Charlotte Perkins Gilman & Women at the End of the 19th and Beginning 20th Century
Gilman and the Sin of Oppression
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s stories show the life women led at the end of the 19th and beginning 20th Century. Each story’s theme provides insight on how women were oppressed, the unwritten rules they were expected to go by, and how this affected them. Her writing portrayed men at this time as being the ones in control, and it was perfectly acceptable and actually expected. A woman’s real thoughts, feelings, insights, and views were regarded as silly and men’s’ were better and correct. They saw their view as superior. They even thought they knew what was going on inside a woman’s head better than she did. Women couldn’t disregard their thoughts and feelings, and left them confused and unhappy, which led them to secrecy, deceitfulness, and to game playing.
Gilman’s main theme is men commit sin against women, womanhood, motherhood, and child. She mentions this in her short-story, “Turned” (595). Her messages fit into two categories; each providing a penetrating vision and understanding of how men and women saw themselves, and to their place.
Her first category is men’s ego and their character. Gilman used her fiction in part to demonstrate how men worried over their character being tainted. The appearance that everything was fine with them, that they knew what they were doing, that they were in control, was powerful, intelligent, and good had to be maintained. Image was everything. The man’s image came before his family. The Giant Wisteria is one of Gilman’s stories that demonstrates this. In the tale, Gilman shows a father seething mad when his daughter gets pregnant and has a baby out of wed-lock. His anger reaches a fevered pitch when he says, “’Shameless!’ with set teeth. ‘Get to thy chamber, and be not seen again tonight, or I will have thee bound!’” (1). Gilman displays the father worried about his character, and in what others will think, to the point where he decides they must leave and go back to England. “None knoweth of our stain here, not one,” (2). The father concludes that his grandchild will be left behind in someone else’s care. When they are back in England he decides no one will know what happened this way. Gilman shows secrecy being important to men. This goes back to protecting their character, their image, at all cost. Again, in The Giant Wisteria, Gilman’s father character tells his wife, “her cousin is yet willing to marry her” (2). This father knows his daughter doesn’t want to marry her cousin and he knows his nephew has a “coarse” temperament. This does not matter. The father puts his reputation first when he says to his wife, “He maketh an honest woman of her, and saveth our house from open shame,” (2).
Some of Gilman’s male characters appear more gentlemanly on the outside, but she reveals their true nature in her story, The Yellow Wallpaper. The husband, John, never seems to yell or lose his temper. He doesn’t say out right mean things to his depressed wife, however. Gilman provides details that prove he thinks like all the rest. His wife slips and begins to tell her husband how she really feels, and he responds: “ ‘My darling,” said he, “I beg of you for my sake and for our children’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!’” (585). John uses guilt and tells her he knows better when he adds, “There is
nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish
fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?” (585). It is almost like John is begging his wife to keep up the charade – the game – the image.
The second category is about women’s situation and how they dealt with it. Gilman creates female characters who find ways to get around the men and their power. In her story, The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman’s main character, Jane, follows her own desires and instincts in spite of what her husband wants, but there are plenty of times where she didn’t. The times she doesn’t follow her own desires outweigh the times that she does. A scene which says a lot about Jane’s personality, as well as her husbands, are the times they live in. Jane is looking out the window longing for company. She thinks about what her husband wants and says this about her imagination, “I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least” (581). What does she decide to do about the imagination that seems to help her through, but her husband is against? She says to herself: “So I try,” (581). Further in the same scene, Jane realizes her needs when she says this about her writing, “I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me,” (581). She doesn’t listen to her instincts though when she adds, “But I get pretty tired when I try,” (581). Eventually Jane begins to find an outlet for her imagination and for her other needs, whether she realizes it or not. When John advises she lie down more than Jane wants to, she goes around his will. On page 586, Jane admits that she secretly doesn’t tell him she’s awake, and that “I am getting a little afraid of John,” (586). This displays how women used secrecy also. They knew men held most of the power. Secrecy, deceit, and games were often used by women to get what they wanted.
In Gilman’s story, Turned, her main character uses secrecy as a result of her husband’s cheating on her with a young innocent girl. Here though, Mrs. Marroner takes outward action. She leaves him, taking the young pregnant girl with her. On page 595, Mrs. Marroner sends her lawyer with a note to her husband which reads, “I have gone. I will care for Gerta. Good-bye. Marion.” Mrs. Marroner was lucky to have a way to take care of herself in order to flee. Not many women during this time period did, and were left to suffer.
The young girl in The Giant Wisteria is not as strong, nor is she in a position to escape her situation. She is innocent and naïve. In her eyes, the only way to avoid her father’s decisions for her life and for her baby is to resort to something drastic. Gilman never comes out and says exactly what that is, but readers get an idea from the revelations at the end of the piece. Years later, young people find a baby’s bones in a well, and, “the bones of a woman whose neck still hung a tiny scarlet cross on a thin chain of gold,” (3). Readers can deduce that the young girl probably either killed first her baby, and then herself, or found her baby dead and hid under the porch to hide, or to die.
Gilman attempts to resolve the sin against women by shedding light on their life. At first, people were quite uncomfortable when she did this back then, and yet a letter from the Boston Transcript, found in Knight’s book called Charlotte Perkins Gilman, A Study of the Short Fiction, displays how one man felt:
To The Editor of the Transcript:
In a well-known magazine has recently appeared a story entitled: “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It is a sad story of a young wife passing the gradations from slight mental derangement to raving lunacy. It is graphically told, in a somewhat sensational style. It certainly seems open to serious question if such literature should be permitted in print. Should such stories be allowed to pass without severest censure? (110)
As time passed, people, especially women, began to relate to Gilman’s stories. The stories probably helped them to not feel as alone and helpless. It's likely people see far more in Gilman’s writing today than they did decades before. Women have come a long way. They enjoy more rights, respect, and control of their lives, although there are still men who still believe they know better than women. There still are men and women today who carry the mindset Gilman hoped to overcome. The idea is nobody should oppress someone and yet it occurs still today.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Giant Wisteria.” The Online Archive of Nineteenth
Century U.S. Women’s Writings. Fall 1998. Ed. Glynis Carr. June 2007.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Turned.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. 5th ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006: 595.
Knight, Denise D. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1997: 110.