Charlotte’s Web

Charlotte’s Web

In 1890 the American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a remarkable short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a woman–genteel, educated, with more than a casual taste for intellectual l


In 1890 the American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a remarkable short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a woman–genteel, educated, with more than a casual taste for intellectual life–who is suffering from an indefinable malady, a nervous complaint. Her husband, a kind, intelligent doctor, has brought her to a beautiful country house for three months of the complete rest he knows will lead to recovery. The room to which he guides our narrator is a third-floor nursery with lovely views, bars on the windows and, on its walls, a peeling, figured yellow wallpaper that the woman hates on sight: the color a sickly hue, odious to her, the design repellent.

The days and nights pass without purpose or occupation. Instead of getting better, the narrator seems to be getting worse. She suggests that perhaps if she could visit some stimulating friends or have congenial work she would progress. No, her husband insists, exactly the opposite. All the famous doctors of the time are agreed on this question: There is nothing worse for someone in her condition than stimulation.

Against her will, the narrator’s attention is drawn, repeatedly and obsessively, to the hateful yellow wallpaper. She soon concludes that there are two layers of paper, and at night the upper one moves. Then she sees the figure of a woman trapped between the layers. The upper layer is moving because she is shaking it, as though in an effort to release herself.

In time, the narrator becomes convinced that during the day the woman inside the paper is actually creeping about, bent low to the ground–but at night she is back inside her wallpaper prison. She determines to free the woman behind the wallpaper and begins tearing at it, removing it in long, narrow strips. Then, suddenly, she makes common cause with her, and with great cunning and secrecy, the narrator herself takes to creeping about the old nursery into which she has now locked herself. At the very last, when the husband breaks in on her, the narrator is crawling about on all fours–irredeemably mad.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” was published in 1892 in The New England Magazine, and then later reprinted in 1920 by William Dean Howells in The Great Modern American Stories. On both occasions, it was damned by moral uplifters, praised by lovers of literary grotesquerie and said by medical doctors to constitute an accurate account of incipient insanity. Today, we read the story as a metaphor for nineteenth-century marriage for a woman, and it is experienced almost universally as a minor masterpiece. Never before and never again was its prolific author to produce another piece of literary writing to equal it.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in Connecticut in 1860. Her father, a great-nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe, deserted the family when she was 9, and the Perkins children grew up in poverty and social exclusion. But Charlotte read voraciously, had artistic talent and educated herself sufficiently to study for two years at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1884 she married a fellow artist, Charles Stetson, and quickly became pregnant and bore a child, after which she fell into the kind of depression her famous story details. Within a few years she had divorced her husband, urged him to marry her closest friend and announced that it was best that they raise the child; she herself was going west. In California she began to think, lecture and write the steady stream of work that poured out of her for the rest of her life–novels, stories, and a vast amount of social criticism on economics, religion, education and equality for women. In 1900 she married her first cousin, George Gilman, a New York lawyer; in 1909 she founded her own monthly, The Forerunner. In 1935, suffering from incurable cancer, she committed suicide. Today, she is almost entirely unknown except to feminists, and aside from the celebrated story, all that work (except for the scholarly Women and Economics) long forgotten.

Gilman’s The Crux, a short novel first published serially in 1910, is now being reprinted by Duke University Press, and while it is not a good novel–the pacing is crude, the writing inadequate, the didacticism an embarrassment–it is nonetheless a very interesting one, especially if you are a haunted reader of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Reading it is akin to poring over the sketches that (early and late) might surround the full-length work of the one-book writer. It allows us to trace in its pages evidence, scattered throughout, of the talent that ran restless in its author throughout her stormy, stubborn, furiously engaged years, yet flared into fully achieved life but once. Here, in many random passages, we have a parable of talent: Like love, it is necessary but insufficient.

The Crux tells the story of a group of women who are perishing for lack of adventure, useful occupation, connection of the spirit–you name it, they don’t have it–in a small, morbidly respectable New England town at the turn of the past century. On impulse, they get on a train (there are five of them) and head for a mining town in Colorado to run a boardinghouse for the many rough but good men wandering around out West, also in search of a real life.

The major character among the women is Vivian Lane: young, handsome, yearning, intelligent. In Colorado she meets up again with Morton Elder, the handsome brother and nephew of two of her companions, and the man who as a boy had awakened sexual longing in her before he left for the fabled West. Now, nine years later, we see Elder as a lost soul, his life winding down in failure and disappointment, fastening on to Vivian as a figure of romantic salvation. She, long devoted to her girlish memories of Morton, is startled to find that her feelings are now distinctly mixed. Yet she agrees to marry him, and suffers when told by no less than three of the many women around her that she dare not marry Morton, as they know for certain that he has had syphilis and gonorrhea. She’s not to even think of bringing into the world the children who would emerge from such a defective heritage. Vivian breaks the engagement, plunges into despair, is fired in the crucible of spiritual loneliness, then rescues herself through work as a schoolteacher and, at the last, is happily united with a high-minded, brooding doctor whom Gilman has had waiting in the wings for a couple of chapters. The novel ends, absurdly, with almost every woman with whom Vivian came to Colorado getting married, and the one “phony” among them leaving town.

At the didactic heart of the tale being told lies the monumental ignorance then surrounding the subject of sexually transmitted disease and Gilman’s angry endorsement of a social policy that would forcibly prevent the Morton Elders of the world from procreating. Other prominent feminists of her generation, including Margaret Sanger, shared this now alarming view, often because they could make no headway in breaking the Victorian code of silence that consigned so many lives to a hell distinctly not of their own making. In her 1910 preface Gilman observes flatly if not fluently, “If some say ‘Innocence is the greatest charm of young girls’ the answer is ‘What good does it do them?'”

Yet there are moments in this polemics-driven tale when Gilman becomes what she is consistently in “The Yellow Wallpaper”: an inward-looking writer. She feels keenly, on behalf of her character, the isolation of the one who, endowed with gifts of mind and spirit, must live among the many who have none. She writes with sympathy of the irresolution of divided feelings. She knows what it means to bear loneliness in the absence of a purposeful life, and then again in its presence. Here is Vivian at home in New England.

She felt the crushing cramp and loneliness of a young mind, really stronger than those about her, yet held in dumb subjection…. This flat, narrow life, so long, so endlessly long–would nothing ever end it?

Or again, relieved after her engagement is broken, yet:

She quite forgot that she had always shrunk from [him] when he made love too warmly…[that it was] the unreasoning voice of the woman’s nature within her had answered, though but partially, to the deep call of the man’s; and now she missed more than she would admit to herself the tenderness that was gone.

And finally:

The sense…of a dull, long, narrow path between her and the grave, which had so oppressed the girl’s spirit, now changed rapidly…. Here was work; something to do; something to think about…. she was lonely, unquestionably…. She was lonely and a single woman–but she had something to do; and far more power to do it, more interest, enthusiasm, and skill, than at the season’s beginning…. From black and bitter agony to the gray tastelessness of her present life was not an exciting change, but Vivian had more power in quiet endurance than in immediate resistance, and set herself now in earnest to fulfill the tasks before her.

These are the kinds of paragraphs around which a Willa Cather or a Kate Chopin formed an entire working life. For Gilman, such resonant preoccupation with the concerns of what Cather called “the inviolable self” carried the day but once. Her strength is derived from an ongoing, indiscriminate outrage at a world riding roughshod over that very self–with the emphasis on the world; it does not come from the driving need that any writer of imaginative prose has to travel repeatedly toward that interior landscape. Yet some part of her hungered for it–the need, that is–and here in this small, long-forgotten narrative, we see the evidence of a wonderfully mixed talent for life and work that never became one thing wholly, or the other.

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