Guess what, guys? This blog is owned by an English Major. So guess what else? This blog will include several literary analysis posts. So, if you do not care about the wondrous words of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the shocking relevance to today’s society…skip this post and go back to whatever you were doing. Don’t worry, I understand.
For those of you who decided to stick with me, bless you! Here we go…
Today’s Topic: She Walketh Veiled and Sleeping by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
First of all, a little background on the author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) wrote what she knew. She wrote of female “hysteria,” which was a blanket term used to describe pretty much any feeling that women had back then. She suffered what would today be diagnosed as depression, anxiety, postpartum depression, and maybe even PTSD. Her amazingly haunting novel, The Yellow Wallpaper, is loosely based on her narrow escape from madness due to a horrid treatment of mental illness. When asked why she wrote such a unsettling novel, she said: “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked” Overall, Charlotte Perkins Gilman indirectly altered the perception of women’s “hysteria,” played a big part in many feminist movements, and is known to have been a “socialist-feminist whose fiction furnishes a poetics for the feminist politics she developed at the turn of the century”¹ (I love her)
On to the piece I want to talk about… This is a poem written in 1889 titled She Walketh Veiled and Sleeping. It reads:
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.
Okay, please take a moment to let those precious words sink in. Read them again. Tattoo them on your forehead. Whatever you have to do in order to truly grasp the glory of these words, do it.
This poem is speaking about a woman who embodies the entirety of womankind as she is controlled by societies standards. When something is considered to be veiled, we get the idea that something is being hidden. When something is described as sleeping, we assume that something is not fully conscious or coherent. Gilman uses these two adjectives to describe the women of her time (And the women of today), by saying that they are beings who are hidden and kept in darkness by others, and by themselves. But why? “For she knoweth not her power” (l. 2). This woman is walking around concealing her potential because she simply doesn’t know. She doesn’t realize the power that her voice has. She has never been told she is any more than a toy, an item, or a possession. She just doesn’t know.
Because she doesn’t realize all she can be, she considers herself to be what others tell her that she is. “She obeyeth but the pleading / Of her heart, and the high leading / Of her soul…” (ll. 3-5). She obeyed every command but the one’s that originated from herself. She was the perfect little woman who obeyed whatever her superior counterparts told her to do, but she ignored the pleas of her heart and the directions of her soul. Because she disregarded herself, she placed the veil over her head and closed her eyes; ultimately, she beat her true self into submission and covered her eyes to her own power. What a sad, sad fate. But also, what a relatable one.
How many of us have been told what we are/should be? Hint: the answer is all of us. At some point in our life, each one of us has been told that we are something or another. Maybe in a positive way (You are so great! You are so smart! You are meant to be this-or-that!), or maybe in a negative way (You are so stupid. You are so weird. You are such a nerd. You don’t fit in here at all). If we aren’t careful, those voices become who we are and our inner voice becomes buried in the quagmire of outside opinions. We clothe ourselves in the voices of others, using their veils of identifications to cover up our own hearts and souls. We obey every voice except our own.
This was the case for our dear character “…unto this hour” (l. 5), or up to this point, and the next two lines serve as a glimmer of hope for her, for womankind. “Slowly advancing, halting, creeping / Comes the Woman to the hour!” (ll. 6-7). Our woman is beginning to have a change of heart as she is stepping into this hour of change and hope (especially considering the way society was moving at the time this was written, the turn of the century planted a seed of revolution in the hearts of women). Gilman accurately describes the process of casting off the veil of society as a slow process as we inch towards true enlightenment. This is hard. Trust me, I speak from experience when I say that peeling off the labels that people stick on you is not easy. Just like pulling off a bandaid, it hurts. It isn’t easy. Sometimes, it is safer and more comfortable to leave the labels on and ignore whats underneath them. But that is so dangerous. If we do that, we become like the woman. Completely veiled and asleep to our true potential. Back to a positive mindset; perhaps in this “hour” our woman will be able to begin to peel back the veil of standards and awaken to her own heart’s desires and soul’s desired path. These lines not only speak about our character in the 1800’s, but about woman in today’s world as we are still slowly learning to accept our own hearts desires over societies plans for us.
The last two lines echo the first as they state: “She walketh veiled and sleeping / For she knoweth not her power” (ll. 8-9). I believe there are two ways to look at these final lines. 1) They are just a reminder that the woman still cannot, or doesn’t have the confidence to, break out of the confining world she is subjected to. Or, if you are in a more optimistic mood, go with opinion 2) The woman is still veiled, but because of her recent coming to the hour, she can perhaps see that what is veiled may, by definition, be unveiled and that thought she walketh veiled and sleeping, she has the ability to uncover and wake herself up even if she does not yet know her true power. Take your pick, I just present opinions.
There is one major lesson/phrase I want to dwell on for a moment: “For she knoweth not her power” (ll. 2+9). This woman does not know she has a valuable voice, and you know what? The majority of girls out there don’t know that they do either. I am one of the lucky ones, I have had (and still do have) some of the best mentors/cheerleaders a girl could ask for. Once a few select women (you know who you are) came into my life and told me that I had a voice, an important one, I devoted my life to sharing that voice with the world. Now, I am not like the woman in the poem, because I know my power. But there are so many kids out there who don’t know that. Who don’t have the people behind them pushing them, cheering them on, or simply believing in them. And who don’t think or feel like they have a voice at all. Honestly, that breaks my heart. What is something you would have done, or at least attempted, if you would have had proper support or encouragement? Why don’t you be that voice for someone else?
I see this poem as a challenge, a calling, and a duty. There are WAY too many people, both men and women, walking around veiled and sleeping because they don’t know their own power. I have a duty to help them, encourage them, and show them their power. And so do you. Go out into the world, help other come into the Hour, and for goodness sakes; don’t be the person that puts another veil atop their head. Be the voice of encouragement, love, and support that so many kids are dying to hear. Maybe you can change the world by changing someone else’s. Go be a light. Go change a life. Go tell someone their power.
“A certain light was beginning to dawn within her…” ~Kate Chopin
1: Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. 3rd ed. Page 1390.