||This thesis aims to examine Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s critique of feminine
domesticity in her autobiographical story The Yellow Wallpaper and utopian fiction
Herland to delineate her radical feminist and socialist view of
turn-of-the-twentieth-century America. My thesis begins from the survey of
American feminist scholars’ criticism of the two texts over the last three decades to
see how they establish Gilman’s works as feminist “cult texts.” By adopting Nancy
Armstrong’s view of the formation of modern domesticating culture, I interrogate
Gilman’s strategy of battle against the contractions of modern gender distinctions and
the limitations of the middle-class womanhood.
In Chapter One, I explore how Gilman represents an ambitious middle-class
mother whose aggressive individualism subverts the gender hierarchy underpinning
heterosexual monogyny. The narrator’s engagement with the imprisoned woman
behind the wallpaper constitutes a form of “work” which has been forbidden
undercuts her husband’s tyrannical control. However, although the narrator
eventually poses a demonic threat to the household, her reductive interpretation of the
wallpaper’s complexity and her fear of sex makes her unable to formulate an entire
independent identity but reduces herself to be a creeping animal at the story’s end.
In Chapter Two, I deal with Gilman’s discourse on motherhood and examine
her vision of new heterosexuality in her depiction of Ellador and Van’s love in
Herland. This chapter interrogates Gilman’s strategy of calling for legitimation of
women’s unpaid domestic labor by creating a separate women’s space guided by
essentially female values and concerns. I indicate that her discourse on motherhood
is primarily premised on the cultural authority that modern industrial society has
granted women. Therefore, the new female subject, the national space and new
heterosexuality she reconfigures all underscore modern gender identity. At the same
time, she enhances her ethics of liberation to a higher plane which is intolerant of
difference and rejects sexual desires.
Chapter Three brings out the imperialist/ racist problematic in Herland ignored
by the second-wave feminists. I show how Gilman’s discourse participates in the
imperialist rationale of turn-of-the-twentieth-century America as she attempts to
creates a feminist nation in an Aryan settlement in the South, asserting that women
can achieve full liberation associated with their cultural authority because the
civilization of the nation requires women’s birth control and their skill of child-caring.
My scrutiny of the two texts demonstrates that Gilman’s feminism is formulated
upon the negation of sexuality and repression of the Other. In order to foreground
the primacy of women’s economic autonomy, she constitutes a universalized gender
value and makes white women as its embodiment. Such an dissociation of gender
from its social and historical context, as Armstrong reminds us, not only fails to
recognize whose interests that the normative behavior serve but also ends up unable to
change its dyadic structure. The women’s liberation that her white virgin mothers
carve out is merely an illusory identity created by their class and racial privilege.