Peeling Away the Wall-Paper: The Legacy & Limitations of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

First published in 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is now widely considered a crucial hallmark of American feminist literature. When considered alongside Gilman’s other publications on the role of women in economics, it is clear that many present-day readers and literary scholars recognize Gilman as a pioneering writer on feminism and attitudes towards women (Dock et al. 52). Thus, given the significant scholarly interest and popularity that Gilman’s story enjoys today, I was keen to research the publication history of the story and analyze the role it plays in Gilman’s legacy as a widely-recognized feminist writer. What explains the canonization and literary acclaim of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and how can we better understand Gilman’s legacy as a feminist author? 

My foray into the textual history of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” quickly revealed a controversial and widely-debated publication record. Gilman first sent the manuscript to renowned editor William Dean Howells in August 1890; Howells then forwarded the story to Horace Scudder of the Atlantic, but Scudder rejected the manuscript and explained to Gilman that the story made him “miserable” (St. Jean 262). However, controversy abounds over how the story eventually got published; Howells argues that he worked hard to convince the editor of the New England Magazine to publish the story while Gilman’s staunch advocates defend her claims that she had taken it upon herself to get published in this magazine. Overall, evidence suggests that Gilman had little textual control after submitting her manuscript and did not edit or approve “any version of ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ printed during her lifetime,” including its eventual publication as a book in 1899 (Dock et al. 56). 

While the story was eventually published “in at least eight editions during Gilman’s lifetime” as well as many other editions in the decades since, the turning point in the story’s publication history occurred in 1973, when the Feminist Press cemented the story’s position “as a seminal work of the women’s movement in America” by reissuing it (St. Jean 260). Thus, Gilman’s short story catapulted to fame in the the 1970s and early 1980s, a time when many female scholars and writers were “challenging what they perceived to be a patriarchal literary canon and arguing for the centrality of politics in literature and literary criticism” (Dock et al. 52). Gilman’s story, which follows a white, middle-class American woman imprisoned and unhinged by patriarchal oppression, became a rediscovered feminist classic under the hopeful eyes of many literary academics and contemporary feminists.

C. F. Lummis, portrait of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, c. 1900. Library of Congress via Wikimedia (public domain)

However, the canonization and legacy of Gilman’s story reveals many other important yet sinister parallels with this second-wave feminism. As eloquently argued in Susan Lanser’s widely-cited analysis of “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Gilman’s short story was not simply a text that attracted feminist applications but rather a text “through which white, American academic feminist criticism has constituted its terms” (415). In short, Lanser analyzes the story “within the context of the pervasive racial anxieties of the time” and links descriptions of the wallpaper to nativist tropes (Knight 161). Her analysis reveals that uncritical reverence of Gilman has prompted universalist interpretations built on a “repression on difference” (Lanser 435). Thus, just as “The Yellow Wall-Paper” relies on a universal female narrator who can free herself through interpretation and writing, so too have white literary academics engaged in similar tasks to erase race and intersectionality from their critiques of Gilman’s work and legacy. 

One does not need to delve into Lanser’s meticulous analysis for evidence of racism; indeed, “Gilman’s racism is overt and unapologetic” and has been documented in too many publications to recount here (Knight 162). A couple notable examples that caught my attention were Gilman’s dismissal of Asians as extremely weak with “retarding” developmental effects in Women and Economics as well as her infamous essay “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem,” in which she laments the “unavoidable presence of a large body of aliens” and advocates for the subordination of black Americans due to their inherent inferiority (Gilman 78). This understanding of Gilman’s racism and nativism is critical to any reading of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” because it mirrors the story’s narrative, in which freeing the woman in the colored wallpaper requires erasing complexities and incorporating her into the white feminist self, a dangerous and self-annihilating process (Lanser 435).

An exploration of the historical and textual context of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” alongside an analysis of its author’s other publications reveals an uncomfortable yet familiar dilemma: we discover that a prolific, deeply admired writer is wholly complicit in the racist and nativist discourses of their time. What is at stake, however, is not the legacy of the writer but rather feminism itself. Sanitizing and dismissing certain aspects of Gilman’s writing while celebrating and canonizing other texts reflects mainstream feminism’s erasure of women of color, whose contributions and criticisms are critical to history and feminist scholarship. Attempts to excuse Gilman’s flaws not only produce a false, purified narrative of heroic feminism but also contribute to a eugenic model of feminist epistemology. A writer’s legacy is not a zero-sum game, and a critical analysis must hold room for multiple truths: Gilman, like many other women at the time, faced a battle for recognition and respect while also exacerbating violence and persecution against others. Evaluating her complex legacy is both an individual exercise and a collective responsibility; peeling away the complicated layers of paper is the only path forward. 

Works Cited:

Dock, Julie Bates, et al. “‘But One Expects That’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and the Shifting Light of Scholarship.” PMLA, vol. 111, no. 1, 1996, pp. 52–65. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/463133.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 14, no. 1, 1908, pp. 78–85. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2762762.

Knight, Denise D. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Shadow of Racism.” American Literary Realism, vol. 32, no. 2, 2000, pp. 159–169. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27746975.

Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,” and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, 1989, pp. 415–441. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3177938.

St. Jean, Shawn. “Gilman’s Manuscript of ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’: Toward a Critical Edition.” Studies in Bibliography, vol. 51, 1998, pp. 259–273. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40372055.

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