Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion


“When I was a Witch” is a pro-eugenic fantasy in which the narrator alters and even eradicates populations (albeit in animal form) to improve her urban, multiethnic environment. The story begins with the narrator’s retreat to the roof of her New York City apartment at the stroke of midnight on October thirtieth. Suffering from heat and frayed nerves, she ruminates over the boisterousness of the city. Her sleep is constantly interrupted by shrieking street cats. On this night, she reacts violently, wishing “‘that every cat in the city was comfortably dead!” She is surprised to find that all suddenly falls quiet and she can sleep with ease. The next day, after also wishing that all dogs “die at once,” she discovers that her wishes had been granted.

It may seem a stretch to argue that these domesticated animals might serve as a stand-in for New York City’s diverse ethnic groups. Yet, Gilman does explicitly identify one animal metaphor that stands in for a particular subset of humanity: The mistreatment of horses in the story parallels the patriarchal oppression of wives and mothers. At the end of the story, the narrator observes that “the way women dress and behave . . . ‘[t]was like seeing . . . real horses only used as rocking-horses."  Unlike the dogs and cats who are wished dead, the narrator’s ill wish regarding horses is that cruel owners suffer the pain and poor conditions inflicted on their equine counterparts. This results in a “‘new wave of humane feeling’ [that] soon raised the status of horses in our city.” Gilman categorizes horses as a contributor to the social good, dogs as a source of misdirected human energy (their owners spend their days fretting over them), and cats, who never stop begging and mewing, as a mere drain on humanity’s collective energy. This typology also applies to human groups, as Gilman observes in “Studies in Social Pathology”: “One of the simplest processes of social replenishment is that which goes on unconsciously between individuals. We all know the difference between people who tire us, people who rest us, and people who strengthen and exhilarate us.”. 

In her biography of Gilman, Cynthia Davis correlates some of Gilman’s troubling sentiments with those espoused by eugenicist Madison Grant. Davis also highlights how Gilman’s own eugenic views were underscored by a sometimes-virulent racism. In discussing Gilman’s flight from New York City to New England in 1922, Davis cites a letter, in which Gilman wrote of her hope “to escape, forever, the hideous city—and its Jews,” and notes that “The patrician New Yorker Madison Grant had predicted in 1916 that Americans of the ‘old stock’ would be ‘literally driven off the streets of New York City by swarms of Polish Jews,’ and Charlotte’s reflections on her exodus suggest Grant’s bigotry matched his foresight” (350). Davis is referring here to Grant’s pseudo-anthropological study The Passing of the Great Race,* which anguished over the adulteration of Nordic and Anglo-Saxon bloodlines in the United States. As a work of scientific racism, Grant’s study circulated racist propaganda through the guise of ethnographic observation. Like Gilman’s personal letters, the Forerunner also evinces Gilman’s distaste for the diversity of urban spaces, which she believed posed a great danger to Anglo-Saxon purity.


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