Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


Gilman’s conception of working hours for domestic labor changes in regard to race and class status throughout the Forerunner. When she advocates for the rights of a farmer’s wife in a volume six essay, she is adamant that such women be granted an “eight-hour law” (316) to save them from exploitation. The ideal of the eight-hour working day was entrenched in American culture when Congress passed the eight-hour law for government employees in 1869. Later events, such as the Haymarket Square Riot of 1886* and the American Federation of Labor’s establishment of May Day in 1890, reinforced the idea that eight-hour working days represented working-class autonomy and greater personal freedom.

 Gilman asks in “The Power of the Farm Wife,” “How about an ‘eight-hour law’ for all women who are mothers?” (316).** She does not take this view, however, in her first Forerunner novella What Diantha Did. In the serialized tale, Diantha starts a housekeeping business. Her conception of industrialized domesticity deprives her employees of any freedom over when their bodies can rest. Diantha expects Julianna, a black woman in her employ, to perform her kitchen duties and stick to a strict twenty-four-hour schedule while simultaneously caring for her son. Such contradictions, prevalent throughout Gilman’s writing, reveal a racist and classist mentality that shaped the author’s conception of whose work deserved more or less rest.

A passage from What Diantha Did***:

After much consideration she selected one Julianna, a "person of color," for her kitchen: not the jovial and sloppy personage usually figuring in this character, but a tall, angular, and somewhat cynical woman, a misanthrope in fact, with a small son. For men she had no respect whatever, but conceded a grudging admiration to Mr. Thorald as "the usefullest biddablest male person" she had ever seen. She also extended special sympathy to Mrs. Thorald on account of her peculiar burden, and the Swedish woman had no antipathy to her color, and seemed to take a melancholy pleasure in Julianna's caustic speeches.

Diantha offered her the place, boy and all. "He can be 'bell boy' and help you in the kitchen, too. Can't you. Hector?" Hector rolled large adoring eyes at her, but said nothing. His mother accepted the proposition, but without enthusiasm. "I can't keep no eye on him. Miss, if I'm cookin' an' less'n you keep your eye on him they's no work to be got out'n any kind o' boy."

"What is your last name, Julianna?" Diantha asked her.

"I suppose, as a matter o' fac' its de name of de last nigger I married," she replied. "Dere was several of 'em, all havin' different names, and to tell you de truf Mis' Bell, I got clean mixed amongst 'em. But Julianna's my name — world without end amen." So Diantha had to waive her theories about the
surnames of servants in this case.


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