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Gilman, Charlotte Perkins

women figure woman doctor

(US, 1860–1935)

Gilman was known in her lifetime for her feminism and journalism, but it is mainly through one short story that she is remembered. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1891) is about a woman who suffers postnatal depression. Her doctor recommends that she avoid all mental stimulation (no reading, writing, or conversation). Her husband enforces the doctor's regime, so she is confined in an old nursery papered in a yellow pattern. She begins to see a shadowy figure of a woman creeping behind the patterns of the wallpaper. ‘The faint figure seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.’ In the end her husband finds her crawling around the floor, crying: ‘I've got out at last. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!’ This haunting story depicts the powerlessness of married middle-class women in the nineteenth century more effectively than a library full of history books. Gilman's utopian novel Herland (1979) is set in a country where there are only women; where there is no war, no competition, no slavery, no poverty; and also, interestingly, no sexual pleasure, which is seen as a decadent result of women's economic dependence on men. In this, as in her other novels, the ideas are fascinating, but plot and character are weak. Look for extracts of this and her other work in The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, ed. A. Lane (1981).

Sara Maitland, Michèle Roberts  JR

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