A Diantha Book by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I have an amazing colleague named Diantha.  She is a Master’s student at my university and a former elementary school teacher, and because some of my PhD classes are cross listed, I get to have classes with her.  We took a rhetorical theory class together last semester, and this semester she was in my technology and culture seminar.

She knows I am into feminism (who doesn’t?) and consequently brought me a book.  It is What Diantha Did (1909-10) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, famous for her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a frightening story of confinement after childbirth that highlights insensitivity to women’s issues, both mental and physical, in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  That story is autobiographical.

what diantha did cover

It was nice of my friend Diantha to lend me her namesake book!  In What Diantha Did, there is no clawing at seemingly alive yellow wallpaper, but there is feminism.  Diantha is a young lady engaged to be married, but her fiancé must help his mother and many sisters financially before he can save enough money to start married life.  Diantha does the only sensible thing she can think to do.  She goes to work to earn money faster.

Her family disapproves, so she presents the plan to her father in numbers.  She calculates the cost of her living with her family minus what they should be paying her for all of the work she does.  She uses fair market values to make her calculations, and in presenting the information, offends her father beyond words.  In addition, her family members are confused and somewhat disgraced by her going into domestic service.  (I am learning more and more that, historically, when a wife “worked,” it was because of financial problems or the inability of the husband.  It is seen as a sign of weakness or poverty.  See the research of Ruth Schwartz Cowan for more about this.)

Diantha does not let her family deter her and she heads out into the world.  Of course, she becomes wildly successful, eventually turning her work ethic and system into a business and from there into a utopian communal society where all of the women pool their resources for childcare and housework.  It is a dream of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a la Bronson Alcott and the transcendentalists or, yes, even the early Mormon settlers of the Salt Lake Valley.  Such communal living arrangements are scorned and scoffed at, even called communist.  I guess that is the root of the word, but on paper, communal living should be harmonious and desirable.  But historically we Americans have rejected such ideas and communities as radical and subversive.  We prize individualism more, me included.

So Diantha’s venture succeeds, but not without resistance and opposition along the way.  But in the end, it turns out happily.  There are some bumps in getting to marry her man, but he comes around and realizes that she is admirable and worthwhile.  This part of the story, that her fiancé is angry at first and prideful and refuses to marry her, although her financial success is what makes their marriage possible, is somewhat maddening.  But his reaction is realistic.  It is such a pity that for him to come around requires his traveling abroad and hearing of her accomplishments and their warm reception around the globe.   I guess he finds that her accomplishments are only admirable when large numbers of people are admiring them.

So this novella, although feminist and fun and interesting, is not very well written. The narrative is choppy and confusing at times.  There is not clear story arc or plot.  The conflicts and resolutions happen quickly and without cohesion.  Overall, I do not appreciate Gilman’s prose, but I admire her tenacity, her activism, and her bravery.  Her own life was somewhat fraught, and I can’t say I agree with all of her decisions, but her literature is something I find interesting and enjoyable.

12 thoughts on “A Diantha Book by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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  1. I haven’t read this book, but from your synopsis, it’s hard to sympathize with Diantha in her choices. So, if it’s all about the money (or not having the money), why marry the guy? Of course, it is likely written for a different time, when women, presumably, had fewer choices. Perhaps she loved the man, but it seems more like she got stuck with him and his financially dependent female relatives, so she must now provide for herself in his family while he provides for them. Wouldn’t it be better to stay single, or find another, less encumbered, man?

    In any case, I like books that you sort of take a chance on. Maybe you share the author’s name, or a character’s name. Maybe you like the pretty cover. Sometimes the chance is fun and becomes a favorite, and sometimes not so much.

    1. Whew! Thanks for breaking the silence on this post. 🙂 Yes, she should not marry the stupid guy in the end. He really doesn’t appreciate her. I see it as an attempt by Gilman to present some feminist options, but then backtrack and fail in articulating that completely. A lot of female authors of the time did the same thing, and my theory is that they did not know exactly how to articulate it or how to carry it all the way through. It was all so new and maybe less appreciated. Plus, novels aren’t much fun when there isn’t a neat, tidy ending. Great comment. Thanks for the encouragement to take chances on books. Sometimes it can be rewarding. I had that experience with Cronin’s The Green Years. It is so great, and I just randomly found it on the shelves at the library and thought, “Let’s try this one.”

  2. Oooh, fabu review. I love Gilman as a person and the topics she does write about, but I’ve barely been able to get into her writing. Even Yellow Wallpaper took some effort on my part. I attempted Herland once and quit barely a chapter in. STILL — I might try this — I love the name Diantha!!

  3. Emily, your comment about a wife working being perceived as a sign of weakness or poverty is interesting. As an old fart, I have seen this perception in others and it even still exists today in upper crust circles, when it should not even be an issue anymore. Fortunately, most people today witness (and require) both spouses working and with our rampant divorce rates, each individual has to work.

    The US view on communal living is interesting as well. There is an interesting study correlating healthier longevity and living with multiple generations of family in a communal setting. There is a community of Italian immigrants in PA where grandparents/ parents/ children/ grandhchildren live in one house. That is the only arrangement they could afford, but it also led to healthier lifestyles for all because of the generational and elongated conversations and sense of community.

    Sorry to take the conversation in a different direction, but not having read this, I gravitated toward these issues. I hope you don’t mind. BTG

    1. Thanks, BTG! It is interesting how we are a more individualistic society. There is a lot of work on this and the differences from other cultures in intercultural research circles. I think the two types of societies are called universalist and particularist, and they both have pros and cons. It would be nice if we were all more connected through the generations, but it would also be rough on some of us!

  4. This is not a response to this post, though I found it interesting. I love early feminist literature. I was just in Iceland and went to a tiny island called Heimaey. Apparently in 1846 200 Icelanders from this island converted to Mormonism and moved all the way to Utah. I just find that to be so amazing that this obscure, completely isolated place, especially in the mid 19th century, had such brave pioneers. I thought you would find that interesting if you did not already know this.

    1. Fascinating! I had no idea. It does remind me that in early Mormonism, the church sent missionaries all over the world to obscure and distant places. Because of this, when Pakistan decided to stop allowing proselytizing, but allowed service missionaries from faiths that had been there more than 100 years, the LDS missionaries were allowed to stay because they’d been there so long. Thanks for sharing!

        1. True, but most of the time I don’t feel connected to it because my mom’s parents were converts and my dad was a convert, so I have zero familial connection to those early pioneers. I feel like an outsider sometimes because of this.

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