Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


The minister suggests that Agnes go west and get involved in a homesteading community. She assures her that the "estimable colored girl of yours" can run her mother's home for her without any consideration for what that Black woman's interest may be in doing so.

The endeavor to go west to improve oneself is highly praised in Gilman's 1911 serialized Forerunner novella The Crux.* The story's protagonist, Vivian, goes west and enriches herself through both physical exercise and restorative rest: “[Vivian] tramped the hills with the girls; picked heaping pails of wild berries, learned to cook in primitive fashion, slept as she had never slept in her life, from dark to dawn, grew brown and hungry and cheerful” (278). Vivian’s interactions with the natural world seem to train her body to sleep according to the Earth’s diurnal rhythms (“from dark to dawn”). Vivian’s newfound freedom is thus, in part, manifested through her rejuvenating sleep practices. This was a practice first made notable by neurasthenia "expert" Silas Weir Mitchell, who prescribed it specifically to neurasthenic men, while prescribing the "rest cure" to his female patients. 
The assumption that an unnamed Black woman will remain to care for Agnes's mother reflects Gilman's efforts to situate women with less social agency in positions that buoyed white women of higher social class. In the Forerunner's second-volume serialized novella Moving the Mountain (1911),** the protagonist Nellie describes how the novel's futuristic, utopian society has developed a system of  “Compulsory Socialization” for the “the ‘reintegration of the peoples’” within a “sociological process not possible to stop” but which made it “possible to assist and to guide to great advantage” (50). The exchange between Nellie and the narrator, John, that follows is quite disturbing. John reflects distastefully that “Our family were pure English stock, and rightly proud of their descent” (51). Nellie, John's sister, seems to read his mind, for she “laughed appreciatively,” replying “Well, whether you like it or not, our people saw their place and power at last and rose to it. We refuse no one. We have discovered as many ways of utilizing human waste as we used to have for the waste products of coal tar” (51). Nellie does not specify whether she is identifying with John’s “pure English stock” when she speaks of “our people.” She may, instead, be referring to socialist revolutionaries, but her subsequent comment about “utilizing human waste,” as if it were “coal tar,” is highly problematic to such a reading. Gilman obscurely draws connections between a rise of power—for a particular subset of Americans— in order to take “great advantage” of immigrant bodies that will serve as an energy source for the (white) social collective. Moving the Mountain, then, is an illustration of institutionalizing the power of repose for an upperstrata of citizens, while enforcing efficiency in the communal recharging of human machines, specifically for those whose resting time is considered “human waste.” The Commission of Human Efficiency, which had applied the “dawning notions of ‘scientific management’ . . . in the first decade of the new century” (127), ensures that every person is reared within an ideal environment and is prescribed the appropriate social position. This process then prepares an individual for assignment, with guidance from the “Social Service Union” (135), to a particular form of labor. This Commission of Human Efficiency, as the title implies, dictates an individual’s working and resting hours, ensuring that a person’s labor time is efficiently maximized for society’s benefit.  


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