Seeing What Is Not There in the Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

By: Ms. Hopkins


An autobiography is one’s life story written by one’s own self, but can an autobiography be characterized by different features?  Constantly, art imitates life, so reading between the lines in fiction can help us see what is not there, which in this cases happens to be a glimpse into the author’s private world.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman certainly did not write her life story in the traditional memoir style, but she was able to make her intimate life public in such a way that mirrored her own struggles in a time when it was not conventional to express what truly was there in her existence, which would later revolutionize the way we think and care for the mentally ill.   


Could you imagine the extremes of suffering from a severe mental break-down, but then becoming a world-renowned feminist writer because of your illness? Gilman accomplished success by exploring the depths of the female role, status, and obstacles that woman usually suffered in silence with as no other woman had done.  Her humble beginnings and life-long anguish in Hartford, Connecticut shaped her work tremendously.  “Her diaries show the genesis of many important theories she would later develop into books and essays” (Golden 28).  In the mid-1800s women were supposed to be feminine, which meant actually choosing between intellect and creativity or motherhood and marriage.  Gilman questioned gender roles not seen openly in published writing and sought to liberate herself from the dilemma of making the choice of pursuing a career or having a family.  “My worthy family very scared, consign me to an early grave,” she wrote in one of her journals entries (Gilman 9).  Likewise, she hesitated before fully committing to her family and to her first husband Charles Stetson, due to her natural drive to be a professional, so Gilman somehow sensed her own doom in selecting a domestic role over her true calling as writer and artist. 


Gilman was able to take central struggles of her life and transform them into fundamental themes of her work.  “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not only one of her most famed pieces of writing, but it also serves as a map to Gilman’s hardships in her life not seen by those outside of her inner most circle.  Being abandoned by her husband was equivalent to failure for Mary Perkins, and thus she became bitter and rejected her daughter Charlotte as well.  Likewise, as a witness to her mother’s unhappy separation from her estranged father, Gilman also had difficulty relating to the nurturing qualities of the mothering-role with her own child.  In addition, her mother also suffered a breakdown and chemical imbalance while Gilman was young and reverted to a “masculine role.”  After a year of marriage and the birth of her daughter, Gilman suffered with bouts of depression and immediately the world her audience could not see, yet she pretended to be a part of collapsed.  Gilman’s unstable childhood and challenges in her domestic life are the plots for her work, which fueled her passion for essay writing, public speaking, and feminist ideals (DiYanni).  Nonetheless, her private pain was disguised in her writings as questions, causes, effects, and resolutions; she was determined not to be a victim of her unfortunate circumstances via her characters and later through her advocacy.


Gilman and her central character in “The Yellow Wallpaper” both transformed into the dullness of their surroundings, which vividly helps us to see what is not there in reality, but happening metaphorically to both women.  The use of ekphrasis in her writing aids the audience in seeing the image of the wallpaper that haunted the women’s minds, “The whole thing goes horizontally, too…I exhaust myself trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction” (DiYanni 384).  Due to the lack of stimuli in Gliman’s world she became consumed by the room reserved for her during her rest treatment.  In Mary’s case, Gilman again uses her words to create what images simply cannot do alone.  For example, as Mary’s mental state declines, we get a view of the wallpaper coming alive in Mary’s head through Gilman’s prose, “I suppose I will have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!” (DiYanni 389).  Clearly, Gilman was influenced by the Victorian style of writing that reflected the attitudes of culture and art during the late ninetieth century.  Novelist among other artist now had to cleverly confront the new social and economic changes happening during this era.  While the working and middle classes increased, Gilman found an artistic voice for the many women overlooked or not seen during this revolutionary time by painting a disturbing picture with her words that reached the powerful middle-class.  In the end, the audience could see the tragic scene in Gilman’s crafty description of Mary’s nervous breakdown, “And I’ve pull off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!,” thus, she and the wallpaper were now unified due to her confinement and oppression (DiYanni 390).  Although, Gilman’s imagery was not necessarily pleasing to the aesthetic eye; her work does cause us to ponder the salient message behind her text that was in correlation to the movement occurring in her environment.      


Through fiction and essays, Gilman wrote an autobiographical account of what she could not speak openly about due to the times and gender roles.  She told her story of confinement and escape by exploring personal relationships as social ones and the public investigation of the dependency of women (Korb).  The physical wallpaper in the bedroom that served as a symbolic prison to her ideas and creativity became synonymous with her oppression.  “It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper!  It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw- not beautiful ones…but old, foul, bad yellow things” (DiYanni 387).  “The Yellow Wallpaper” gives Gilman’s first-hand account of life before and after her mental breakdown through a protagonist.  Although her adversities were not freely discussed as real concerns for women, it is clearly illustrated in the short story how women (she) were misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and mistreated.  Gilman’s doctor prescribed a rest treatment that required her to “Never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live,” and it was this rest cure that nearly killed her (Korb).  Gilman herself like so many other women in her situation became invisible and not seen in a society that deemed them solely as breeders and housekeepers.  Every fiber of Gilman’s being was trapped just as Mary was trapped and they were both slowly deteriorating emotionally and physically, “I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal-having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition” (DiYanni 380).


 We continue see what is not on the surface in Gilman’s life through the main character in her short story, which painted the canvas for her real-life proclamation of herself.  Indeed, Mary dies a psychological death, which alludes to Gilman symbolically.  However, returning to normal life activities, divorcing her husband, and finally be able to indulge in her work proved to be Gilman’s true recovery.  No longer did she have to apologize for needing and wanting a satisfying career along with intimate love without feeling absurd (Golden).  However, the relationship with her daughter was never fully repaired due to the same cycle of resentment and abandonment due to Gilman’s hospitalization in several sanitariums. In an attempt to rehabilitate her life she re-married Houghton Gilman, who enriched her as a professional woman and provided the support she needed to empower other women through her research and lectures.


 Gilman displayed bravery when revealing her own personal agony and examining the aspects of women’s mental health, one being what would be later termed as post- partum, and gender discrimination that were hidden and brushed under society’s rug.  Gilman made several attempts to speak out about the injustices induced into her during her confinement, including to husband at the time, who dismissed her complains as petty and insignificant.  These views are mirrored in Gilman’s writing as well, “He said that after the wallpaper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then the gate at the head of the stairs, and so on” (DiYanni 381).  Many of her contemporaries consider Gilman a heroine.  “The courage she showed in confronting contradictions in herself…a journey to explore some of the deepest layers of sexism, internalized within herself” (Golden 47).  To finally deliver her message that was oppressed for so long on the topic of the relationships between men and women in “Women and Economics,” she had to record her personal data and present the facts to inspire and motivate other emerging feminists.  Gilman’s work proved to serve as an unorthodox autobiography that was the analysis for the theories she later developed. -- “How to resolve the issues and tension between love and work, intimacy, and autonomy”--and the keys to understanding the subordination of women (Rudd and Val Gough 7).             


Although Gilman brought light to what was not there in the consciousness of the generation of her time and pioneered great feminist thinking, she has also been at the center of controversy despite her progress and social awareness.  Later in her life, Gilman has been accused of having linear views on evolution.  Also, it has been stated that she did not consider the issues of gender roles in classes, roles, races, or ethnicities outside of her own.  Therefore, she has earned the reputation of being a racist and narrow minded.  Although some of her accused flaws seem to contradict her character and field of research, there is no doubt she shines for being progressive in women’s liberation by showing us what was not seen in society in her work.  For instance, Gilman boldly “sought to create a general theory of men and women in history from the perspective of gender,” which produced insightful studies unmatched by any other man or woman before her (Rudd and Val Gough 7).  The innovative themes brought to light by Gilman essentially saved her own life and fueled other women to actively pursue more aggressive roles in society instead of remaining unseen in the shadows.


The grim realities brought to life in “The Yellow Wallpaper” were so effective that Gilman’s voice literally change the protocol for women’s care and the care of the mentally ill.  The hazards of the medical treatments she received also influenced the revisions of remedies in her community (it was later documented that some men receive The Rest Cure as well), “so she won her victory” (Korb).  Furthermore, Gilman’s story proved to be more than her personal glory alone; it highlights social standards that women were expected to live up to and provided a way out of these expectations that did not demoralize the women in her story or herself.  The portrayal of her life empowered women and even men to question and seek alternatives in their medical and domestic situations.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote what would become similar to an autobiography to a triumphant tune.  Through courage and ridicule she was determined to find her own voice and the voice of other women not heard or seen in her era.  She composed a story and built a platform which reflected her inner turmoil that would change what we now see in respects to liberation in gender roles and health care to improve the lives of all man and womankind.