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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Gothic Undercurrents Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935)

[5361] Frances Benjamin Johnston, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (c. 1900), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-49035].

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Charlotte Perkins was raised by her mother. Her father abandoned the family shortly after her birth (her father was the nephew of siblings Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher). Gilman’s mother moved her two children to her original home, Rhode Island, where she withheld physical expressions of love from them in an attempt to steel them against the future pain of broken relationships. Gilman worked as a governess, teacher, and greeting-card designer before reluctantly marrying Charles Stetson in 1884–she had become increasingly aware that women did not receive equal rights, and she was concerned that as a new wife and mother she would have difficulty beginning a writing career.

After the birth of her daughter, Gilman became depressed and was advised to seek bed rest and to limit her intellectual endeavors. This “cure” so frustrated Gilman that she nearly went mad, recovering by thrusting her energies into the American Woman Suffrage Association. Soon after, she composed “The Yellow Wall-paper” (1892), which was based on her experience with depression. When her marriage broke up, Gilman sent her daughter to live with her ex-husband and his new wife, Gilman’s former best friend. She married her first cousin, George Houghton Gilman, in 1900 and continued her writing career, producing books that advocated reform, including Women and Economics (1898), Concerning Children (1900), and The Man-Made World(1911), as well as the novels Moving the Mountain (1911), Herland (1915), and With Her in Ourland (1916). We can see that same reformist spirit in Gilman’s most famous text, her critique of women’s oppression under patriarchy, “The Yellow Wall-paper.”

Teaching Tips

  • Have students debate about whether or not the narrator emerges “victorious” in “The Yellow Wall-paper.” This question highlights different assumptions about the value of material and psychic freedom.
  • Emphasize the many ways in which John’s treatment of the narrator in “The Yellow Wall-paper” is based on patriarchal assumptions about women–especially considering that postpartum depression is now recognized as a legitimate (and common) ailment. What are the signs of postpartum depression? How does knowledge of this condition help us understand the story?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Describe the narrator of “The Yellow Wall-paper” as precisely as you can. Why does she spend all of her time in the nursery? What is “wrong” with her? To what extent does she change over the course of the story?
  2. Comprehension: Describe the Wall-paper. Why is the narrator both fascinated and repulsed by it?
  3. Comprehension: By the end of the story, the narrator seems to believe she has achieved a victory: ” ‘I’ve got out at last,’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’ ” Do you agree that she has emerged victorious? If so, in what sense?
  4. Context: How does the narrator’s husband, John, treat her? She notes, “He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency.” Why does he emphasize her “imaginative power,” and to what extent do you think Gilman wants us to agree with John’s opinion? Think about this in terms of both nineteenth-century anxieties about the supposed promises of science and the ideals of the cult of true womanhood.
  5. Exploration: Look at the advertisement for “Dr. Weiland’s Celebrated Worm Lozenges” featured in the archive. In what sense can Gilman’s story be seen as a response to the mid-nineteenth-century reverence for science?

Selected Archive Items

[3161] C. F. Wieland, Dr. Wieland’s Celebrated Sugar Worm Lozenges (1856), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-102488]. 
Patent medicine label with an illustration of respectable-looking women supervising children in a sitting room and smaller illustrations of laboring women (and one man). As science and medicine gained acceptance in the mid-nineteenth century, such medications became popular. This one was marketed for female consumers.

[5313] Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Kitchen Design, Illustration in the American Woman’s Home: Principles of Domestic Science; Being a Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, and Christian Homes (1869), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
This illustration shows the Beecher sisters’ interpretation of an efficient kitchen layout. Books on middle-class women’s roles in managing households were popular during the Victorian era, but writers such as Gilman railed against the so-called cult of true womanhood.

[5361] Frances Benjamin Johnston, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (c. 1900), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62- 49035]. 
Photograph of novelist and suffragist Gilman. In both her writing and her personal life, Gilman challenged Victorian gender roles and notions of women’s place in the domestic sphere.

[5605] L. Prang & Co., Representative Women (1870), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-5535]. 
Individual portraits of leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. Those pictured are Lucretia Mott, Grace Greenwood, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anna E. Dickinson, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, Lydia Maria Francis Child, and Susan B. Anthony.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6