The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“The Yellow Wallpaper” Charlotte Perkins Gilman
(Full name Charlotte Anna Perkins Stetson Gilman) American short story writer, essayist, novelist, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents criticism of Gilman's short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892).
The short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by nineteenth-century feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was first published in 1892 in New England Magazine. Gilman's story, based upon her own experience with a “rest cure” for mental illness, was written as a critique of the medical treatment prescribed to women suffering from a condition then known as “neurasthenia.” The significance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a feminist text, however, was not acknowledged until the critically acclaimed 1973 reissue of the story by the Feminist Press. Henceforth, “The Yellow Wallpaper” made its way into the canon of feminist literature, becoming a staple of university women's studies courses. Since 1973, “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been reissued by several publishers in various volumes edited by literary critics. It was also adapted to film in a 1992 made-for-television production by the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Plot and Major Characters
While in her twenties, Gilman was diagnosed with a mental disorder called neurasthenia or “nervous prostration.” She was treated by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the leading authority on this illness. Mitchell's rest cure, prescribed primarily to women, consisted of committing the patient to bed for a period of months, during which time the patient was fed only mild foods and deprived of all mental, physical, and social activity—reading, writing, and painting were explicitly prohibited. Gilman once stated that the rest cure itself nearly drove her insane.
The parallels between Gilman's experience and that of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” are evident in the story. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is structured as a series of secret diary entries by an unnamed woman, a young wife and new mother whose debilitating mental condition has prevented her from caring for her infant. She and her husband John, who is a doctor, have rented a house in the country, in which she is to take a rest cure. The narrator is confined to an upstairs room that was once a child's nursery but has been stripped of all furnishings and decor, except for a bed that is nailed to the floor, bars over the windows, and a garish yellow wallpaper. She describes the color and pattern of the wallpaper in an assortment of distasteful ways. The narrator becomes more obsessed with the wallpaper and begins to imagine that a woman is trapped behind it. The story's finale finds the narrator creeping around the edges of the room and tearing the wallpaper in ragged sheets from the walls in an attempt to free the woman she believes to be trapped behind it. When her husband unlocks the door and finds his wife and the room in these conditions, he is appalled. “I've got out at last,” she explains, “And I've pulled off most of the paper so you can't put me back!” He faints, and she continues to creep around the room, crawling over her husband as he lies unconscious on the floor.
Several major themes emerge from the narrative of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman's story expresses a general concern with the role of women in nineteenth-century society, particularly within the realms of marriage, maternity, and domesticity. The narrator's confinement to her home and her feelings of being dominated and victimized by those around her, particularly her husband, is an indication of the many domestic limitations that society places upon women. The yellow wallpaper itself becomes a symbol of this oppression to a woman who feels trapped in her roles as wife and mother. Gilman's story further expresses a concern for the ways in which society discourages women of creative self-expression. The narrator's urge to express herself through writing is stifled by the rest cure. Yet, the creative impulse is so strong that she assumes the risk of secretly writing in a diary, which she hides from her husband. Finally, “The Yellow Wallpaper” addresses issues of mental illness and the medical treatment of women. While the narrator is clearly suffering from some kind of psychological distress at the beginning of the story, her mental state is worsened by her husband's medical opinion that she confine herself to the house. The inadequacy of the patriarchial medical profession in treating women's mental health is further indicated by the narrator's fear of being sent to the famous Dr. Weir, proponent of the rest cure treatment.
At the time of its initial publication in 1892, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was regarded primarily as a supernatural tale of horror and insanity in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe. In 1920, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was reprinted in the volume Great Modern American Short Stories, edited by William Dean Howells, who described it as a story to “freeze our … blood.” Elaine R. Hedges, author of the afterword to the 1973 version, praised the work as “one of the rare pieces of literature we have by a nineteenth-century woman who directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship.” Since that time, Gilman's story has been discussed by literary critics from a broad range of perspectives—biographical, historical, psychological, feminist, semiotic, and socio-cultural. Nearly all of these critics acknowledge the story as a feminist text written in protest of the negligent treatment of women by a patriarchal society. Furthermore, the story has sparked lively critical discussion and ongoing debate over the symbolic meaning of the wallpaper, the extent to which the story represents an effective feminist statement, and the implications of the story's ending. Critics continue to debate the question of whether Gilman provides a feminist solution to the patriarchal oppression that is exposed in the story, while acknowledging the enduring significance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as both a feminist document and a literary text for contemporary readers.
The Yellow Wallpaper [The Yellow Wallpaper, A Novella] [as Charlotte Perkins Stetson] 1892
The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader: “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Other Fiction [Reader] [edited by Ann J. Lane] 1980
The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings [edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz] 1989
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman [edited by Denise D. Knight] 1994
The Yellow Wallpaper, and Other Stories [edited and introduction by Robert Shulman] 1995
The Yellow Wallpaper [afterword by Elaine R. Hedges] 1996
“The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Other Stories [edited by Robert Shulman] 1997
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the History of Its Publication and Reception: A Critical and Documentary Casebook [edited by Julie Bates Dock] 1998
The Yellow Wallpaper [edited by Dale M. Bauer] 1998
“Herland,” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Selected Writings [edited by Denise D. Knight] (novel, short story, and prose) 1999
A Clarion Call to Redeem the Race! (nonfiction) 1890
In This Our World and Other Poems (poetry) 1893
The Labor Movement (nonfiction) 1893
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SOURCE: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” edited by Catherine Golden, pp. 51-53. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1992.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1913 in The Forerunner, a magazine founded and edited by Gilman, the author offers an explanation of her original intention in writing “The Yellow Wallpaper.”]
Many and many a reader has asked that. When the story first came out, in the New England Magazine about 1891, a Boston physician made protest in The Transcript. Such a story ought not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.
Another physician, in Kansas I think, wrote to say that it was the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen, and—begging my pardon—had I been there?
Now the story of the story is this:
For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia—and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing...
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SOURCE: Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. “From The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.” In The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” edited by Catherine Golden, pp. 145-48. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1992.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1979, Gilbert and Gubar discuss the relationship between madness and female authorship in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”]
As if to comment on the unity of all these points—on, that is, the anxiety-inducing connections between what women writers tend to see as their parallel confinements in texts, houses, and maternal female bodies—Charlotte Perkins Gilman brought them all together in 1890 in a striking story of female confinement and escape, a paradigmatic tale which (like Jane Eyre) seems to tell the story that all literary women would tell if they could speak their “speechless woe.” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which Gilman herself called “a description of a case of nervous breakdown,” recounts in the first person the experiences of a woman who is evidently suffering from a severe postpartum psychosis.1 Her husband, a censorious and paternalistic physician, is treating her according to methods by which S. Weir Mitchell, a famous “nerve specialist,” treated Gilman herself for a similar problem....
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SOURCE: Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 3, no. 1-2 (spring/fall 1984): 61-77.
[In the following essay, Treichler asserts that the underlying narrative of “The Yellow Wallpaper” involves the narrator's confrontation with language, by which she defies patriarchal control and male judgment.]
Almost immediately in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the female narrator tells us she is “sick.” Her husband, “a physician of high standing,” has diagnosed her as having a “temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency.”1 Yet her journal—in whose words the story unfolds—records her own resistance to this diagnosis and, tentatively, her suspicion that the medical treatment it dictates—treatment that confines her to a room in an isolated country estate will not cure her. She suggests that the diagnosis itself, by undermining her own conviction that her “condition” is serious and real, may indeed be one reason why she does not get well.
A medical diagnosis is a verbal formula representing a constellation of physical symptoms and observable behaviors. Once formulated, it dictates a series of therapeutic actions. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the diagnosis of hysteria or depression, conventional “women's diseases” of...
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SOURCE: Fetterley, Judith. “Reading about Reading: ‘A Jury of Her Peers,’ ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, edited by Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart, pp. 147-64. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Fetterley discusses the elements of gendered narrative self-reflexivity in Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as well as in “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe.]
As a student of American literature, I have long been struck by the degree to which American texts are self-reflexive. Our “classics” are filled with scenes of readers and readings. In The Scarlet Letter, for example, a climactic moment occurs when Chillingworth rips open Dimmesdale's shirt and finally reads the text he has for so long been trying to locate. What he sees we never learn, but for him his “reading” is complete and satisfying. Or, to take another example, in “Daisy Miller,” Winterbourne's misreading of Daisy provides the central drama of the text. Indeed, for James, reading is the dominant metaphor for life, and his art is designed to teach us how to read well so that we may live somewhere other than Geneva. Yet even a writer as different from James as Mark Twain must learn to read his river...
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SOURCE: Haney-Peritz, Janice. “Monumental Feminism and Literature's Ancestral House: Another Look at ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work, edited by Sheryl L. Meyering, pp. 95-107. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989.
[In the following essay originally published in 1986, Haney-Peritz asserts that the 1973 Feminist Press edition of “The Yellow Wallpaper” functioned to disrupt and displace the line of male critical response to the story.]
In 1973, the Feminist Press brought forth a single volume edition of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story which had originally appeared in the May 1892 issue of New England Magazine. Since William Dean Howells included Gilman's story in his 1920 collection of Great Modern American Short Stories, it cannot be said that between 1892 and 1973 “The Yellow Wallpaper” was completely ignored. What can be said, however, is that until 1973, the story's feminist thrust had gone unremarked; even Howells, who was well aware not only of Gilman's involvement in the women's movement but also of her preference for writing “with a purpose,” had nothing to say about the provocative feminism of Gilman's text.1 In the introduction to his 1920 collection, Howells notes the story's chilling horror and then falls silent.2
Although brief, Howells's...
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SOURCE: Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Gilman's ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Centenary.” In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work, edited by Sheryl L. Meyering, pp. 51-64. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Wagner-Martin discusses the themes of motherhood and self-identity in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” asserting that the story is “a splendid example of gender-based narrative.”]
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.
Written by the author for a friend who died at the age of 39.
It seems no accident that important recent novels have been Toni Morrison's Beloved, about the power of a sacrificed child over her mourning mother's life, and Marilyn French's Her Mother's Daughter, a major fiction about four generations of women, linked together in their martyred and futile lives through the mother-daughter bond. For at least these hundred years, since Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote her controversial and relentlessly accurate “The Yellow Wallpaper,” women writers have confronted the basic...
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SOURCE: Golden, Catherine. “‘Overwriting’ the Rest Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Literary Escape from S. Weir Mitchell's Fictionalization of Women.” In Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Joanne B. Karpinski, pp. 144-58. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992.
[In the following essay, Golden discusses the writings of novelist and doctor S. Weir Mitchell, on whom the doctor in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is based. Golden demonstrates the ways in which “The Yellow Wallpaper” provides a feminist counter-discourse to nineteenth-century patriarchal medical discourse.]
In 1887 S. Weir Mitchell treated Charlotte Perkins Gilman (then Stetson)1 for a nervous breakdown following a postpartum depression and forbade her to write.2 A specialist in women's nervous disorders, Mitchell attended well-known male and female literary figures. George Meredith and Walt Whitman apparently experienced no ill effects from his prescriptions; Jane Addams, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Virginia Woolf suffered from his Rest Cure treatment.3 After nearly losing her sanity by rigidly following his parting advice “never [to] touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live” (Living, 96), Gilman defied Mitchell and transformed him into a minor but memorable character in her fiction. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” the nameless narrator, undergoing a...
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SOURCE: Karpinski, Joanne B. “When the Marriage of True Minds Admits Impediments: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and William Dean Howells.” In Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Joanne B. Karpinski, pp. 202-21. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992.
[In the following essay, Karpinski discusses the role of William Dean Howells in the development of Gilman's literary career and in the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”]
At first glance, the intellectual minuet between Charlotte Perkins Gilman and William Dean Howells seems vulnerable to Gertrude Stein's complaint about Gilman's onetime home of Oakland, California: “There isn't any there, there.” Unlike the Larcom-Whittier relationship, for example, this one lacks an elaborate prior myth to deconstruct.1 Nor is there a complex text of correspondence to (mis)-read, as in the case of Dickinson and Higginson. But postmodern criticism alerts us to the heuristic value of absence, allowing us to focus on Howell's cautious fulfillment of the mentorial role he had initiated with such rhetorical fervor. Sincere but correct, Howells was not suited by temperament or conviction to become the passionate champion that Gilman had hoped for.
Gilman's first major poem, “Similar Cases,” was published in the April 1890 issue of the socialist periodical the Nationalist, where it attracted the...
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SOURCE: Felton, Sharon. Review of “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Thomas L. Erskine and Connie L. Richards. Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 273-74.
[In the following review of a critical edition of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” edited by Thomas L. Erskine and Connie L. Richards, Felton asserts that the volume fails to address the needs of either an introductory reader or a literary scholar. Felton, however, observes that the introduction, chronology, and bibliography included in the volume are useful.]
This volume on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” is one of four titles selected to kick off the Women Writers: Texts and Contexts series by Rutgers University Press. According to the press release accompanying the work, the new series is “designed for use in introductory classes in writing and literature but will serve equally well in advanced classes. …” While I applaud the decision to promote this niche market and to make accessible to students a variety of literary texts by women, I must temper my praise if this particular volume is to be held accountable to its advertising claim. To be quite specific, the majority of selections in “The Yellow Wallpaper” volume will far surpass the needs of most introductory students, and the early portions will fail to challenge the needs of more advanced scholars. As one might...
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SOURCE: Beer, Janet. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ on Film: Dramatising Mental Illness.” In Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction, pp. 197-213. London: MacMillan, 1997.
[In the following essay, Beer discusses the 1992 motion picture adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation.]
In 1988 a ninety-minute adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was made for BBC television; filming took place in the autumn of that year and it was ready for broadcasting in January 1989 although it was not actually shown until January 1992. The project had been initiated by the producer, Sarah Curtis, who invited the dramatist, Maggie Wadey, to write the screenplay.1 Whilst the adaptation was almost entirely the work of Maggie Wadey a number of decisions about the way in which the text would be approached and also how to shoot and edit the film were made collaboratively between dramatist, producer and the director, John Clive.
I became interested in the idea of writing about the film version of the story when working on this book because it seemed to offer an example of the multiplicity of the type of engagement which it is possible to have with “The Yellow Wallpaper” and one which, although creative, actually parallels the enormous critical endeavour to read, interpret and...
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SOURCE: Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “‘Fecundate! Discriminate!’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Theologizing of Maternity.” In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer, edited by Jill Rudd and Val Gough, pp. 200-16. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Gilbert and Gubar discuss “The Yellow Wallpaper” in terms of feminist discourse on issues of maternity and childrearing.]
“Not all the long, loud struggle for ‘women's rights,’ not the varied voices of the ‘feminist movement,’ and, most particularly, not the behavior of ‘emancipated women,’ have given us any clear idea of the power and purpose of the mother sex.” So, somewhat surprisingly, mused Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the theological treatise His Religion and Hers (1923) that she produced late in her career as one of her generation's foremost speakers for just the feminist movement from which she appeared to be distancing herself here. Why would an emancipated woman who had spent a lifetime struggling for women's rights and sex equality abjure her own goals in favor of a quasi-Victorian celebration of maternity? In particular, how could such a statement come from a woman who had dramatically (and notoriously) relinquished her own maternal role to the friend who became her former husband's second wife? We argue here that although, with its uncharacteristic theological...
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SOURCE: Heilmann, Ann. “Overwriting Decadence: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Oscar Wilde, and the Feminization of Art in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Catherine J. Golden and Joanna Schneider Zangrando, pp. 175-88. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Heilmann asserts that Gilman challenged the dominant nineteenth-century patriarchal discourse on high art by transforming her own ideas about art and politics into the narrative of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” thereby mapping “the transition from male aestheticism to a new female aesthetic.”]
When William Dean Howells approached Charlotte Perkins Gilman about the inclusion of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” [“The Yellow Wallpaper”] in his Great American Short Stories, she told him that it “was no more ‘literature’ than [her] other stuff, being definitely written ‘with a purpose,’” adding that “[i]n [her] judgment it [was] a pretty poor thing to write … without a purpose.”1 Gilman's purpose in writing “The Yellow Wall-Paper” has been variously linked to a radical attack on the institutions of marriage and motherhood; to an indictment of patriarchal medicine and science; to a celebration of the subversiveness of the hysteric; to an interrogation of the relationship between the personal and the political, the autobiographical and...
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SOURCE: Thomas, Heather Kirk. “‘[A] Kind of Debased Romanesque with Delirium Tremens’: Late-Victorian Wall Coverings and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” In The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Catherine J. Golden and Joanna Schneider Zangrando, pp. 189-206. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Thomas discusses the motif of the wallpaper in “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a feminist critique of popular ideas regarding gender in relation to the textile arts and domestic space. ]
I would like to suggest a rereading of “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), one that utilizes the medium of wallpaper in a markedly dissimilar manner from how scholars have traditionally interpreted this enigmatic signifier. Gilman, as we know, had a keen sense of irony regarding domestic matters and throughout her literary career displayed a penchant for subverting her culture's conventional advice to women. As Shelley Fisher Fishkin asserts, “One of Gilman's most fruitful strategies as a journalist involved revising and reclaiming familiar subjects in daringly new and unfamiliar ways.”1 For nineteenth-century upper- and middle-class women, wallpaper was a familiar subject. Indeed, illustrations accompanying wallpaper advertisements typically depict a solicitous male merchandiser serving an attractive and stylishly dressed female...
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SOURCE: McGowan, Todd. “Dispossessing the Self: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and the Renunciation of Property.” In The Feminine ‘No!’: Psychoanalysis and the New Canon, pp. 31-46. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, McGowan observes that recent historicist readings of “The Yellow Wallpaper” provide key insights into the relationship between female subjectivity and the ownership of private property.]
Fredric Jameson begins The Political Unconscious with the mantra, “Always historicize!,” calling this an “absolute” and “even ‘transhistorical’ imperative” of radical thought.1 Historicizing, in Jameson's vision, is attractive because it gives us access to trauma; it facilitates a traumatic encounter with the contingency of the present, thereby freeing us from the present's awful weight. It does this by revealing that the present doesn't owe its hegemony to transcendental necessity but to concrete historical determinants, determinants that might have been—and might sometime be—different. In short, historicizing offsets the power of the status quo. Insofar as it does this, who among the progressively minded could be against it? In the years since the publication of The Political Unconscious in 1981, however, another kind of historicizing has emerged: a vision of the social order without discontinuity, a regime of...
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Hill, Mary A. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 362 p., 1980.
Biography of Gilman, with particular focus on the development of her political thought and activities.
Kessler, Carol Farley. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress toward Utopia with Selected Writings. New York: Syracuse University Press, 316 p., 1995.
Biography of Gilman, with particular focus on Utopianism in her thought and writing.
Lane, Ann J. To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Pantheon Books, 413 p., 1990.
Biography of Gilman.
Allen, Polly Wynn. Building Domestic Liberty: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Architectural Feminism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 195 p., 1988.
Critical essays on the themes of gender and domestic space in Gilman's writings.
Beer, Janet. Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Press, 223 p., 1997.
Critical essays comparing the short fictions of three American women authors writing around the turn of the nineteenth-to-twentieth century.
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