A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Giant Wisteria” and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Sport of the Gods”

The latest installment in the series of posts exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“The Giant Wisteria” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Gilman’s 1891 tale opens with a brief scene that establishes an extensive Gothic atmosphere: a young mother is separated from her baby and domestically imprisoned in a garret chamber by her stern Puritan parents (who are scandalized by the daughter’s giving birth to the child out of wedlock). The narrative then flashes forward to modern times, when a young couple stumbles upon the same mansion, now fallen into disrepair: “the great central gate was rusted off its hinges”; there’s a “well in the cellar without a curb and with a rusty chain going down to unknown blankness below”; the surrounding grounds have grown into “a gloomy wilderness of tangled shade.” Enchanted by the rustic estate, the young couple rent it out and invite their friends over for a summertime frolic. The whimsical group lays with the idea of the place being haunted, and in pursuit of “delightful shivers” look for glimpses of the spectral. These frivolous fright-seekers, though, get more than they bargained for when they witness a “genuine, legitimate ghost,” and climactically discover the corpse of a baby drowned in the well and the bones of a woman in the cellar (presumably, rather than abandon the family-name-staining child in America and return to England for a forced marriage with her cousin, the mother from the opening scene has killed both the baby and herself).

“The Giant Wisteria” is succinct yet resonant; the fact that the titular plant nearly rhymes with “hysteria” hints at the madness the young mother has driven into by patriarchal restriction of her natural instincts. Her bones found lying in “the strangling grasp of the roots of the great wisteria” (the plant her immigrating parents brought to the New World) evoke the Gothic theme of the present being hauntingly overshadowed by the past. Also, the tiny scarlet cross hanging on  a chain around the woman’s neck forges a literary link with another persecuted female character in Gothic New England: Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. All told, this short tale by the feminist Gilman makes for a perfect pairing with her American Gothic masterpiece, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” 

 

from The Sport of the Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Crow includes two late chapters from Dunbar’s 1902 novel here. The first, titled “Frankenstein,” overtly references the Mary Shelley novel. Joe Hamilton has undergone a Naturalist slide into degradation, and thus is repudiated by the woman, Hattie Starling, who first helped set him on his alcoholic course. Invading her bedroom later that night, Joe drunkenly grouses “You made me what I am, and then you sent me away,” and them proceeds to strangle Hattie to death (much like Frankenstein’s monster does Elizabeth). In the concluding chapter, Joe’s father Berry is finally released from the penitentiary (after being wrongfully convicted of theft) and discovers that his family has been ruined in the time since his imprisonment. He reconnects with his wife and they return to the Deep South and their former cottage on the Oakley estate, where they can now hear “the shrieks of the madman across the yard” (Maurice Oakley has been driven insane by the guilt of knowing that it his brother committed the crime that sent Berry to jail).

Admittedly, it is hard to judge an entire novel by a pair of chapters, but the text excerpted here veers more towards the melodramatic than the Gothic, and touches upon the latter mostly metaphorically. My suspicion is that the editor has turned to The Sport of the Gods in order to include an African-American writer in the anthology’s table of contents. Crow’s token choice makes for a dubious decision.

 

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