“Creationism” as Theme: Two Women's Voices in the 19th Century (Browning and Gilman)
In a striking example of how similar discontents may be artistically expressed in dramatically different ways, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Perkins Gilman each take on certain social injustices inherent in being a woman of their time from very unique positions. Both women speak to the reader from the nineteenth century, and both employ very specific literary devices to achieve their ends; Browning adopts the voice of a young black woman in “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point”, and Gilman chooses to tell her story in a confessional, short-story narration. The techniques share a commonality, as each is essentially a “character” through which the author may express herself. Moreover, and in seemingly contrasting ways, each woman arrives at something of the same place, in terms of the impact of the works. Both Browning and Gilman speak out against the oppression of women, and both strongly suggest that the visceral power of the woman to “create”, be it artistically or biologically, is a force that men may only temporarily keep in check.
Browning and the Literally “Maternal”
It is likely that Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem about a black slave girl was controversial in its time, for she defies more than one nineteenth century convention in the work. On one level, there is the radical aspect of a white and somewhat privileged woman taking on the persona of an oppressed slave girl, a form of expression certainly not common in the literature of the era. Then, there is the story of the poem itself, which points to a degree of subjugation beyond that of slavery; the narrator's story as she moves to her death tells of the murder of her true love and implied rape at the hands of her white master. Most shocking of all is the core of the poem, in which the girl relates her deliberate smothering and killing of the white baby she bore from the assault.
The poem has extraordinary power because it blatantly addresses issues central, not so much to slavery, but to how a woman is/was expected to feel regarding motherhood. After the narrator relates the death of her love and her current state with the white child she did not want, the reader may be reasonably expected to anticipate a loving response growing from within the slave. White and the product of abuse, this is nonetheless her baby, and long centuries of patriarchal tradition insist upon such a bond being felt and exalted. This is not, however, possible for the narrator, although she seems to be aware of the perversion of her own, maternal impulses: “But I dared not sing to the white-faced child/ The only song I knew” (Browning XIX, 6-7). The reality is that, for this horrifically oppressed female, the nightmare of the child's paternity eclipses her innate desire to love.
This is the true force of Browning's poem, for it conveys a message that is nearly a warning to mankind. The creative and natural power of the woman to give life ultimately resides within the woman, and men who abuse women tread on very dangerous ground. They dare not rely on a female need to love and nurture a child when the child is not wanted by the mother or begotten through violent means; they may not ever appropriate any part of the woman's prerogative in this most fundamental and necessary form of creation. Moreover, as the narrator is surrounded by those hunting her at the poem's close, she defies and reviles them for their greater sin, that which occasioned her own: “You have killed the black eagle at nest, I think:/ Did you never stand still in your triumph, and shrink/ From the stroke of her wounded wing?” (Browning XXX, 5-7). In these lines is a disturbing and potent implication of the doom man brings on himself, when he abuses the source of life itself. In this poem, Browning employs the sheer might of maternity to demonstrate how social oppression of women must be, always, both a perversion of nature and a self-defeating act.
The Maternal in the Figurative Sense
Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” appears on first reading to be removed from any feminist or women's issues. The story is simple and runs along a fairly predictable track, as the narrator descends increasingly deeply into a kind of psychosis, as her obsession with the ugly wallpaper of her room is seen by her as a menacing, tormenting thing. Moreover, there is no reference whatsoever to actual maternity in the story, so it would seem more a Gothic tale of madness than any expression of how injustice affects women.
The story is not as simple as that. It is true that the narrator presents a scenario common to such Gothic tales, in that a convalescent resents her confinement by a loving husband. Two factors crucial to the tale, however, indicate a strong argument for how the creative, or “maternal”, power of a woman may be disastrously perverted, as what occurs with Browning's slave girl in a more literal way. The first is that it is made clear that the residence is an old nursery, and this has an influence on how the reader perceives the narrator. That is to say, she is a woman who is treated by her husband, as well as her brother, very much like a child; furthermore, the way she initially presents her story is childlike. This element adds a duality to her recount, in that she seems both woman and baby: independent in thought, yet completely protected and insulated.
The other factor playing into the deeper themes of the story is the insistence, and from the start, on the narrator's frustrated creativity. The reader learns she is a writer, early on, but she is “absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well again” (Gilman). She expresses how, contrary to her husband's and doctor's thinking, she is quite sure that work, as well as some social activity, would do her good, but these men will not allow it: “I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. But he said I wasn't able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there” (Gilman). The narrator appears to accept all the restrictions placed upon her, yet some resentment is evident.
It is not coincidental that these references to her captivity are interspersed with her remarks and misgivings about her location, as it seems that her stifled creativity finds expression in reinventing her surroundings. Most importantly, her interpretations are increasingly sinister, especially regarding the eponymous wallpaper: “The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight” (Gilman). Finally, fully giving into the creations of her mind, the narrator perceives that the wallpaper conceals a trapped woman, who may or may not be the narrator herself. Through this unique metaphor, Gilman reveals that even the best-intentioned oppression by men may have disastrous results for a woman. This narrator is not denied the opportunity to have a baby, but her creative life force is being thwarted. The implication is that men, insensible of what a woman requires to fulfill herself, use their power, socially and domestically, to harm and sicken.
Two such different works as those of Browning and Gilman do not, of course, reflect exactly the same ideas and precepts. However, and in spite of the evident and pronounced differences in composition, “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” both make strong statements about how a woman's essence may be perverted by male interference and subjugation. Both Browning and Gilman address the oppression of women, and each writer strongly suggests that the visceral power of the woman to “create”, be it artistically or biologically, is something that men may only temporarily control.
Browning, E. B. “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point.” Anthology Title. City: Publisher, date. Print.
Gilman, C. P. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Anthology Title. City: Publisher, date. Print.