Charlotte Perkins Gilman Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1271 words.)