The Trouble with Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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tags: racism, feminism, literature, eugenics, Nativism, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

When I first read “The Yellow Wall-Paper” years ago, before I knew anything about its author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, I loved it. I loved the unnerving, sarcastic tone, the creepy ending, the clarity of its critique of the popular nineteenth-century “rest cure”—essentially an extended time-out for depressed women. The story had irony, urgency, anger. On the last day of the treatment, the narrator is completely mad. She thinks she’s a creature who has emerged from the wallpaper.

The rest cure caused the illness it claimed to eliminate. Beautifully clear.

The unnamed first-person narrator goes through a mental dance I knew well—the circularity and claustrophobia of an increasing depression, the sinking feeling that something wasn’t being told straight. Reading “The Yellow Wall-Paper” felt like a mix of voyeurism and recognition, morphing into horror. It was genuinely chilling. It felt haunted.

The story is based on Gilman’s experiences with Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, late-nineteenth-century physician to the stars. Mitchell administered this cure of extended bed rest and isolation to intellectual, active white women of high social standing. Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Jane Addams all took the cure, which could last for weeks, sometimes months. Gilman was clearly disgusted with her experience, and her disgust is palpable.

“The Yellow Wall-Paper” was not iconic during its own time, and was initially rejected, in 1892, by Atlantic Monthly editor Horace Scudder, with this note: “I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself [by reading this].” During her lifetime, Gilman was instead known for her politics, and gained popularity with a series of satirical poems featuring animals. The well-loved “Similar Cases” describes prehistoric animals bragging about what animals they will evolve into, while their friends mock them for their hubris. Another, “A Conservative,” describes Gilman as a kind of cracked Darwinian in her garden, screaming at a confused, crying baby butterfly. “Similar Cases” was considered to be among “the best satirical verses of modern times” (American author Floyd Dell). It sounds like this:

There was once a little animal,
No bigger than a fox,
And on five toes he scampered
Over Tertiary rocks.

And so on.

Gilman is best known for “The Yellow Wall-Paper” now, due to Elaine Ryan Hedges, scholar and founding member of the National Women’s Studies Association, who resurrected Gilman from obscurity. In 1973, the Feminist Press released a chapbook of “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” with an afterword by Hedges, who called it “a small literary masterpiece” and Gilman “one of the most commanding feminists of her time” though Gilman never saw herself as a feminist (in fact, from her letters: “I abominate being called a feminist”). Nor did she consider her work literature. In the introduction to the copy I received, Gilman was quoted as saying she wrote to “preach … If it is literature, that just happened.” She considered her writing a tool for promoting her politics, and herself a one-woman propaganda machine. Hedges notes in her afterword that Gilman wrote “twenty-one thousand words per month” while working on her self-published political magazine, The Forerunner.

Read entire article at Paris Review

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