Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Doppelgängers

by Tanya Dean, dramaturg of The Yellow Wallpaper

             Can I, who suffer from the wild unrest
                              Of two strong natures claiming each its due,
                              And can not tell the greater of the two;
                          Who have two spirits ruling in breast
                          Alternately, and know not which is
                               And which the owner true.
                                     Untitled poem by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 
                                                                1 April 1883.

While researching for dramaturgy packet for The Yellow Wallpaper, I become increasingly intrigued by how much of this story of a young woman increasingly trapped  in her own mind was motivated by the internal struggles of its author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The young female protagonist frets that her “nervous depression” has kept her from fulfilling her marital obligations: “It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way! I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!” 

By contrast, Gilman (1860 – 1935) felt a constant struggle between her traditional and radical ideologies. She saw herself as composed of two sides: in letters to a girlhood friend, Martha Luther, she explained how she saw one, "the mother side," as that part of herself that existed "merely as a woman" and disparaged it as "that useful animal a wife and a mother." She thought, however, that satisfying its claims might give her "happiness" to "enjoy." Against this side was her individual self, the "personal power of character," what she called "myself as a self." This aspect of her was unbounded by sex distinction and therefore had the capacity to be equal to that of a man. 

She met her first husband, the aspiring artist and poet Charles Walter Stetson, on January 12, 1882. Within 17 days of their first meeting, Stetson proposed, but Charlotte noted in her diary: "I have this day been asked the one great question in a womans [sic] life and have refused." Charlotte was already firm in her decision that her life's mission would be to improve the world. She warned her suitor in a letter (recorded in Endure: The Diaries of Charles Walter Stetson): "Let me tell you…that I am not the combining sort. I don't combine, and I don't want to. My nature is the polliest of polygons, whose unhappiness it is true depends on the contact of its many faces…but which keeps its own unchanging shape…my life is one of private aspiration and development, and of public service…I will give and give and give you of myself, but never give myself to you or any man. " 

Thus began the fraught, anxious courtship of Stetson and Charlotte: a courtship that was to last nearly two-and-a-half years. Charlotte was torn between her love for Stetson and her desire for marriage, family, and home; and the certainty that marriage and motherhood would leech her time and energy for pursuing her own work and ambitions. She explained her agony to Stetson:

  "There will be times when this frenzy for freedom boils up with force, which ungratified, would bring misery to myself and those around me; and there will be times when the woman's heart will wake and cry with heart-rending loneliness.
  Then shall I seek for you like a dream—the tired child that wakes and feels for its mother, and if I do not find you there is nothing but a great blackness and despair, a deep remorseful agony, the unending horror of feeling that I myself have thrust you from me and woven my own shroud…
  Now these things are before me: I give myself to you and honorably fulfil my duties at whatever cost: subduing my deep-rooted desires and crushing out this Doppelgänger of mine whenever it appears. In due time I should reach content I doubt not; and should only suffer at intervals. 
  And if the glorious sweetness of our love held its own in both of us should know joy enough to overweigh all pain.
  Or: I leave you, and strengthen myself at all points, subduing in turn fierce heartache when it rose. In due time I should reach content, I doubt not, and should only suffer at intervals. And if my promise of energy and power hold its own, my sense of duty and place fulfilled would counterbalance heartaches." 

Although Stetson never placed her under any ultimatum, throughout the courtship he did try to encourage the part of Charlotte who desired matrimony and domesticity, and to discourage the Doppelgänger:

"[Charlotte] had one of those spasms of wanting to make a name for herself in the world by doing good work: wanting to have people know her as Charlotte Perkins, not the wife of me. She drew back with her old time feeling of independence from the prospect of sinking herself in our community. God alone knows how the terrible mood came again to her, for one could scarce find a happier being than she has been for months, or one more desirous of making me happy and of having a home & husband, & children & undying love.…She had a wild theory about living in one place—a home of her 'own' and having me come and see her when the erotic tendency was at a maximum. Of course I would not do that: and I would not think much of a man who would do it. The sweetest of marriage is cooperation towards advancement: close communion at all times, and the founding of a hearth. I will accept nothing else." 

By the summer of 1983 (following a brief trial "separation" from Stetson in the spring), Charlotte made her choice: she would try to accommodate Stetson's view that "her work is to be done if done well and to purpose by getting into harmony with that 'woman' [inside her] instead of trying to murder it." Charlotte Perkins and Walter Stetson were married on 2nd May 1884, in Providence Rhode Island. This was a huge change in Charlotte's previously fiercely independent and career-oriented life: she now found her time sucked up by domestic chores, leaving little time for her creative work. She attempted some rebellions: a week after the wedding, she wrote in her diary, "I suggested he [Walter] pay me for my services; and he much dislikes the idea. I am grieved at offending him; mutual misery. Bed and cry." In her later work, The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), she would talk about, "the home which is so far from beautiful, so wearing to the nerves and dulling to the heart, the home life that means care and labour and disappointment, the quiet, unnoticed whirlpool that sucks down youth and beauty and enthusiasm, man's long labour and woman's longer love." The Yellow Wallpaper is in part Gilman’s fictitious interpretation of the guilt of a traditional woman who feels herself failing to fulfil her socially-dictated role as wife and mother, and how that internal struggle affects her mental health.

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