Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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This volume pairs two of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's most famous works, Herland (1915) and "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892). Herland, a utopian novel, sketches Gilman's model of a society governed, inhabited, and perpetuated solely by women; while "The Yellow Wallpaper," typically categorized as a Gothic or horror story, dramatizes a young wife's postpartum descent into madness. These powerful examples of Gilman's fiction illuminate, perhaps even more effectively than her nonfiction, the complexity and passion of her...
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Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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This volume pairs two of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's most famous works, Herland (1915) and "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892). Herland, a utopian novel, sketches Gilman's model of a society governed, inhabited, and perpetuated solely by women; while "The Yellow Wallpaper," typically categorized as a Gothic or horror story, dramatizes a young wife's postpartum descent into madness. These powerful examples of Gilman's fiction illuminate, perhaps even more effectively than her nonfiction, the complexity and passion of her mission for egalitarianism among the sexes. Reading these works today also helps us to define the scope of Gilman's progressiveness, revealing how far we have come as well as how far we have yet to travel to make true equality a requisite condition of human life.
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From the 1890s until her death in 1935, Charlotte Perkins Gilman stood as one of the most important and tireless advocates for women's rights in America. She wrote, lectured, and published her own magazine, often while struggling as a single mother and working woman when neither was socially acceptable. Although appreciated as a feminist before the term was coined, Gilman identified herself in broader terms, seeing economic independence for women as the means to happiness and progress for all people. This volume from Barnes & Noble uniquely pairs two of her most famous works, "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892) and Herland (1915), both acclaimed in Gilman's lifetime. Typically categorized as a Gothic or horror story "The Yellow Wallpaper" dramatizes a young wife's postpartum descent into madness, while Herland, a utopian novel, sketches Gilman's model of a society governed, inhabited, and perpetuated solely by women. These powerful examples of her fiction illuminate, perhaps even more effectively than her nonfiction, the complexity and passion of her mission for change. Reading these works today also helps us to define the scope of Gilman's progressiveness, revealing how far we have come as well as how far we have yet to travel to make true equality a requisite condition of human life.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 3, 1860, Charlotte Anna Perkins may have inherited her intellectual impulses from her father's family, which included activist and author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96). While his specific reason remains unclear, linguist and librarian Frederick Perkins left home not long after a doctor told his wife, Mary, that having another baby after Charlotte might kill her. The Perkinses permanently separated in 1869 and divorced in 1873. Frederick supported the family sporadically, paying for Charlotte to attend the Rhode Island School of Design in 1878. Meeting artist Charles Walter Stetson a few years later, she initially declined his marriage offer, reasoning, "I felt strongly . . . that I ought to forego the more intimate personal happiness for complete devotion to my work." A professional setback for him changed her mind and she became Mrs. Stetson in 1884. Her diary indicates she approached her role as wife with the same energy she gave to work, but even before the birth of daughter Katharine Beecher Stetson in May 1885, Gilman fell into a depression that would recur throughout the rest of her life. Dr. S. Weir Mitchell prescribed his now-famous "rest cure," the inspiration for "The Yellow Wallpaper," which Gilman conceived in California in 1891, three years after she divorced Stetson. Spending much of the 1890s "at large" in America and abroad, Gilman published her masterwork Women and Economics in 1898, arguing that the emancipation of women from economic bonds to men would improve society as a whole. Gilman married her cousin George Houghton Gilman in 1900 and they started a publishing company to produce The Forerunner (1909-16), a journal to which she was sole contributor. She wrote almost constantly in her later years, even after a breast cancer diagnosis in 1932 and Houghton's sudden death in 1934. In the final chapter of The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography, she incorporates her suicide note, which ends, "I have preferred chloroform to cancer." Dying as she lived-on her own terms-Charlotte went to sleep with a chloroform-soaked cloth on her face on July 25, 1935. Her legacy includes the texts composing this volume, arguably her most powerful contributions as an author and sociologist.

First published by The New England Magazine in January 1892, and originally hyphenating "Wall-paper," "The Yellow Wallpaper" exhibits defining traits of women's supernatural writing, which as Claire Stewart explains in Feminist Readings of Victorian Popular Texts, differs from that of their male counterparts. At the time men set the "rules" for what one could say in print and received less scrutiny for "inappropriate" material. Although male writers used the Gothic to confront volatile issues, woman's place in society made the genre especially suited for them to subversively voice uncomfortable opinions. "The Yellow Wallpaper" provides a prime example as Gilman imaginatively recreates her own nervous collapse as a young wife and mother. Being restricted to a room at the top of a vacation house, and told in no uncertain terms not to write, Jane, the narrator, fixates on the "hideous" wallpaper until she perceives a female figure emerging from behind it.

While the wallpaper woman is not literally a ghost, she symbolizes Jane's enchained spirit, an idea supported by her descriptions of the bars on the windows of a room that may have once been a nursery, and also the admonition against what she feels is a natural and life-sustaining activity: writing. Before the end the woman behind the paper becomes many women, representing Gilman's view of herself and her sisters fighting to break free from economic, social, and artistic oppression. Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar point out in Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women that in female supernatural tales women characters usually feel kinship with the ghosts in their houses and take action based on their "warnings" about domesticity. Certainly the great old house with its locked rooms, a stock Gothic element, offers an apt backdrop for a story of female oppression, placing the character in a domestic space that is chaotic, confining, and ultimately drives one "mad."

In this way Gilman writes in the tradition of Mary Shelley (1797-1851), whose Frankenstein (1818) is widely viewed as the model for Gothic fiction. Although Shelley's protagonist is male, critics such as Ellen Moers, Marilyn Guall, Sandra M. Gilbert, and Susan Gubar interpret Frankenstein as a birth myth, citing motherhood as a main theme and Shelley's guilt over personal child losses as inspiration. Both Shelley and Gilman use a doubling technique, a key trait of the Gothic, to illustrate the idea of a self being torn apart by internal and external forces. Victor Frankenstein scientifically "gives birth" to a being that personifies his darker self, a creature that torments his "father" in response to being rejected by him. Likewise, the protagonist in Gilman's work, whose biological maternity effectively imprisons her, brings to life a creature in her own image that gains power over its creator. The wallpaper woman gets up and moves about in a way Jane cannot, torturing the mother whose mental instability keeps her apart from her actual child.

Dr. Frankenstein's creation exists as a function of intellectual curiosity, while Jane's stems from a more emotional source, yet their motivations are parallel: both create out of a desire for power. As a man, Victor already possesses the means to scientifically create and to run when his creation goes awry. As a woman who wants (and needs) to write, Jane mirrors both Gilman and Shelley, bringing to life a version of herself with the power to do what she cannot: leave the house, i.e., her socially prescribed role. The main difference between Jane and Victor Frankenstein is undeniably linked to sex. Being male, Victor's overreaching means he seeks a god-like status; as a woman, the next level for Jane is to escape being female, to control her own life and participate in society. Rather than playing God, she is playing male, imagining life without the chains that come with being a wife and mother, and which her husband uses to keep her from venting emotion through writing. Given this reading, the wallpaper, widely viewed as an emblem for writing paper, is the "womb," or in Shelleyean terms, the laboratory where Jane's alternate selves come alive.

Frankenstein ends with the monster mourning his "father" after a lengthy chase, meaningfully instigated by the doctor's refusal to make a "bride" for his creation. Gilman provides a more ambiguous resolution for Jane, who becomes her creation, "creeping" over her husband who lies on the floor in a feminine swoon. Gilman grants Jane a measure of freedom, yet the rope and the window suggest her independence comes at great cost, either in the form of her sanity or her life, depending on one's reading of the scene. Gilman predicts the toll of oppression on women and men, an idea pervading contemporary feminist works of the period, most notably Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and Kate Chopin's The Awakening. In her afterword to the 1973 Feminist Press edition of "The Yellow Wallpaper," which effectively resurrected Gilman after a fifty-year period of scholarly disinterest, Elaine R. Hedges identifies the story's conclusion as a heroic defeat. By so vividly dramatizing such destructive consequences for Mitchell's "rest cure," Gilman, who received the treatment firsthand, makes what Ann J. Lane calls "the first major act of defiance in her entire life . . . against . . . rules that were imposed upon her with difficulty but that she nevertheless accepted as her own." When Jane exits the story "creeping" along as if one with the wallpaper, she is destroyed, but in telling her story-indeed in letting Jane tell her own story-Gilman succeeds in bringing awareness to troubling aspects of female experience at the time and for all time.

This is not to suggest Gilman dismissed or disdained marriage or motherhood in theory or practice; quite the opposite was true. In her Autobiography, she names "a mistaken marriage" as the source of her psychological breakdown, but blames herself and her driving ambition, not Stetson, nor her daughter. Her seemingly solid second marriage with Houghton confirms she did not forsake the institution, and her descriptions of Kate's childhood show Gilman's sincere desire to be a "good mother." In fact her social vision developed around her belief in the importance of motherhood. She saw children as "the world's best hope" but eschewed the notion that every woman held a talent for or interest in motherhood. Taken to task by the press after sending Kate to live with Stetson and his new wife, Gilman's close friend Grace Channing, she felt the sting of being called an "unnatural" mother. Gilman poignantly defends her action in her Autobiography, saying, "No one suffered from it but myself. This, however, was entirely overlooked in the furious condemnation that followed. . . . I lived without her, temporarily, but why did they think I liked it? She was all I had."

In her fiction Gilman's views on motherhood and childrearing, which were far ahead of her time, appear most explicitly in Herland (1915), the story of male adventurers who stumble upon a society composed solely of women. Each man displays a different attitude toward the experience as the Herland "tutors" teach the history, politics, and value system of a culture where motherhood is "a religion" and "the highest social service." As Carol Farley Kessler notes in Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia with Selected Writings, Gilman gives Terry, Jeff, and Van individual personality types to expose "male misinformation regarding women's ways." Each man sees woman either as an object of pleasure to conquer (Terry), of protection to idolize (Jeff), or of scientific study to explain (Van). In a page from Women and Economics, the men embody Gilman's view of the ways men and women forge relationships. Terry provides the best evidence throughout the novel, but especially when he first approaches Alima with the offer of a necklace, which, according to Van, she views more in the manner of "an intent boy playing a fascinating game than of a girl lured by an ornament." Besides defining Herland values, the scene exposes the men's ignorance and their assumptions about what women want, especially after Alima runs off with the necklace. Terry's response, "The men of this country must be good sprinters. . . . Women like to be run after," shows he clearly does not get the point, but the reader surely would. Terry never learns his lesson, making repeated, similar mistakes, including the ultimate act of violence that results in his expulsion from Herland.

In her introduction to Gilman's With Her in Ourland: The Sequel to Herland, Mary Deegan sees the interactions of Ellador and Van in both works as a discourse between feminism and patriarchy. In Herland the women ask pointed questions and take notes, while keeping their opinions about the "outside" world to themselves, though Gilman's views on what the Herlanders call a "bi-sexual" culture are easily detected. From the first the women treat the men like children, carrying them "manfully" and administering anesthesia. The men are kept in what Terry calls "a regular fortress" where they are "cooped up as helpless as a bunch of three-year-old orphans, and . . . taught what [the women] think is necessary-whether we like it or not." Their apparent escape temporarily brings "a joyous sense of freedom," confirming Gilman's message about domestic imprisonment for women in her own land, in a tables-turned approach that pervades Herland. Deegan distinguishes Gilman from the Social Darwinists of her time, since as a "cultural feminist" Gilman felt "women were the founders of human society, [and] . . . subsequently lost their power only after men gained ascendancy over them." Gilman does not so much envision an alternative to her own society in Herland as she seeks to restore women to what she sees as their rightful place. With motherhood as the guiding principle, the novel transforms the biological trait that subordinates and limits women in the "real" world into the source of their power in Herland.

In turn, the men who visit there often find themselves in stereotypically feminine roles, particularly in terms of Gilman's abiding concern, work. After marriage, the men are at leisure while, as Terry puts it, their "alleged or so-called wives . . . [go] right on with their profession as foresters." While having "no special learnings" the men want "to do something, if only to pass the time." Van says they feel uncomfortable at having "no sense of-perhaps it may be called possession" of the women, who see themselves as "Mothers" and "People," not as wives or lovers. Not unexpectedly given more open twenty-first-century attitudes, one of the most interesting aspects of Herland is the hesitation of Ellador, Celis, and especially Alima about consummating their marriages. For Gilman, marriage, or at least a certain type of marriage, perpetuated female dependence. Believing the sexual relationship to be bound by economics, Gilman saw "marriage very often itself being a legally enshrined version of prostitution." In her own life she struggled with the conflict between her ideals and the realities of marriage, along with her recognition of the necessity to earn a living. Gilman's view of physical intimacy shapes the responses of the Herland brides to their grooms' increasing pressure. Only one, Celis, apparently succumbs to her husband Jeff, whom Van describes as the one who feels most at home in Herland. Tellingly the woman who finds the closest thing to true partnership is Ellador who marries Van, a sociologist and, as the narrator, Gilman's spokesperson.

Throughout her life Charlotte Perkins Gilman strove to realize daunting goals based on her vision of progress, not only for women, but also for "Humanity." Her unwavering belief in freedom for all comes alive as she takes the reader into the crumbling mind of a young mother in "The Yellow Wallpaper," then into a land where empowered women thrive without men in Herland. Gilman's own life remains inextricably fused with her work, both fiction and nonfiction, so that a volume such as this one provides special insight into the complexities of her art as well as into the head and heart of a fascinating and formidable human being.

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