Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


Mrs. Leland boasts of her restful sleeping space, as well as its protector Alice, who “sits on the stairs and keeps everybody away.” Ironically, Mrs. Leland values Alice so highly for protecting her much needed sleep, yet she cannot conceive of Alice herself as having the same biological need for restorative rest. Although Gilman never illustrates the impact of sleep deprivation on Alice, she does elaborate on the bodily well-being that Mrs. Leland gains from keeping Alice awake during her resting time: “Possibly it was owing to the stillness and the air and the sleep till near lunchtime that Mrs. Leland kept her engaging youth, her vivid uncertain beauty.”

Despite her dependency upon Alice, Mrs. Leland has little regard for Alice’s bodily needs. Rather, she harbors the racist assumption that Alice need not sleep at all. Thus, for Mrs. Leland, the path to becoming the New Woman is only achieved through her possession of another’s time and energy, so that she may eschew the traditional female duties in the home. This is one example of the ways in which Gilman’s Forerunner seeks a social autonomy for upper-class white women at the expense of working-class, and often minoritized, women.

In a 1923 article published in The Journal of Negro History,* Elizabeth Ross Haynes notes that being "unwilling to sleep in" (391) is a primary reason for unemployment in the "tight domestic labor market" (390) in urban areas such as New York City. This is especially a problem for married women and mothers seeking domestic work (391). Mrs. Leland's treatment of Alice is unusually harsh compared to the standard conditions of "sleeping in" as outlined by Haynes: "Living conditions for those 'sleeping in' are fair as a rule. Some have basement rooms but a majority of them have rooms either on the third floor or in the attic or over a garage. A small percentage of the homes have a bath room for the maid" (429). Overall, however, Haynes observes that "Closely connected with the living conditions, too, are the working conditions of domestic employees. In fact, one of the strains of such service often is the lack of break between the place of work and of living, which makes for resulting monotony and much loneliness. Much of a domestic worker's life is spent in the kitchen, in the laundry or on the premises of his employer" (430). 


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