Charlotte Perkins Gilman campaigned for woman’s suffrage, as well as and educational and employment opportunities. She was known as the most important feminist writer and thinker of her era, and probably would have been surprised that she is now only remembered for “The Yellow Wallpaper” story she wrote in 1892. Unlike William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily”, this was based on her own personal experience of being diagnosed with ‘hysteria’ and being sent for a rest cure. Gilman explicitly described herself as a radical and women’s rights activist, which Faulkner certainly was not, and much of her writing was intended to make a political point. Faulkner’s Miss Emily Grierson was a decayed aristocrat fallen into poverty, but in her own way she also took revenge on the men who had victimized her.
Unlike William Faulkner and his character Miss Emily, Charlotte Perkins Gilman can certainly be described as a feminist and women’s rights supporter, at least within her historical context, because that is how she described herself. She actively campaigned for equal social, political and economic rights for women, carrying on the tradition of New England reform inherited from her families. Faulkner’s background as a Southern writer from a conservative state like Mississippi was of course very different, and at no time would he have portrayed Miss Emily as a Northern feminist. Both Gilman and Miss Emily would have understood the extreme economic and social insecurity of women, and many of them were trapped in unhappy domestic lives or low-paying jobs like teaching, nursing and domestic service that were just another extension of women’s work. Gilman’s vision of a new socialist and feminist society was openly radical and political, and definitely not one that Miss Emily would have shared, although she took revenge on the men who had wronged her in a peculiar way.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was related to the famous Beecher family of reformers, abolitionists and ministers on her father’s side. Her great-grandfather was Lyman Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was her great aunt. Yet her father deserted the family not long after she was born and she grew up in conditions of great poverty. Gilman always described herself as a progressive feminist and socialist, and during her lifetime she was far better known for her nonfiction writing and journalism than her short stories. She would probably have been very surprised that today she is best remembered because her 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” has become part of the literary canon and is considered an early feminist classic. Although almost all of her writing was nonfiction, and even her short stories were not intended to be literary but had a political point, three-quarters of the works published about Gilman concern this single story (Allen, 2004, p. 7). This story was based loosely on her first marriage to a cold and unresponsive husband, and her depression during and after pregnancy, in which the main character is basically a prisoner in her own attic and literally comes to believe that she is part of the wallpaper. Of course, her husband, the doctor and the other characters in story cannot comprehend the source of her discontent and seeming irrationality, but Gilman always intended to make a feminist statement with this story and a wife basically imprisoned by marriage, family and society with no hope of escape. Gilman divorced her first husband, though, and learned from personal experience what life was like for a single mother living in poverty during the Gilded Age (Allen, p. 10).
Miss Emily is not a radical feminist or reformer, but a member of the declining Southern aristocracy, living in what appears to be a haunted house. She rarely appears in public but in the subject of much rumor, gossip and speculation by the people of the small Mississippi town where she resides. Only at the end do they lean that she has been sleeping with the corpse of her lover Homer Baron, thus making sure than he would never abuse or abandon her. Miss Emily is not exactly a fragile Southern belle with the vapors, but has “cold, haughty black eyes in a face the flesh of which was strained across the temples” at least when she is buying the arsenic that will eliminate Homer (Faulkner 121). She is tough and determined, even though she was left with little money or property from her father. Even in old age, she was forceful enough to prevent the town from taxing her, which also indicates how little money she really had. Homer on the other hand, was a “a big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face”, who also “liked men” and was “not the marrying kind” (Faulkner 127). As the story turns out, of course, Miss Emily was not the marrying kind either, at least not in the conventional sense.
Both Gilman and Faulkner created string female characters that were trapped in very difficult and oppressive situations by the conventions of Victorian America. Gilman was an openly feminist writer compared to the more conservative Faulkner, and her nameless character is literally being imprisoned by her husband in the name of ‘helping’ her. In reality, she goes insane after being bedridden and treated like a weak and helpless female for months, denied any meaningful work in life. Miss Emily is also mad, but mainly because she may have been a victim of incest at the hands of her own father and then threatened with abandonment by her lover. Even though she is poor, she manages to take more control of her situation, including absolute power of the remains of Homer. Essentially, though, she is also a prisoner in her own house, just as Gilman’s anonymous housewife has been locked up by her husband in a bedroom.
Allen, J.A. (2004). The Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Sexuality, Histories, Progressivism. University of Chicago Press.
Skel, Hans H. Reading Faulkner’s Best Short Stories. University of South Carolina Press, 1999.