No. 1, fall, 1998, pp. 41-59.

[In the following essay, Cutter analyzes Gilman's stories about language.]

In The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture [hereafter abbreviated as The Man-Made World] (1911) Charlotte Perkins Gilman articulates a feminist critique of language that interconnects women's oppression and the linguistic practices of a patriarchal society. On the grammatical level itself language reflects women's disempowered social status, as Gilman explains:...

(The entire section is 8949 words.)

Martha J. Cutter (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Herstory in Hisland, History in Herland: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Reconstruction of Gender and Language,” in Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women's Writing, 1850-1930, University Press of Mississippi, 1999, pp. 111-40.

[In the following essay, Cutter discusses the feminist meaning of language in Gilman's fiction.]

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is best know for her semiautobiographical text, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892), but she completed numerous other projects. For example, from 1909 to 1916 she published a magazine called the Forerunner. For each monthly issue, Gilman wrote a short story, a chapter of a serial novel, a chapter of...

(The entire section is 15734 words.)

Minna Doskow (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Introduction to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Utopian Novels: Moving the Mountain, Herland, and With Her in Ourland,” in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Utopian Novels, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited and with an introduction by Minna Doskow, Madison and Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999, pp. 9-29.

[In the following essay, Doskow provides an overview of Gilman's utopian novels.]

Charlotte Perkins Gilman concludes her autobiography with the statement, “The one predominant duty is to find one's work and do it, and I have striven mightily at that” (The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman [hereafter abbreviated as...

(The entire section is 9276 words.)

Lisa Ganobcsik-Williams (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “The Intellectualism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Evolutionary Perspectives on Race, Ethnicity, and Class,” in Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer, edited by Jill Rudd and Val Gough, University of Iowa Press, 1999, pp. 16-41.

[In the following essay, Ganobcsik-Williams examines Gilman's seemingly elitist approach to social issues.]

As a social theorist Charlotte Perkins Gilman placed the issue of women's economic oppression at the center of her arguments for social reform. Scholarship on Gilman has not been abundant, but over the last forty years—and especially since the 1970s—critics have drawn attention to the influence of her gender-rooted...

(The entire section is 9875 words.)

Denise D. Knight (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “‘But O My Heart’: The Private Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman,” in Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer, University of Iowa Press, 1999, pp. 267-84.

[In the following essay, Knight discusses what Gilman's private poetry reveals about her inner life.]

In 1894, a few months after Charlotte Perkins Stetson (Gilman) published her first volume of poetry, she received a congratulatory letter from William Dean Howells proclaiming her a “gifted prophetess.” “[The poems] are the wittiest and wisest things that have been written this many a long day and year,” Howells wrote. “You speak with a tongue like a two-edged sword. I rejoice in your...

(The entire section is 6167 words.)

Judith A. Allen (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Reconfiguring Vice: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Prostitution, and Frontier Sexual Contracts,” in Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer, University of Iowa Press, 1999, pp. 173-99.

[In the following essay, Allen explores Gilman's response to the widespread prostitution in her time.]

Gilman abhorred prostitution:

Man … has insisted on maintaining another class of women, … subservient to his desires; a barren, mischievous unnatural relation, wholly aside from parental purposes, and absolutely injurious to society. … Many, under the old mistaken notion of what used to be called “the social necessity” of...

(The entire section is 9589 words.)

Denise D. Knight (essay date winter 2000)

SOURCE: “Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Shadow of Racism,” in American Literary Realism, Vol. 32, No. 2 winter 2000, pp. 159-69.

[In the following essay, Knight traces instances of Gilman's racist and nativist opinions in her writing.]

During the summer of 1932, Charlotte Perkins Gilman took part in a pageant in Hartford, Connecticut, in which she played the role of her great aunt Harriet Beecher Stowe. “[I was] delighted to do it,” she wrote to daughter Katharine. “It was dead easy for me. I just arranged my hair with a chignon … [wore a] loose bandeaux down over my ears, and ‘acted natural.’”1 The pageant director was duly impressed; in...

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Kristin Carter-Sanborn (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: “Restraining Order: The Imperialist Anti-Violence of Charlotte Perkins Gilman,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 2, summer, 2000, pp. 1-36.

[In the following essay, Carter-Sanborn argues that Gilman's feminist antiviolence in Herland models American imperial violence.]

Power is a familiar growth—
          Not foreign—not to be—
          Beside us like a bland Abyss
                              In every company—

—Emily Dickinson

“You see, they had … no wars. They had … no kings, and no priests, and no aristocracies. They were sisters” (Herland 61). As sisters, the denizens of Charlotte...

(The entire section is 13539 words.)