37 pages • 1 hour readCharlotte Perkins Gilman
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“An Obstacle,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was originally published in her first poetry collection In This Our World. This book was published in three different American editions between 1893 and 1898 by the printers McCombs and Vaughn in Oakland; by Small. Maynard and Co. in Boston; and by a small San Francisco publisher. A London publisher, T. Fisher Unwin, also put out an edition in these early years. The book went through several reprints in 1908, 1913, and 1914, attesting to its popularity during Gilman’s lifetime.
“An Obstacle” has eight six-line stanzas, each of which follows a consistent rhyme scheme (ABCBDB). It is a parable in poetry: a short narrative piece that conveys a lesson. Gilman personifies prejudice by treating prejudice as an inhuman spirit without a body in her lesson about how to overcome an obstacle. The poem reflects Gilman’s advocacy for women’s rights, and thematically highlights the many talents of women. Additionally, “An Obstacle” thematically suggests taking inspiration from nature.
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Charlotte Anna Perkins, born in 1860, was raised in Providence, Rhode Island. Her parents, Frederic Beecher Perkins—a librarian and nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe—and Mary Westcott Perkins, eventually divorced. Perkins attended Rhode Island School of Design for a short period of time and married Charles Walter Stetson in 1884.
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After the birth of their daughter Katherine in 1885, Perkins was consumed with postpartum depression. She was treated for neurasthenia in Philadelphia, an experience which inspired her famous short story about mental illness, “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” Perkins and Stetson separated in 1887 and finalized their divorce in 1894, after which Katherine went to live with Stetson and his new wife, Grace Channing. Channing was Perkins’s close friend before marrying Stetson with Perkins’s blessing.
Perkins moved to California after separating from Stetson and began her writing career while living in Pasadena and San Francisco. She began publishing poems in earnest during her first year living in California (1887-88), and began to receive acclaim in 1890 when her poem “Similar Cases” was published in the Nationalist magazine. This led to the publication of her collection In This Our World in 1893. From 1894-95, Perkins served as the editor of The Impress—the magazine of the Pacific Coast Women’s Press Association. Her sociological treatise, Women and Economics, was published in 1898 and subsequently translated into seven languages. She continued to have poems placed in progressive publications until the turn of the century.
After a short affair with a woman, Adeline (“Delle”) Knapp, Perkins married George Houghton Gilman in 1900. She continued to contribute poetry to publications such as the Women’s Journal. Her second collection of poems, Suffrage Songs and Verses, was published in 1911. In 1915, her famous utopian novel, Herland, was published. Houghton Gilman died in 1934, leaving Perkins Gilman a widow. The following year, after being diagnosed with incurable breast cancer, she took her own life.
Perkins Gilman produced a prolific amount of writing. Her publications include more than seven works of fiction and more than 12 works of nonfiction, in addition to her two poetry books.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “An Obstacle.” 1893. reprint 2015 by The Reader.
“An Obstacle” consists of eight stanzas, each containing six lines and a consistent rhyme scheme where the first, third, and sixth lines rhyme (ABCBDB). It is a short narrative poem that tells the story of how the speaker interacts with, and eventually overcomes, prejudice.
In the first stanza, the speaker climbs up a path on a mountain to complete a variety of tasks for herself and others. She encounters Prejudice, a figure blocking her way.
The second stanza contrasts the speaker’s work and her impediment, or what crosses her path. She has limited time and physical ability to complete her tasks. Prejudice is a large presence impeding her forward movement.
In the third stanza, the speaker begins a series of attempts to gain passage along the road. She first tries to gently ask the giant figure of Prejudice to move. He smiles, but does not budge.
In the following stanza, the speaker tries another approach. She uses reason, wisely arguing, still pressed for time, while winds are blowing on the mountain. Prejudice stubbornly remains in place.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker changes tactics. She opts for displays of emotion, including dancing, swearing, and howling, as well as physical violence. Prejudice responds by getting angry, but still does not move.
The speaker tries yet another approach in the sixth stanza. Here, she kneels and begs Prejudice to move. However, he remains immovable as something made of heavy stone.
In the seventh stanza, there is a turn. The speaker pauses and reflects on her feelings of sadness and helplessness. Time passing is described using natural elements like mist and the sun. The wind returns as the speaker comes up with a new idea.
In the eighth and final stanza, the speaker collects herself and her things. She decides to treat Prejudice as if he was an incorporeal spirit (did not have a body), and this grants her passage. She walks, unimpeded, right through Prejudice along the path toward her intended destination.
By Charlotte Perkins Gilman