Three Thanksgivings Essays and Criticism
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Use of Characterization to Underscore Her Feminist Message

(Short Stories for Students)

It is no surprise that Gilman’s works resurfaced in the 1960s and 1970s when the women’s movement began. As Barbara H. Solomon notes in her 1992 introduction to Herland and Selected Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘‘a burgeoning interest in feminist issues led historians, social critics, teach ers, and students to search for the best sources about the conditions of women. And their search inevitably led to Charlotte Perkins Gilman.’’ The majority of Gilman’s works, both fiction and nonfiction, address women’s issues in some way. For example, although she claimed in her autobiography that the real purpose of her novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, ‘‘was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways’’—as a response to the disastrous rest-cure treatment he prescribed for her— the work has had a much broader effect. Many, like Carol Fairley Kessler in her entry on Gilman for Modern American Women Writers, have called it Gilman’s ‘‘masterpiece’’ and hold it up as a key work of feminism for its social message—which encouraged women to rebel against the male-dominated society and its rules. Likewise, Gilman’s short story ‘‘Three Thanksgivings’’ uses specific characterization techniques to underscore her message: women must not compromise their feminine values and morals in the process of becoming economically self-sufficient like men.

In the story, Mrs. Morrison’s character is set up as the moral center of the tale. She is a woman of integrity, who is always true to her values. She also has many other equally desirable qualities. She is willing to make sacrifices for others, even when it means discomfort or potential ruin for herself. For example, in years past, after her husband died, she took on boarders to raise enough money to support her family: ‘‘This had been the one possible and necessary thing while the children were there, though it was a business she hated.’’ Another key example of Mrs. Morrison’s thoughtfulness is demonstrated when she is considering her assets to determine how she can survive and pay off her loan to Mr. Butts. She initially considers growing crops in her garden. Says Mrs. Morrison, ‘‘This garden . . . with the hens, will feed us two women and sell enough to pay Sally.’’ The economical choice would be to fire Sally and clean the house herself, since Mrs. Morrison is capable of doing so. However, she watches out for Sally, who is older and who might have difficulty finding work elsewhere in town because of her age. In fact, Sally might even be willing to work for her board instead of working for payment, but Mrs. Morrison does not even think about taking advantage of Sally in this way.

In addition, Mrs. Morrison has a strong faith that good will prevail. Even after an unpleasant visit from Mr. Butts in which he reminds her that the mortgage is due in two years, Mrs. Morrison is able to watch Mr. Butts ‘‘go with a keen light in her fine eyes, a more definite line to that steady, pleasant smile.’’ She has strong convictions and knows that she will find some way to pay the mortgage and thus avoid having to compromise her integrity by marrying Mr. Butts.

Finally, Mrs. Morrison is happiest when she is able to do good work, not just make money. She enjoyed working with people in her husband’s church, even though ‘‘she was not strong on doctrine.’’ And when she considers her options for businesses to form, she initially seizes on the idea of a girls’ school: ‘‘A boarding school! There was money to be made at that, and fine work done.’’

Taken alone, Mrs. Morrison’s commitment to integrity and her moral characteristics are impressive. However, her character becomes even more powerful when compared with the weak men in the story. The three males—Andrew, Joe, and Mr. Butts—all have serious character flaws that cause them to be foils to Mrs. Morrison. A foil is a character that contrasts strongly with...

(The entire section is 4,154 words.)