Turned – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

Turned, typifies the privileged existence of an upper class married couple in England, probably during the early 1900s. The tale depicts what may be considered previously well-worn literary paths tracking complicated relationships including love triangles and transgressions involving ‘illegitimate’ children. What is, however, refreshing about this tale, is the way in which it makes some powerful statements about gender roles in relationships. I was impressed by the ease with which Gilman has been able to merge overt feminist ideologies into the text whilst still remaining true to the times by recognising the visible social class system and power dynamics between the central characters. The story not only heralds a message of empowerment for women to not allow themselves to be victimised but to rise above and out of situations that would usually serve to reinforce their place on the social ladder.

I feel that my middle class, educated background and gender identity definitely impacted on my initial receptiveness to the ideas promulgated in Turned. I was initially uplifted by the idea that this wife, treated so unjustly and badly by her husband and betrayed by a person she had cared for, could put all of this aside and do ‘the right thing’ by the vulnerable girl who had been taken advantage of by her evil and manipulative husband. There is no doubt that my personal cultural perspectives and socialisation assisted my initial dominant reading position of this text, particularly in so far as that the text reinforced ideas that women put their own interests behind those of the greater good, which is culturally a very well entrenched construct in modern Western societies like Australia.

Only upon rereading and analysing Turned, did I realise that Gilman (whether by design or mere accident of her time) has poignantly illustrated the true lack of equality in society for individuals like Gerta. She does this most aptly through the way in which Mrs. Marroner, whilst a heroine and role model for women to take control of their lives, clearly does not see Gerta as an equal partner but rather as a subordinate. As a result, Mrs. Marroner acts in an accordingly patronising way by taking control of Gerta’s life choices rather than empowering and enabling Gerta to take control of her own future.

Textual features prominent within the text include the structure, which separates the story into a number of passages. This actually serves to highlight the binary oppositionspresent between the two female characters. Mrs. Marroner is depicted as strong and dominating, independent and intelligent and Gerta is written as weak and impressionable, completely dependent on Mr and Mrs. Marroner and also not very intelligent. These opposing ideas clearly show the power and privilege afforded to Mrs. Marroner and the lack of credibility and respect given to anyone who possesses the attributes which Gerta represents. This is really putting a unique spin on the expression that ‘everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others’.

Dissection of the text through the workshop was useful in further illuminating Turned’s broader social commentary, regarding feminist discourse and associated stereotypes. As well as the stereotypes described above, of Mrs. Marroner and Gerta, the workshop also identified that Mr. Marroner was being used as a ‘scarecrow’ figure in the text to sovereign all that the feminist movement says is wrong with men- unfaithfulness, cowardice and narcissistic tendencies to put his own interests before the welfare of his wife and Gerta. I would say that this is a downfall of the text as this puritanical approach diminishes its ability to send a clear message, as it tries to swing too far to both sides at once. It is safe to say that, after further analysis and the workshop discussion, I took the metaphorical blinkers off and found that the extreme characterisation of all three central characters detracted from my acceptance of the overall narrative.

I found this reading to be a fascinating one and quite pioneering for its time with respect to the subject matter and story ending and as such I would definitely use it within the classroom. I think that a comparative analysis of this text with one similar in subject matter would prove an interesting task for students in identifying the similarities and contrasts between Turned and another text. Some of the specific activities outlined in Reading Stories, pages 25-31 (Mellor, 1990) could also be used effectively to highlight the complex commentary contained within Gilman’s well constructed narrative.

References

Gilman, C.P. (1990). Turned. In B. Mellor, M, O’Neill & A. Patterson (Eds.), Reading Stories (pp 13-22). Scarborough: Chalkface Press.

Moon, B. (2003). Literary Terms A Practical Glossary (2nd Ed.). Cottesloe: Chalkface Press.

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~ by annap1983 on September 17, 2010.

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