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the crux

21 October 2003

In isolation, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's atmospheric, eerie short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a great masterpiece of the uncanny. But in the context of her other work, it's no more or less than an object lesson in social policy. Gilman was an activist for whom personal and artistic matters were overwhelmingly political. Her recently reprinted 1911 novel The Crux comes out of this activism. In The Crux, the marriage choices of a set of New England women serve to illustrate pressing public-health issues.

Introducing the 2002 Delaware edition of The Crux, Jennifer S. Tuttle connects it with Owen Wister's Virginian (1902). Both novels, it's true, take effete Easterners and unsettle their lifestyles and preconceptions by transporting them to the West. But while Tuttle sees The Crux as a sort of proto-feminist-Western, I think that Gilman really uses Colorado as a kind of utopia: a nowhere-land where her characters can escape local color and get straight to the question: should young women marry syphilitic young men?

No. Three-quarters of marriageable American men have syphilis or gonorrhea, claims Gilman, and sexual double standards prevent their potential wives from knowing or even speaking about the diseases that will sterilize them and maim their offspring. The women who follow charismatic Dr. Jane Bellair to Colorado (a state full of "fine, modern buildings" and "pleasant social life") are at the mercy of syphilitic suitors from the moment they arrive. With many men to every woman, sexual selection is a paramount concern, and there are many whited sepulchres among the Coloradan males. But with Dr. Bellair as their guide, our heroines make the right choices at last.

Almost all the novel's scenes are talky, indoor things. Apart from one scene where protagonist Vivian Lane swims naked in a mountain lake, most of the time is spent chatting inside those fine modern buildings. (Vivian's dip is by my count only the second naked female swimming scene in American literature, after Edna Pontellier's swim in The Awakening; it's the first where the heroine comes back alive.) The central plot event is Vivian's agonizing decision to reject long-time lover Morton Elder, who truly loves her but has a bad case of syphilis.

Gilman's prose is crisp and serviceable. But her plot and characters aren't substantial enough to make The Crux much more than a curiosity. It would have been better as an essay; the serious issues it raises are not brought to life. The novel is most interesting as a demonstration of how intensely some progressive thinkers of the early 20th century saw private sexual choices as a sphere for public policy. Ninety years on, we think of progressives as defenders of sexual privacy against the interventions of the state. But in 1911, sexual thinkers like Gilman had to invade the institutions of the patriarchal family and the secretive medical profession and bring knowledge to sequestered single women.

A true Western it's not, but perhaps someone will write a slash fiction where the Virginian rides into Dr. Bellair's Colorado city and teams up with her to fight venereal disease among low-down horse thieves. Good movie concept, too . . .

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Crux (1911). Ed. Jennifer S. Tuttle. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002.