After all there was nothing impossible in it: Polemic and utopia in the writing of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Jennifer Ruth Thomson, Marquette University


Since the resurgence of scholarly interest in Gilman (1860-1935), beginning with a 1956 article by Carl Degler, feminists and literary historians have discussed her work at length. Early feminist arguments, including those by Degler, Ellen Moers, and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, emphasize Gilman's contribution to feminist ideology and literature by women. Scholars such as Carol Farley Kessler and Carol A. Kolmerten have examined various aspects of Gilman's utopianism. This dissertation examines Gilman's polemic ideology as well as her emerging utopianism as they both develop throughout her writing career. Beginning with her first published poem, Gilman's polemic focuses on equality between the sexes. Equality, however, is not an end in itself for Gilman. Instead, it is the ancillary means toward her dominant end of serving humanity. In support of that end, Gilman proposes collectivized cooking, professional housekeeping, economic independence for both husband and wife, and professional child care. These polemical themes appear throughout Gilman's writing and ultimately converge in her later utopian fiction. Although the thematic center of her work remains unchanged throughout her career, the paths she follows in exploration of that center evolve as her career progresses. From her earliest extant juvenilia (ca. 1870) through her 1935 autobiography, Gilman's literary productions follow two often convergent evolutionary paths, one polemical and the other utopian. Although "The Yellow Wall-Paper" (1892) marks a significant development in her literary career and Women and Economics (1898) remains her most influential work of non-fiction, each of these works represents an intermediate stage in the evolution of her writing. This dissertation argues that Gilman's polemic and utopia evolve over the course of her writing career and achieve ultimate convergence in her culminant fictional work, the 1915 feminist utopian novel Herland. This argument is unique in Gilman scholarship in its emphasis on the development of her utopianism throughout her career as well as its discussion of the relationship between polemic and utopia in Gilman's writing. As the culmination of both polemic and utopia, Herland represents the climax of both the literary and social reform aspects of Gilman's writing.

Recommended Citation

Thomson, Jennifer Ruth, "After all there was nothing impossible in it: Polemic and utopia in the writing of Charlotte Perkins Gilman" (1996). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9717070.