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WILLIAM VEEDER Who is Jane? The Intricate Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman Until we see what we are, we cannot take steps to become what we should be. Charlotte Perkins Gilman So there is trouble enough, if one would grieve. Charles Walter Stetson ear the end of "The Yellow Wallpaper," the heroine says suddenly : "'I've got out at last ... in spite of you and Jane'" (19). Who is Jane? No character in the story answers to this name. Ifwe can define "Jane," we can, I believe, explain much about Charlotte Perkins Gilman's intricate feminist vision. My explanation grows out of recent critical work, particularly by feminist scholars, who have established "The Yellow Wallpaper" for what it is—one of the great American stories of the nineteenth century, and one of the premier women's texts. By defining a context beyond Poesque horror and clinical casestudy , Kolodny, Hedges, and others have convincingly described the heroine's confrontation with patriarchy.1 What remains to be examined is another source of the heroine's victimization. Herself. Like every adult, she brings with her into marriage various problematic tendencies lingering from childhood. Gilman's heroine is thus doubly beset, and Gilman's indictment of Victorian marriage is inevitably two-fold. Not only do adult males exercise tyranical power over peer-aged women, Arizona Quarterly Volume 44 Number 3, Autumn 19 Copyright O 1988 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 004-1610 "The Yellow Wallpaper"41 but marriage itself exacerbates rather than ameliorates the problematic tendencies from childhood. Gilman herself insisted upon the inextricable link between childhood trauma and adult dysfunction. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman places her unhappy marriage to Charles Walter Stetson in the context of her unhappy youth. That part of the ruin [of her life as a young adult] was due to the conditions ofchildhood I do not doubt. . . . the immediate and continuing cause was mismarriage. (Living 97-98^ Marriage is an immediate rather than the exclusive cause of adult unhappiness because both spouses come to wedlock trailing clouds of earlier difficulties. Gilman establishes, for example, that her "depressions" had begun by 1879, a full three years before she met Walter. Although he definitely contributed to the breakdown ofhis wife and his marriage, Charlotte insists that "our mistake was mutual. . . . Our suffering was mutual too" (Living 97). "The Yellow Wallpaper" is not an exact transcription of The Living, of course, but the autobiographical story shares the autobiography's developmental model of illness because both texts grow from Gilman's life-long determination to "see what we are."5 The result is an intricate dramatization of conjugality. The wife in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is not wholly blameless nor the husband entirely at fault. Childhood elements permeate conjugal conflicts so fundamentally that "The Yellow Wallpaper" cannot, I believe, be seen as simply "a study of a young mother painstakingly and lovingly driven into madness by a well-meaning husband" (Lane xvi). Only with the ruin of both spouses is Gilman's indictment of patriarchy complete: "I was deeply impressed with the injustices under which women suffered, and still more with the ill effects upon all mankind of this injustice" (Living 61). Gilman's fierce honesty enables us to recognize how much of the adult unhappiness of herself and her heroine derives from one of the besetting difficulties of female development—"boundary" problems. Although both girl and boy children undergo an individuation process which necessitates separating from mother and establishing parameters for the personality,4 girls are distinguished from boys in most cultures by the extent of individualization effected: 42William Veeder Girls, in identifying themselves as female, experience themselves as like their mothers, thus fusing the experience of attachment with the process of identity formation. . . . male development entails a 'more emphatic individuation and a more defensive firming of experienced ego boundaries.' . . . For girls and women, issues of femininity or feminine identity do not depend on the achievement of separation from the mother or on the progress of individuation. (Gilligan 7—8) Resisting the misogynistic conclusion that women thus have "weaker" boundary egos than men, Gilligan agrees with Chodorow about both the advantages and the dangers offemale development. On the positive side...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 40-79
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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