Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, "The Giant Wistaria" was first published in June 1891 in The New England Magazine, the same journal that would publish "The Yellow Wallpaper" a year later in 1892. These were difficult years in Gilman's life: she had separated from her first husband, artist Charles Walter Stetson, and was attempting, unsuccessfully, to resolve her contradictory desires, on one hand, to be a good wife and mother in conventional terms, and on the other, to be autonomous and seriously dedicated to her work. In 1891-1892, Gilman (still using the name Stetson) was enjoying her first literary successes, confirming her decision to work politically for women's rights, and moving toward the painful decision to give up custody of her daughter, who, beginning in May 1894, would be raised by Stetson's second wife--whom Gilman considered a "co-mother."
Although "The Giant Wistaria" remains largely unknown while "The Yellow Wallpaper" has earned the status of American classic since its rediscovery by feminist critics in the 1970s, the two texts are easily seen as companions, for they share many of the same formal and thematic concerns. Both "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "The Giant Wistaria" explore the troubled nexus between the sexual repression of women, patriarchal control of motherhood, madness, and the anxiety of authorship. Both are fragmented in form and depend for their correct interpretation on a community of sympathetic readers implicitly constructed by Gilman as feminist, if not also female.
"The Giant Wistaria" is a story in two parts. The first, which takes place at least one hundred years before the second, concerns the punishment of a young woman by her parents, especially by her father, for having borne an illegitimate child. The second part takes place in the present, that is, in the late nineteenth century, as a group of young people--Mr. and Mrs. Jenny, their "pretty sisters" and their sisters' suitors--discover the house's horrific secret. Gloria A. Biamonte's interpretation of "The Giant Wistaria" implicitly casts the young set as a community of readers and emphasizes the divisions of that community by gender. It is the women who are at first convinced that the house must have "a story, if we could only find it," while the men merely scoff and tease until the house will no longer permit that careless attitude. In addition, at the story's end it becomes clear that the women will be the house's most sensitive and skillful readers, as it is perhaps also clear that its gothic tale is intended as a warning for themselves.
What, then, does the house represent? Like the "ancestral mansion" of "The Yellow Wallpaper," the house beneath "The Giant Wistaria" is a symbol of patriarchal culture. Built, maintained, and controlled by men, the house is a place of entrapment for the woman at the story's center. The wistaria, on the other hand, is clearly a symbol of female presence and of the power of women (cast as a formidable force of nature) to dismantle patriarchal constructs: having been nurtured as a tender slip by the young woman's mother in part one, it comes to engulf the house in part two, threatening even to bring it down.
While the young Jennys and their siblings "move toward uncovering [the] century-old tale of a woman and her child--a tale that we, as readers, have been partly told in the opening segment of the story" (Biamonte 33-34), readers of "The Giant Wistaria" have a double duty to perform. First, with the characters of the story's second part, we too must attempt to read across at least a century of silence to reconstruct the first woman's story. We must also attempt to discover its place in Gilman's two-parted tale. We must discover, in other words, what tradition--what historical and cultural continuities--links the two halves of this story together. Readers inevitably must ask whether the (patriarchal) forces that shaped women's sexuality and the practices of motherhood in the past remain a force in the present, and if so, how. To what extent is the subject of sexuality still shrouded with shame and riddled with silence? Even today, are women free to love where we choose? And finally, what powers do women exercise over the institution of motherhood?
"The Giant Wistaria" has been reprinted at least twice since its original publication in 1891, once in the scholarly journal Legacy (1988) and later in an anthology of Gilman's writings edited by Robert Shulman (1995). The present electronic edition is the only contemporary reprint, however, that includes the two illustrations that originally appeared with the story in 1891.
Beer, Janet. Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction. NY: St. Martin's P, 1997.
Biamonte, Gloria A. "'...there is a story, if we could only find it': Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Giant Wistaria'." Legacy 5.2 (Fall 1988): 33-43.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories. Ed. Robert Shulman. NY: Oxford UP, 1995.
Hill, Mary A. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1980.
Knight, Denise D. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1997.
Lane, Ann J. To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. NY: Pantheon Books, 1990.
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