Tag Archives: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Sleep in Fiction

Through most of my life sleep has seemed a waste of time. Other people seem to relish it, want more of it, but I have always felt that I would rather be reading, writing, knitting, talking or even awake.

I know that sleep has a function for humans, not fully understood, with both physical and psychological effects. So a recent bout of bad sleeping focused my mind on sleep in fiction. Considering we spend about one third of our lives asleep it is strange that it does not feature more in novels. 

It is useful for novelists as a passage into the next scene. It is used when writers want their main character to emerge from sleep in a befuddled state so they can be surprised by something they take time to understand. Another function is that the sleeper when awoken suddenly is more credulous, or more willing to write off what they have witnessed during the night. And the lack of sleep, as we know, can be very disorienting. 

You can find dreams, any number of dreams, in fiction. Dreams that foretell, or warn, or explain, or reveal the turmoil in the characters’ minds. But dreams are not the focus of this post.

Here are four works of fiction in which sleep plays an important role

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 
  2. Night Waking by Sarah Moss
  3. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  4. Insomnia by Stephen King

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

First Edition of Jane Eyre 1847

We know that our heroine is in trouble again when she is awoken in Thornfield Hall by a woman’s hysterical laughter in the night. Soon after this Jane saves Mr Rochester from being burnt alive during the night. She is told that these events are caused by Grace Poole, but the madwoman in the attic is not Grace Poole. She is of course an inconvenient wife. This is how we are introduced to Mr Rochester’s dark secret and the revelation is the cause of yet another reversal in Jane’s fortunes.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011)

As the title suggests the tensions in this novel come from lack of sleep. Anna Bennett, her husband Giles and their two children are spending the summer on Colsay, a St Kilda-like island. She is suffering from lack of sleep. She also suffers from lack of time to finish her book and from lack of internet connection. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.

Anna’s story becomes serious when the skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house. This leads her to spend time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. Her story is interwoven with letters from May, a young woman from Victorian times, who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants. Eventually the two stories coincide.

The novel is written in the first person and the humour is found in the authenticity of her chaotic life and her commentary upon it. At one point it seems as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end all these difficulties are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation. And by the end Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children’s sleeplessness and recommitted to her marriage. Recommended reading by many people I know.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman found society’s attitude to women deeply repugnant and she was a critic of their treatment. In this long short story she describes how a woman is treated (medically and psychologically) in order to bring her to the proper attitudes of a wife. It was based on her own experience.

The narrator undergoes a rest cure, in a room in which the wall paper is a hideous yellow. Her husband is a physician and it is his prescription. She is required to do nothing and takes to sleeping more and more during the day as she can’t sleep at night. The act of sleeping emphasises her helplessness. She gradually identifies with a woman she sees in the wallpaper, and escapes.

Insomnia by Stephen King (1994)

I have not read this horror story, but I refer to it as it came up repeatedly when I googled some variation of novels/fictions and sleep. When I looked up the plot on Wikipedia I was mystified, but it centred on a main character who sees things as a result of insomnia.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (2018)

And I recommend this memoir:

A sublime view of the treasures and torments to be found in wakefulness. Entertaining and existential, the brightest star in this erudite, nocturnal reverie in search of lost sleep, is the beauty of the writing itself. (Deborah Levy)

This slim book sits on my bedside table and I dip into its paragraphs and reflections on insomnia and sleep as required. 

Over to you …

Have you any suggestions of novels where sleep is important to add to my selection?


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Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Utopias are irresistible. This feminist utopia has much to recommend it, at least as a book. The supreme function of fiction is to offer a different way of seeing the world. Charlotte Perkins Gilman gives her readers a world without men in her utopia, called Herland.

In Women & PowerMary Beard explores the historic silencing of women and the current constructions of power that exclude women. That book reminded me about Herland. I decided to treat myself to a reread.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It is the early twentieth century and young men are proving themselves through exploration in Africa, Antarctica and up the Amazon. Three young men, in search of adventure, are determined to find the fabled land rumoured to be peopled by women only. They approach with many assumptions in place. They assume they will be welcomed, that there are men managing things, and if not seen the men must be pulling the strings from some glorious hiding place.

Terry is a rich, virile and confident young man, not used to being denied by anyone, above all women. He expects to conquer the women. Jeff is a southerner, and his respect and reverence for women makes understanding Herland easier for him than for his macho companion. But his worship is of weak and feeble women, and the inhabitants of Herland are not that. They are assertive, powerful and in no need of protection. Van, the narrator, likes to take a scientific approach to the world, more questioning, less prone to assumptions. Even he is amazed by what they find in that hidden land.

The young men are certain that the place will provide them with opportunities for conquest and power.

“They would fight amongst themselves,” Terry insisted. “Women always do. We mustn’t look to find any sort of order and organization.”

“You’re dead wrong,” Jeff told him. “It will be like a nunnery under an abbess – a peaceful, harmonious sisterhood.”

I snorted derision at this idea.

“Nuns, indeed! Your peaceful sisterhoods were all celibate, Jeff, and under vows of obedience. These are just women, and mothers, and where there’s motherhood you don’t find sisterhood – not much.”

“No, sir – they’ll scrap,” agreed Terry. “Also we mustn’t look for invention and progress, it’ll be awfully primitive.” (7)

On encountering some women, they discover that their accustomed ways of approaching women do not result in the outcomes they expect. And when they become more aggressive many women arrive and subdue and detain them. They attempt one escape but after a while cooperate to learn about Herland.

Reflecting on their early days in Herland the visitors find that they were surprised that many of the inhabitants were older women and that these older women took charge of them.

In our discussion and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women, whatever else they might be, would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy.

“Woman” in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it altogether. But these good ladies were very much on the stage, and yet any one of them might have been a grandmother. (17)

Some of the pleasure of the novel is in anticipating the ways in which the men’s preconceptions will be challenged as they gradually learn about how the women organise their society. In comparing the strange country with their own the three men find that they want to hide much about their homeland: poverty, disease, inequality, war and so forth.

They are eventually expelled, or leave or remain in the paradise. Terry believes in the superiority of men and that the relationships between men and women as he has experienced them are the natural order of things. It is his behaviour, his sexual violence, which leads to his expulsion. Jeff finds happiness in Herland and Van returns with Terry.

Is Herland a paradise?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman constructed a land based on assumptions that challenged those common in early twentieth century America. Its principles were rational, and the women worked together for the benefit of all. Their sexless motherhood was seen as almost sacred by them, and the outcomes of their cooperation included equality, generosity, shared knowledge, wealth and good feeling. Without men the women had rejected competition and values based on strength, acquisition and exclusivity.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was reacting to a society that she found deeply repugnant in its treatment of women. She wrote her short story The Yellow Wallpaper in 1892. In it she describes how a woman is treated (medically, psychologically) in order to bring her to the proper attitudes of a wife. It was based on her own experience of marriage.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman in c 1900

And she is no less a product of her time. In particular, this imagined female-dominated society is governed by rational thinking. And we know, we cannot escape the knowledge that humans, male and female, do not always act rationally.

The chapters in which the men discover the ways in which women organise various aspects of their community, become a little tedious. The expectation by the reader that the narrative will reveal the amusing shortcomings of the men’s attitudes cannot be sustained as they and the reader become more familiar with Herland.

Herald is a mischievous and lively exposition of women’s capabilities, and reminds us of how the men of Charlotte Gilman Perkin’s time viewed women and of how little has changed since then.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first serialised in 1909 and published as a book in 1979. I read the Dover Thrift Edition. 124pp

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Women and Power: a manifesto by Mary Beard

I love the way that Mary Beard refuses to keep quiet, as people try to silence her through twitter trolling and snidey comments about her television appearances. But Mary Beard keeps on writing her best-selling history books. She continues to be a respected academic at Cambridge University. And she has not compromised on her appearance, refusing to colour her hair and to alter how she wears it. And now she steps into the feminist ring too with Women and Power: a manifesto.

The attacks on her are misogynistic. They are attempts to silence a woman. To deny her knowledge, intellectual capacity and expertise and to hide her from those who would celebrate her perceived transgressions.

Last Christmas I gave away several copies of Women and Power. I hoped to receive a copy in turn, but it was not to be. So I have only just acquired and read this short book.

Actually that’s not quite true. As a subscriber to the London Review of Books I read the first essay when it appeared in 2014. The second is still buried in my tbr pile of LRBs.

The Public Voice of Women

The first section is based on a 2014 lecture for London Review of Books. It explores the very deep roots of the record of men silencing women: The Public Voice of Women. She is a classical scholar so she begins with The Odyssey and the moment when Telemachus tells Penelope to shut up and go back to her quarters. She notes that it is a mark of his arrival at manhood. But it is also one of the first pieces of written evidence that show women denied the right to speak in public spaces.

She points out that some things have changed but that today when women are allowed to speak it is often on so-called women’s issues, such as childcare, or women’s reproductive rights or health. She argues that we need to explore how we speak in public, why, on what subjects and whose voice fits. And challenge this where necessary.

Women in Power

The second lecture is called Women in Power (2017). In this Mary Beard considers how frequently women have been denied power, or they are punished for trying to acquire it, and concludes that a more radical approach is required. Tinkering and gradual progress are unlikely to change the structures that exclude women. We need to change the structure. Power needs to be redefined, shared, not seen as a thing but as ‘an attribute or even a verb’.

She questions the idea of power and leadership as elite, coupled with public prestige and individual charisma. This idea is reinforced by the notion of power as a possession. And in all cultures power is associated with men.

On those terms, women as a gender – and not as some individuals – are by definition excluded from it [power]. You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male. You have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession. (86-87)

She makes pertinent references to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (serialised 1909–1916, first published in book form in 1979). In the country of Herland there are no men and power and leadership are exercised differently. The men who stumble upon this hidden civilization cannot believe that there are not men leaders hidden away somewhere. Time to reread this novel I think.

My experience

I once held a position of potential power. I was a secondary headteacher in inner London from the late 1980s. It was a time of immense change in education and schools, and I was horrified to come up against the misogynist behaviour of some teachers. I tried to lead by collaboration, but time and again there was confrontation and challenge. And when I went on to work on the new qualification for headteachers and at the University in School Improvement, I came up against traditional models of leadership (male) as the answer to school problems (think super-heads, think leadership college). It is hard to battle against strongly entrenched cultural ideas about power and leadership.

So I like the idea of trying to find new ways of sharing power in all spheres and challenging some very old structures and practices. It starts with being heard and moves on to structural change.

Women and Power: a manifesto by Mary Beard, published in 2017 by Profile Books. 116pp

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