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Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper

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With her short story The Yellow Wallpaper Charlotte Perkins Gilman has created an amazing work of literature, a haunting gothic tale of descent into darkness, and at the same time an iconic text of early feminist literature. In the next but one century since it was written, it continues to grip the minds of readers, feminist theorists and literary critics.

Alan Ryan, in his “Haunted Women” anthology from 1988, calls it “one of the finest, and strongest, tales of horror ever written. It may be a ghost story. Worse yet, it may not.” Find out for yourself.

Herland

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Herland is a fantasy adventure story of the “lost world” genre — it seems likely that, to some degree, it has drawn inspiration from Henry Rider Haggard’s She. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, though, did not write her novels to entertain, she wrote them to take part in the political discourse, to advance the cause of feminism, at a time when women in the US did not even have the right to vote (the 19th Amendment, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” was not ratified until 1920, five years after the publication of Herland).

In Herland the author shows us a utopian society, egalitarian and non-violent, free of suffering and conflicts, but (or and, depending on your point of view) also free of passions, and without even a trace of sexuality. This ideal society is the background against which she highlights the failures, shortcomings and horrors of the world that we know and live in. “We,” as even a century later, despite undeniable progress that has been achieved for instance in gender relationships, much of this criticism is still sadly topical.

Even if it can be seen as an escapist fantasy rather than a call to or a blueprint for political action, the Herland duology (including the sequel, With Her in Ourland) is also a groundbreaking and quite readable work of early feminist fiction in its unflinching declaration of female powers, wisdom, and independence.

With Her in Ourland

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As the sequel to Herland, With Her in Ourland complements the utopian fantasy with a detailed criticism of the real world. More a discussion of early 20th century politics and society than a novel, this is still a book that deserves to be read and to be thought about.

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About the Author

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, born 1860, was a successful U.S. American author of poetry, short stories, essays, non-fiction books and novels, and also a journalist, lecturer, and one of the most prominent feminist theorists and activists of her time. Though some of her views, particularly on “race,” are problematic by today’s standards, her important contributions to feminist theory are still recognized and relevant.

After a difficult childhood and a failed first marriage, her second marriage was happy and lasted 34 years. In 1935, one year after her husband’s sudden death, terminally ill with breast cancer, she took her own life. Her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was published posthumously.

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