Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


In "The Stuff That Dreams are Made of,"* an 1899 Popular Science Monthly article, Havelock Ellis speculates that "In our dreams we are taken back into an earlier world. It is a world much more like that of the savage, the child, the criminal, the madman, than is the world of our respectable civilized waking life. That is, in large part, it must be confessed, the charm of dreams. It is also the reason of their scientific value. Through our dreams we may realize our relation to stages of evolution we have long left behind, and by the self-vivisection of our sleeping life we may learn to know something regarding the mind of primitive man and the source of some of his beliefs, thus throwing light on the facts we obtain by ethnographic research."
In "Two Callings," Gilman presents those she views as similar to herself--white, middle-class women--as having the brain power and social will to wake up from their Sleeping Beauty trances. She contrasts such women with "the squaw," "the slave," and "the harem beauty." In doing so, she applies Ellis's dream interpretation to a racial hierarchy in which female, seemingly non-white, archetypes are presented as figures of an era predating the modern woman that Gilman imagines as the future of society. 

The poem begins when the sleeping speaker is awakened by mysterious callings. One derives from the safety of the home space, in which “warm Comfort . . . / Soft couches, cushions” nearly lull her back to sleep. The other is “Duty,” which the speaker describes as “Allegiance in an idleness abhorred.” Gilman implies that the speaker has exceeded her necessary amount of sleep, which in excess becomes “idleness.” The speaker is only able to “shrink—half rise” to the true call of “Duty” because she remains “the squaw – the slave – the harem beauty – / . . . the handmaid of the world.” Gilman correlates non-white women with a perpetual state of “half slumber”—a state she believes that white women of the middle- and upper-class can overcome if they separate themselves from their ethnic counterparts.


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