Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman, born in Connecticut, in the United States, in 1860, was a writer, speaker, lecturer, publisher and feminist.  She lived through great social and economic change in American history, for example, the industrial revolution and the post-Civil War reconstruction.

As a writer and commentator, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was particularly interested in the changing social order and the effects on women and “she saw the submergence of women as a critical handicap retarding the best development of society” (Lane, 1990, p. 232).

Perkins Gilman recognised that women were excluded from most jobs, and, if they were mothers, they were restricted to and in their role in the home.  Perkins Gilman argued, that despite women working long hours in the home, this work was not recompensed, and consequently these women had no income or economic control.

Perkins Gilman felt that it was particularly important that mothers and housewives were economically compensated, and that life in the home needed to change before wider social changes could take effect.   Further, she recognised the fundamental importance of women taking the lead in making this change in their personal lives to bring about wider social change.

In 1884 Perkins Gilman married Charles Walter Stetson, and in 1885 she gave birth to a daughter, Katharine. After the birth, she experienced depression which was treated by the “rest cure”, which at that time was a popular treatment for depression based on constant rest through the suppression of physical and mental activity.  Perkins Gilman found this treatment detrimental to her mental health, and she began to see her maternal role and her role as a wife as causes of her depression.  Later Perkins Gilman divorced from her husband.  Eventually her ex-husband married her best friend, and Perkins Gilman gave up the care of her daughter to the couple, for which she was heavily criticised in the press.  In 1900 Perkins Gilman married George Houghton Gilman.

The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s experience of the rest cure, was published in 1982, and became one of her most influential works.   The Yellow Wallpaper, was initially interpreted as a Gothic horror tale, but is now seen as an exploration of power relationships between men and women in marriage, and of perceptions of women’s mental and physical heath.

The story is told through an intense first person narration from the point of view of a woman, who has recently given birth to a child, and has been brought by her husband to the country to rest and recover from a nervous condition. The story is written in epistolary style, in a series of journal entries, and charts the narrator’s decent into madness.

Initially, merely ugly, the wallpaper becomes both repellent and fascinating for the woman, as she becomes obsessed with following the pattern, shapes, and movement in the paper.  The world outside the house also begins to reflect the patterns and shapes of the wallpaper, and creeping women are imagined in the dark arbours outside the house. The nightmarish qualities of the wallpaper transform it from the familiar into a symbol of repression, entrapment and death and this story is now recognised as a literary classic.

When Perkins Gilman was asked why she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, she said that her intention was to communicate the dangers to sanity inherent in the “rest cure”.  “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked ” (Perkins Gilman, 1913).

Sonia Thomas

Editor, Wordylicious

References

Lane, A J (1990). To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Pantheon Books.

Perkins Gilman, C. (1913) ‘Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper’, in Perkins Gilman (ed) The Forerunner, October issue.