Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1271
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 convinced that the wallpaper menaces her, then that it holds a woman trapped behind bars. The poor young woman attempts to escape her confinement and the wallpaper by gnawing at the bed, which is nailed down, and peeling off the wallpaper with her fingernails. Finally, she escapes into total madness, creeping round and round the room on her hands and knees.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a small literary gem, the most widely read and admired of Gilman’s short fiction. It is the story of a woman’s mental breakdown, narrated in a naïve, first-person voice with superb psychological and dramatic precision. The story is consciously autobiographical, achieving a genuine power, directness, and authenticity. From the time of its publication, the story was read and admired as a tale of horror and madness in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe. Since the 1970’s, it has most often been given a feminist reading as a symbolic tale of a woman trying to break free from her cage. Feminist critics view the story as a rare piece of literature by a nineteenth century woman who directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship.
“Making a Change”
Julia is a young wife and mother on the verge of collapse. She is exhausted and hypersensitive from being kept awake at night by her screaming child. She believes it is her duty to care for her child and the home while her husband, preoccupied with earning money, has no understanding of her state of mind. Desperately, Julia tries to kill herself. Fortunately, her mother-in-law arrives in time to stop her, and the two women work out a plan of escape. Secretly, Julia pursues her career as a musician, while the widowed mother-in-law sets up a day care center. Both women find their problems are solved; both pursue meaningful work.
Julia’s husband is angry when he discovers the arrangement, but finally realizes that all of them are happier and better off economically. “Making a Change” is an example of one of Gilman’s stories suggesting social change as an alternative to frustrating, meaningless lives for women. The “baby-garden” of the story is a stable environment for children which allows mothers to seek work for which they are better suited and older women to find creative possibilities for their lives after husbands and children are gone. Julia’s desperation, realistic and autobiographical for Gilman, is happily resolved through the intervention of a wise older woman.
“When I Was a Witch”
First published in The Forerunner in 1910, “When I Was a Witch” is one of Gilman’s utopian fantasies. The narrator is a modern woman who goes to work in an office in New York City while her sister keeps house. On Halloween, she acquires the magical power to have her wishes come true. Over the course of several days, she doles out punishments to fit the crimes of those who embody her pet peeves: abusers of animals; sellers of bad milk, eggs, and meat; the cruel; the pompous; those who take excessive profits at the expense of the poor.
Once she realizes what is happening, the narrator sets about reforming the city according to Gilman’s imagination. Newspapers stop printing lies, the world becomes kinder and more truthful. In the end though, when she dares to wish for satisfaction and meaningful work for women, her magic fails her. Gilman’s style in this story is light, humorous, entertaining and mischievous. It is pure fantasy, until the narrator is stopped short at the end, perhaps indicating that Gilman was aware that reform for women would not be so easily accomplished.
“Mr. Peebles’ Heart”
“Mr. Peebles’ Heart” is another realistic situation mingled with utopian elements and a happy ending. In this story, the protagonist is an older man, illustrating Gilman’s humanistic concern for older people and productive lives for all, men and women alike. Mr. Peebles is a slave of duty. All his life he has labored at work he dislikes in order to support his mother, his silly clinging wife, and his daughters. His sister-in-law, a “new woman” and a doctor, encourages him to travel around Europe for two years, wisely convinced this will improve the lives of all involved. In Gilman’s view, conventional domestic arrangements trap men as well as women.
Mr. Peebles returns, healthier and happier. The change does his wife good, too, as she has learned to depend on herself and use her mind. As in “Making a Change,” Gilman’s formula is a happy ending coming about through the wise intervention of an intelligent person who can envision a better social order.
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