“To the Young Wife” by Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman was a staunch supporter of women’s rights and development and was really not recognized as a major author of fiction and poetry until the 1960s.She was born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut and wrote book length non-fiction tracts in support of women. She dies in 1935 without recognition as an artist. Her short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is rather autobiographical as she suffered such “treatment” for post-partum depression herself. It details a woman’s descent into madness from the combination of the illness and the treatment. Her poetry is rather didactic, but well written and certainly served the author’s purpose and addressed her target audience.

Analysis

The form of the poem is traditional, iambic pentameter with four line verses in an ABBA rhyme pattern. She uses very ordinary language, quite different for poets of her time to express her feelings about the duty of all women. She wanted to stir women to action on their own behalf, to lift them about the secondary existence of wife/mother in a patriarchal society.

She addresses her audience directly and uses light sarcasm to point out that their lives are quite limited, though society used flowery words to persuade otherwise: Queen of the house (line8: queen of a cook-stove throne). She used an image of lines of other “queens” on all sides, each “fastened in her place” to point out the severely limited lives they led.

Next, she appeals to the women’s duty to their children, especially the girls, to make sure that their lives will be better. She reminds the audience of the dreams of girlhood, before the reality of the limited role of women could squash them, dreams of changing the world.

In the last verse she points out that it is the “throne” with all its limitations that holds women back, keeps them working as unpaid slaves in a limited life that helps neither husband, children nor the world at large.

We can imagine this poem almost as a political speech for women’s suffrage. She points out that women are denied education, and are kept “in their places”, bound by society’s mores and tradition and their own fear or indifference. She uses the metaphor of fake royalty throughout the poem almost in a lightly sarcastic way, saying it is a handy excuse for inaction. She points out that women largely worked alone in their homes, hinting at collective action perhaps.

The author is very present as a character in this poem, speaking directly to the audience of women. Nothing in this poem is aimed at men, and she may have expected that men would never read it. After all, women were not seriously published at this time. Any woman achieving greatness was seen as an anomaly, maybe even a freak. However, this was all to support the patriarchal culture, keeping the real power “safely” in the hands of men. She calls the “woman” who personifies her audience “Untaught ….., untrained, perplexed, distressed”. Women were not usually educated, except at the higher levels of society, and these women were educated in order to make them better partners for their husbands, more interesting as companions and better mothers. They were not expected to really do anything else.

The author presents opposing contrasts throughout the poem:

  • Live on what your loving husband loves to give: and give to him your life.
  • To clean things dirty and to soil things clean.
  • To be a kitchen-maid, be called a queen.
  • A wooden palace and a yard-fenced land.
  • Losing no love, but finding as you grew.
  • Your paltry queenship in that narrow place: Your antique labours, your restricted space.
  • Your wifely bond: the mother’s royal power.

These contrasts point out the illusions of power in the women’s lives. At that period in history, the husband literally owned his wife and all her possessions. A wife could not sign a legal document nor borrow money without her husband’s permission and signature. This was still so until the late seventies in many states. All kinds of inequalities existed and they were enforced within the “bonds” of marriage.

Conclusion

In verse seven (lines 21-24) the author makes a very strong statement that she thinks women can and should make the world a different place. She hints that it is their duty to move out of their limited roles as wives and mothers and take a hand in running the world.

For its time, this poem was quite different in its simple direct style and it was inflammatory too. It might have been written to accompany some of the theoretical political work of the author for women’s rights.

To The Young Wife

  1. Are you content, you pretty three-years’ wife?
  2. Are you content and satisfied to live
  3. On what your loving husband loves to give,
  4. And give to him your life?
  5. Are you content with work, – to toil alone,
  6. To clean things dirty and to soil things clean;
  7. To be a kitchen-maid, be called a queen, –
  8. Queen of a cook-stove throne?
  9. Are you content to reign in that small space –
  10. A wooden palace and a yard-fenced land –
  11. With other queens abundant on each hand,
  12. Each fastened in her place?
  13. Are you content to rear your children so?
  14. Untaught yourself, untrained, perplexed, distressed,
  15. Are you so sure your way is always best?
  16. That you can always know?
  17. Have you forgotten how you used to long
  18. In days of ardent girlhood, to be great,
  19. To help the groaning world, to serve the state,
  20. To be so wise – so strong?
  21. And are you quite convinced this is the way,
  22. The only way a woman’s duty lies –
  23. Knowing all women so have shut their eyes?
  24. Seeing the world to-day?
  25. Having no dream of life in fuller store?
  26. Of growing to be more than that you are?
  27. Doing the things you know do better far,
  28. Yet doing others – more?
  29. Losing no love, but finding as you grew
  30. That as you entered upon nobler life
  31. You so became a richer, sweeter wife,
  32. A wiser mother too?
  33. What holds you? Ah, my dear, it is your throne,
  34. Your paltry queenship in that narrow place,
  35. Your antique labours, your restricted space,
  36. Your working all alone!
  37. Be not deceived! ‘Tis not your wifely bond
  38. That holds you, nor the mother’s royal power,
  39. But selfish, slavish service hour by hour –
  40. A life with no beyond!