Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


“Her Housekeeper” centers around Mrs. Leland, a stage actress and widowed mother who lives in a New York City boardinghouse with her son and her maid Alice. For Mrs. Leland, the two most important stress relieving elements of her quarters are a top-floor bedroom and “a colored lady, named Alice, who did not seem to care where she slept, or if she slept at all.” 
 Throughout the trajectory of the Forerunner, Gilman details the social evolutionary value of brain power and defines a hierarchy of labor forms that require more or less repose for renewed energy. In her essay “Rest and Power,”* Gilman specifies that only certain types of labor require a thoughtful sleep hygiene, while other forms of work demand very little brainpower—and rest—to complete. The completion of routine household tasks, for instance, result from the “process [of transferring] . . . habit . . . [to] unconscious action" (271), and thus require little self-discipline or restorative brainpower.

This lends insight into Gilman’s use of evolutionary discourse in Our Brains and What Ails Them** to theorize that “Humanity, as it progresses in social complexity, develops an increasing brain power, which is of necessity, possessed by individuals; and which of necessity differs in individuals, both in kind and in degree.” While Gilman’s theories of brain power and purposeful repose were clearly intended to empower white working women, they are also imbued with problematic doctrines of her day: Subtending Gilman’s utopian feminism are pro-eugenic and nativistic stances on women’s progress. For Gilman, comparable to other prominent thinkers in her day, white women’s best route to freedom outside the home depended upon the labor of non-white and immigrant women. She argued that in order for women to achieve professional success, they must relegate the drudgery of domesticity to others. 

Her conclusion to “Rest and Power” best exemplifies this shadowed proclamation, in which Gilman sees the power of sleep as a tool for excelling the women of her race and class through the contests of social evolution, for as its closing lines read, “We shall have power to rest. And we shall rest in full power” (272).


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