Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


In “Improving on Nature,” Mother Nature, like Sleeping Beauty, dozes for an extended period and is then awakened by Man. She discovers Man has forced women to be “small and weak and foolish and timid and inefficient.” The sketch ends as Mother Nature “began to pay attention to business again, rather regretting her nap.” Gilman argues in this sketch that the archetypal American woman has allowed herself to become naively trustful of men and, therefore, is more inclined to rest easy. Women, then, must wake up from their ages of half-asleep submission and seize social power over men. As the title “Improving on Nature” suggests, it is time for women to wake up from their long naps and improve humankind. To work toward this vision, Gilman argues that middle-class women should harness the powers of natural sleep to advance their social standing among men.

The evolutionary undertones of this sketch are similar to that of a poem Gilman published in her 1911 collection Suffrage Songs and Verses, entitled "She Walketh Veiled and Sleeping:" 

      SHE WALKETH veiled and sleeping,
      For she knoweth not her power;
      She obeyeth but the pleading
      Of her heart, and the high leading
      Of her soul, unto this hour.
      Slow advancing, halting, creeping,
      Comes the Woman to the hour!–
      She walketh veiled and sleeping,
      For she knoweth not her power.
This trajectory from "veiled and sleeping" to knowing one's "power" requires the shattering of myths related to feminine passivity: In a Volume One “Comment and Review,”* Gilman criticizes a popular woman’s periodical for romanticizing the Sleeping Beauty myth. She observes sarcastically, “The Sleeping Beauty is a most happy instance of woman's right attitude toward love and marriage—she is to remain starkly unconscious, using absolutely no discretion; and cheerfully marry the first man that kisses her! In the fairy story he was a noble prince—but the average sleeping beauty of to-day is often waked up by the wrong man!” (23). Here, Gilman articulates the ways in which young women are socialized to be metaphorical sleepwalkers, constructed to rely on men to decide their life choices for them.

In a troubling turn, Gilman emphasizes that the awakening and advancement of white womanhood requires racial subjugation: She warns that the oblivion of the common female condition will lead to a social devolution that would then restrict middle-class white women to the limited social powers relegated to racialized others. Following her excoriation of the Sleeping Beauty myth, Gilman references Edward Lear’s 1846 limerick “There Was an Old Man of Jamaica” to illustrate the ills of a contemporary Sleeping Beauty, noting that “Sometimes she is married first, and wakes up afterward; like the lady in Lear's limerick”:

      There was an old man of Jamaica,
      Who suddenly married a Quaker.
      But she cried out, ‘O Lack!
      I have married a Black!'
      Which grieved that old man of Jamaica.

Adhering to a nativist ideology, Gilman’s theories of social evolution require not only a sexed competition, but a racialized one, as well. Rather than see social evolution as a path toward social equality, Gilman views her preferred race—the white female populous—as fighting to excel in an on-going competition with both white men and racial and ethnic others. For Gilman, white women needed to wake up to the fact that they were being subjugated in ways akin to the oppression of immigrant and non-white “others.” Through her social evolutionary lens, white women as sleepwalkers equated to atavistic deterioration.

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