October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
The Yellow Wall-Paper” first appeared in the January, 1892, issue of The New-England Magazine , and it upset people from the start. Although the brief tale is potent enough to have been included over the years in anthologies of horror stories, it contains no hint of the supernatural; it is, rather, about a cheerful, decent man who, against a background of summer sunlight and with all the good will in the world, drives his young wife insane.
Twenty years later, when it was clear that the story had become something of a classic, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a brief essay explaining why she’d published a tale that, one doctor had told her, was “enough to drive anyone mad.” “It was not,” she said, “intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy …”
Charlotte Gilman had been there, “so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.” She had brought herself back from the edge, she said, through hard work. And hard work, she felt, was both the responsibility and the joy of everyone; many men knew this, many women did not. Throughout a long and extraordinarily productive life she tried to teach the women of her day that they could escape the stifling domestic and social routines the era imposed, but only through their own efforts: “Your door, O long imprisoned/ Is locked inside!”
It is not surprising that Gilman didn’t much care for the sentimental truisms of late Victorian middle-class life. When Charlotte was born in 1860, the delivery so weakened her mother that she was told another pregnancy could kill her. Her father, Frederic Beecher Perkins, promptly left home. He returned only for brief visits and never provided much support: the little family had to move nineteen times in eighteen years. Charlotte’s embittered mother deliberately ceased to show her daughter any signs of affection; that way, she said, Charlotte would not be hurt by the inevitable betrayals of adult love. Occasionally, though, Mrs. Perkins would enter the darkened bedroom to hug her sleeping child. Charlotte learned to feign sleep so she could enjoy the rare embrace.
Of course such an innoculation against later distress made it certain. When, in 1884, Charlotte married a young artist named Charles Walter Stetson, she found herself increasingly depressed. After the birth of her only child, Katharine, she became incapable of doing even simple chores, and stayed in bed crying. A specialist in nervous disorders breezily dismissed her condition as nothing serious and told her to stay in bed, never to touch a pen or paintbrush, and “to have but two hours intellectual life a day.” Her strong, restless mind thus fettered, Charlotte declined nearly to extinction; this was the loving, harrowing incarceration she turned into “The Yellow WallPaper.”
She fought against the depression and at last, in 1888, she left the marriage she felt made it inevitable to move to the West Coast with her daughter. There she ran a boardinghouse, wrote poetry and short stories, and began to lecture. Impressed by the Utopian socialism of Edward Bellamy, she spoke of his ideas and, more and more, of her own observations on the situation of women. “I saw their real power, their real dignity, their real responsibility in the world,” she has the heroine of one of her short stories say, “and then the way they dress and behave used to make me fairly frantic. ‘Twas like seeing archangels playing jackstraws—or real horses used only as rocking-horses.” As the end product of an evolution that had left them totally dependent on the male for food and shelter, women could now minister only to the wishes of the man, and not to the greater needs of the community. Naturally these atrophied beings passed on their narrow vision to their children, who learned “every day and hour, that life, this deep, new, thrilling mystery of life consists mainly of eating and sleeping, of the making and wearing of clothes. ”
Balance could be redressed only by women’s seizing economic independence for themselves, she believed; the vote was all very well, but the real issue was financial freedom. In 1898 Charlotte Stetson published her views in Women and Economics . Hailed as “the most significant utterance on the subject since Mill’s Subjection of Women ,” the book was translated into seven languages and made its author famous. Two years after it came out, she married her first cousin, a New York lawyer named George Houghton Gilman. He did not try to interfere with her work, and she continued turning out poems, essays, short stories, and novels—the most famous is Herland , a Utopian fantasy about a peaceful, productive country inhabited only by women, who reproduce parthenogenetically. Most of her writing appeared in the Forerunner , a monthly magazine she began publishing in 1909. When she finally closed it down in 1916, she calculated that she had written twentyeight books’ worth of material for it.
Although depression and despair were always at her shoulder and she often moved through a “dreary twilight,” she never ceased to speak for her cause. Amused and amusing, consistently rational and idiomatic, her voice was appealing, and its message straightforward: make a new world for yourselves, she told her fellow women; you can do it. Hers was always a literature of the possible.
During the 1920’s she was discouraged by what she saw as a national preoccupation with sex, which seemed to her only to increase women’s “sexuoeconomic bondage.” She found repugnant the growing acceptance of Freudian psychology, and lectured against it. She believed demons should be battled, not coaxed into the daylight.
She held her own at bay all her life, but in the early 1930’s came a new enemy, one she could not fight. When, in 1935, her cancer became too painful to bear, she made her choice, composed a calm note, and took chloroform. “All pain is personal,” she had written years before. “It is between You and the Thing that Hurts. You may not be able to move the Thing—but You are movable.”