To the Young Wife is a ten stanza poem written by the prose and poetry author Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman. The stanzas all contain four lines and rhyme in a repeating pattern of ABBA, CDDC… throughout. This rhyme scheme, along with the short length of the lines, move the reader quickly through the poem to its conclusion. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of To the Young Wife
Each stanza, aside from the last, of this poem begins with a question. The speaker is hoping, through her incessant questioning and probing, to reveal to the “young wife” that her life is not exactly what it seems. She is not the “queen”of a kingdom, like she is treated. She is only in charge of a confining house and a stove. The speaker continues on to ask the woman if she did not have a better life in mind for herself when she was younger. One in which she could do something meaningful. She also states that until she has become a fuller person, the young wife will not be able to raise her children to the best of her abilities.
The poem concludes by stating that setting out from home to better oneself does not result in a loss of love but the improvement of oneself as a person. This pursuit of passion will allow the young wife to be a better wife and mother.
The last lines make clear that it is not her vows which hold her in the home but the unending service she provides to the home. She is able to set herself free.
Analysis of The the Young Wife
Gilman begins this poem with a number of questions that are distributed throughout the entire piece. She speaks directly to the reader of this piece, her audience, a “pretty three years’ wife,” or more simply a woman who is still newly married and under the thumb of her husband. She uses the word “pretty” here not as a compliment but to mock her position.
She asks this reader whether she is “content” with the life she is living, whether she’s satisfied by the love her husband is wants to give to her and the fact that she has given away her life in return. Gilman’s speaker is clearly stating that in this woman’s world, and in the worlds of many other women, a woman must be content with what her husband wants to give her and in return she must give her whole life.
The poem continues with a number of other questions, the first of which is,
Are you content with work, — to toil alone,
To clean things dirty and to soil things clean;
The speaker is narrowing the woman’s life down to these two simple opposites. These tasks of cleaning, and getting things dirty, form a circle that this reader is stuck in.
She continues, telling the woman that she is a “kitchen-maid” but is put on a pedestal like “a queen.” Her position is venerated only for her beauty, and she is put above earthly pursuits that might actually give her some real meaning in life.
Gilman finishes this stanza by referring to the young wife as queen only of a “cook-stove throne.”
Another question begins this stanza,
Are you content to reign in that small space—-
She is inquiring whether the reader, on top of being made to clean up the messes of everyday life, is happy to do so in the tiny space that is her home. This home is described as, “a wooded palace” that is surrounded by a “yard-fenced land.” The palace/home may have woods on its property but it is all fenced in. She is enclosed.
In addition to the claustrophobic sense of the young wife’s world that Gilman creates, the reader is also forced to “reign,”
With other queens abundant on each hand,
Around her, countless other women are in the same circumstance, each referred to as a queen but treated as a slave. They are all, “fastened” in place, just as she is. They may, in name, rule over these tiny plots of land, but they cannot leave them.
In the fourth stanza the speaker starts to inquire about the young wife’s children. She asks whether she is,
…content to rear your children so?
She is not referring to the confining nature of the home so much as she is the woman’s own inability to teach children the things they really need to know when she is, as the speaker says,
Untaught…untrained, perplexed, distressed,
The speaker is confronting this reader with her reality, she wants the woman to understand that her way of living might not always be best, and that she does not “always know” what the right thing to teach her children is going to be.
The speaker continues on, referring to the woman’s childhood. She hopes to remind the woman that in her youth she yearned to do something meaningful. She wanted to
…help the groaning world, to serve the state,
To be so wise—
The young wife had dreams for herself that were much greater than the reality in which she is now living.
This sixth stanza is addressing the entire situation. The speaker asks if the woman is “quite convinced” that this is the only way in which a woman may live her life, with her eyes against the world, consumed only by those within the small kingdom that is her house.
The seventh stanza asks if the reader has “…no dream of a life in fuller store?” In which she can grow to more than “that you are.”
She wants to know if the woman does not dream of pursing those things she knows she is the best at.
The poem begins to conclude with the eighth stanza in which the speaker presents to the reader a kind of life in which the young wife can be both a mother and a continually improving human being.
Gilman writes that pursing ones own desires does not result in the loss of love, but the beginning of a “nobler life” in which “you” can become a
…richer, sweeter wife,
A wiser mother too…
The second to last stanza asks what it is holding the woman to her home. It is, the speaker decides, “your throne” in which “you” sit and lord over “your” “paltry queenship.”
The speaker refers to the woman’s “kingdom” in this stanza as “narrow,” her labors as “antique,” and her space as “restricted” as she is continually made to work “all alone.”
The speaker is hoping to make clear to the woman that her life is not a kingdom but a prison in which she has allowed herself to be trapped.
In the last lines of this piece the speaker confronts the reader again saying,
Be not deceived! ’Tis not your wifely bond
That holds you,
It is not the reader’s vows, or her duty to her husband that holds her there and keeps her from pursing her own passions, but “selfish, slavish service.” She has bound herself to the home and is trapped there in
A life with no beyond!
The purpose of this piece is to address all the reasons why a woman would consider herself trapped within a home and banish them. The speaker wishes to show the reader that there is no reason, other than those she creates herself, to remain only in the home. In fact, she will be a better person, and her children will grow up more well rounded, if she has taken the time to be her own person.
About Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman was born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut. After a difficult childhood in which she and her mother were abandoned by Gilman’s father, she moved around frequently. This kept her from receiving the best education. She married the artist Charles Stetson in 1884 and suffered frequently from depression over the next decade. She was subject to the “rest cure” detailed her most famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” in which the narrator slowly goes mad while confined to her room.
Throughout her life Gilman also published works of nonfiction, and lectured on women’s rights. After the failure of her marriage to Stetson, in 1900 she married her cousin, George Gilman, they remained together until his death. Shortly afterwards Gilman discovered that she had inoperable breast cancer and committed suicide in 1935.