From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

When I Was a Witch

This week we’re running another fantasy classic: Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s story, “When I Was A Witch”. One of the sometimes forgotten figures of the American suffrage movement, Gilman is best known for her short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” and her feminist utopian novel, Herland. In her time, she was both well-known writer and lecturer for social reform, and the latter interest informs this story, as you shall see. Enjoy!

If I had understood the terms of that one-sided contract with Satan, the Time of Witching would have lasted longer–you may be sure of that. But how was I to tell? It just happened, and has never happened again, though I’ve tried the same preliminaries as far as I could control them.

The thing began all of a sudden, one October midnight–the 30th, to be exact. It had been hot, really hot, all day, and was sultry and thunderous in the evening; no air stirring, and the whole house stewing
with that ill-advised activity which always seems to move the steam radiator when it isn’t wanted.

I was in a state of simmering rage–hot enough, even without the weather and the furnace–and I went up on the roof to cool off. A top-floor apartment has that advantage, among others–you can take a walk without the mediation of an elevator boy!

There are things enough in New York to lose one’s temper over at the best of times, and on this particular day they seemed to all happen at once, and some fresh ones. The night before, cats and dogs had broken my rest, of course. My morning paper was more than usually mendacious; and my neighbor’s morning paper–more visible than my own as I went down town–was more than usually salacious. My cream wasn’t cream–my egg was a relic of the past. My “new” napkins were giving out.

Being a woman, I’m supposed not to swear; but when the motorman disregarded my plain signal, and grinned as he rushed by; when the subway guard waited till I was just about to step on board and then slammed the door in my face–standing behind it calmly for some minutes before the bell rang to warrant his closing–I desired to swear like a mule-driver.

At night it was worse. The way people paw one’s back in the crowd! The cow-puncher who packs the people in or jerks them out–the men who smoke and spit, law or no law–the women whose saw-edged cart-wheel hats, swashing feathers and deadly pins, add so to one’s comfort inside.

Well, as I said, I was in a particularly bad temper, and went up on the roof to cool off. Heavy black clouds hung low overhead, and lightning flickered threateningly here and there.

A starved, black cat stole from behind a chimney and mewed dolefully. Poor thing! She had been scalded.

The street was quiet for New York. I leaned over a little and looked up and down the long parallels of twinkling lights. A belated cab drew near, the horse so tired he could hardly hold his head up.

Then the driver, with a skill born of plenteous practice, flung out his long-lashed whip and curled it under the poor beast’s belly with a stinging cut that made me shudder. The horse shuddered too, poor
wretch, and jingled his harness with an effort at a trot.

I leaned over the parapet and watched that man with a spirit of unmitigated ill-will.

“I wish,” said I, slowly–and I did wish it with all my heart–”that every person who strikes or otherwise hurts a horse unnecessarily, shall feel the pain intended–and the horse not feel it!”

It did me good to say it, anyhow, but I never expected any result. I saw the man swing his great whip again, and–lay on heartily. I saw him throw up his hands–heard him scream–but I never thought what the matter was, even then.

The lean, black cat, timid but trustful, rubbed against my skirt and mewed.

“Poor Kitty” I said; “poor Kitty! It is a shame!” And I thought tenderly of all the thousands of hungry, hunted cats who stink and suffer its a great city.

Later, when I tried to sleep, and up across the stillness rose the raucous shrieks of some of these same sufferers, my pity turned cold.

“Any fool that will try to keep a cat in a city!” I muttered, angrily.

Another yell–a pause–an ear-torturing, continuous cry. “I wish,” I burst forth, “that every cat in the city was comfortably dead!”

A sudden silence fell, and in course of time I got to sleep.

Things went fairly well next morning, till I tried another egg. They were expensive eggs, too.

“I can’t help it!” said my sister, who keeps house.

“I know you can’t,” I admitted. “But somebody could help it. I wish the people who are responsible had to eat their old eggs, and never get a good one till they sold good ones!”

“They’d stop eating eggs, that’s all,” said my sister, “and eat meat.”

“Let ‘em eat meat!” I said, recklessly. “The meat is as bad as the eggs! It’s so long since we’ve had a clean, fresh chicken that I’ve forgotten how they taste!”

“It’s cold storage,” said my sister. She is a peaceable sort; I’m not.

“Yes, cold storage!” I snapped. “It ought to be a blessing–to tide over shortages, equalize supplies, and lower prices. What does it do? Corner the market, raise prices the year round, and make all the food bad!”

My anger rose. “If there was any way of getting at them!” I cried. “The law don’t touch ‘em. They need to be cursed somehow! I’d like to do it! I wish the whole crowd that profit by this vicious business might taste their bad meat, their old fish, their stale milk–whatever they ate. Yes, and feel the prices as we do!”

“They couldn’t you know; they’re rich,” said my sister.

“I know that,” I admitted, sulkily. “There’s no way of getting at ‘em. But I wish they could. And I wish they knew how people hated ‘em, and felt that, too–till they mended their ways!”

When I left for my office I saw a funny thing. A man who drove a garbage cart took his horse by the bits and jerked and wrenched brutally. I was amazed to see him clap his hands to his own jaws with a moan, while the horse philosophically licked his chops and looked at him.

The man seemed to resent his expression, and struck him on the head, only to rub his own poll and swear amazedly, looking around to see who had hit him. The horse advanced a step, stretching a hungry nose toward a garbage pail crowned with cabbage leaves, and the man, recovering his sense of proprietorship, swore at him and kicked him in the ribs. That time he had to sit down, turning pale and weak. I watched with growing wonder and delight.

A market wagon came clattering down the street; the hard-faced young ruffian fresh for his morning task. He gathered the ends of the reins and brought them down on the horse’s back with a resounding thwack. The horse did not notice this at all, but the boy did. He yelled!

I came to a place where many teamsters were at work hauling dirt and crushed stone. A strange silence and peace hung over the scene where usually the sound of the lash and sight of brutal blows made me hurry by. The men were talking together a little, and seemed to be exchanging notes. It was too good to be true. I gazed and marvelled, waiting for my car.

It came, merrily running along. It was not full. There was one not far ahead, which I had missed in watching the horses; there was no other near it in the rear.

Yet the coarse-faced person in authority who ran it, went gaily by without stopping, though I stood on the track almost, and waved my umbrella.

A hot flush of rage surged to my face. “I wish you felt the blow you deserve,” said I, viciously, looking after the car. “I wish you’d have to stop, and back to here, and open the door and apologize. I wish that would happen to all of you, every time you play that trick.”

To my infinite amazement, that car stopped and backed till the front door was before me. The motorman opened it. holding his hand to his cheek. “Beg your pardon, madam!” he said.

I passed in, dazed, overwhelmed. Could it be? Could it possibly be that–that what I wished came true. The idea sobered me, but I dismissed it with a scornful smile. “No such luck!” said I.

Opposite me sat a person in petticoats. She was of a sort I particularly detest. No real body of bones and muscles, but the contours of grouped sausages. Complacent, gaudily dressed, heavily wigged and ratted, with powder and perfume and flowers and jewels–and a dog.

A poor, wretched, little, artificial dog–alive, but only so by virtue of man’s insolence; not a real creature that God made. And the dog had clothes on–and a bracelet! His fitted jacket had a pocket–and a pocket-handkerchief! He looked sick and unhappy.

I meditated on his pitiful position, and that of all the other poor chained prisoners, leading unnatural lives of enforced celibacy, cut off from sunlight, fresh air, the use of their limbs; led forth at stated intervals by unwilling servants, to defile our streets; over-fed, under-exercised, nervous and unhealthy.

“And we say we love them!” said I, bitterly to myself. “No wonder they bark and howl and go mad. No wonder they have almost as many diseases as we do! I wish–” Here the thought I had dismissed struck me agin. “I wish that all the unhappy dogs in cities would die at once!”

I watched the sad-eyed little invalid across the car. He dropped his head and died. She never noticed it till she got off; then she made fuss enough.

The evening papers were full of it. Some sudden pestilence had struck both dogs and cats, it would appear. Red headlines struck the eye, big letters, and columns were filled out of the complaints of those who had lost their “pets,” of the sudden labors of the board of health, and interviews with doctors.

All day, as I went through the office routine, the strange sense of this new power struggled with reason and common knowledge. I even tried a few furtive test “wishes”–wished that the waste basket would fall over, that the inkstand would fill itself; but they didn’t.

I dismissed the idea as pure foolishness, till I saw those newspapers, and heard people telling worse stories.

One thing I decided at once–not to tell a soul. “Nobody’d believe me if I did,” said I to myself. “And I won’t give ‘em the chance. I’ve scored on cats and dogs, anyhow–and horses.”

As I watched the horses at work that afternoon, and thought of all their unknown sufferings from crowded city stables, bad air and insufficient food, and from the wearing strain of asphalt pavements in wet and icy weather, I decided to have another try on horses.

“I wish,” said I, slowly and carefully, but with a fixed intensity of purposes, “that every horse owner, keeper, hirer and driver or rider, might feel what the horse feels, when he suffers at our hands. Feel it keenly and constantly till the case is mended.”

I wasn’t able to verify this attempt for some time; but the effect was so general that it got widely talked about soon; and this “new wave of humane feeling” soon raised the status of horses in our city. Also it diminished their numbers. People began to prefer motor drays–which was a mighty good thing.

Now I felt pretty well assured in my own mind, and kept my assurance to my self. Also I began to make a list of my cherished grudges, with a fine sense of power and pleasure.

“I must be careful,” I said to myself; “very careful; and, above all things, make the punishment fit the crime.”

The subway crowding came to my mind next; both the people who crowd because they have to, and the people who make them. “I mustn’t punish anybody, for what they can’t help,” I mused. “But when it’s pure meanness!” Then I bethought me of the remote stockholders, of the more immediate directors, of the painfully prominent officials and insolent employees–and got to work.

“I might as well make a good job of it while this lasts,” said I to myself. “It’s quite a responsibility, but lots of fun.” And I wished that every person responsible for the condition of our subways might be mysteriously compelled to ride up and down in them continuously during rush hours.

This experiment I watched with keen interest, but for the life of me I could see little difference. There were a few more well-dressed persons in the crowds, that was all. So I came to the conclusion that the general public was mostly to blame, and carried their daily punishment without knowing it.

For the insolent guards and cheating ticket-sellers who give you short change, very slowly, when you are dancing on one foot and your train is there, I merely wished that they might feel the pain their victims would like to give them, short of real injury. They did, I guess.

Then I wished similar things for all manner of corporations and officials. It worked. It worked amazingly. There was a sudden conscientious revival all over the country. The dry bones rattled and sat up. Boards of directors, having troubles enough of their own, were aggravated by innumerable communications from suddenly sensitive stockholders.

In mills and mints and railroads, things began to mend. The country buzzed. The papers fattened. The churches sat up and took credit to themselves. I was incensed at this; and, after brief consideration, wished that every minister would preach to his congregation exactly what he believed and what he thought of them.

I went to six services the next Sunday–about ten minutes each, for two sessions. It was most amusing. A thousand pulpits were emptied forthwith, refilled, re-emptied, and so on, from week to week. People began to go to church; men largely–women didn’t like it as well. They had always supposed the ministers thought more highly of them than now appeared to be the case.

One of my oldest grudges was against the sleeping-car people; and now I began to consider them. How often I had grinned and borne it–with other thousands–submitting helplessly.

Here is a railroad–a common carrier–and you have to use it. You pay for your transportation, a good round sum.

Then if you wish to stay in the sleeping car during the day, they charge you another two dollars and a half for the privilege of sitting there, whereas you have paid for a seat when you bought your ticket. That seat is now sold to another person–twice sold! Five dollars for twenty-four hours in a space six feet by three by three at night, and one seat by day; twenty-four of these privileges to a car–$120 a day for the rent of the car–and the passengers to pay the porter besides. That makes $44,800 a year.

Sleeping cars are expensive to build, they say. So are hotels; but they do not charge at such a rate. Now, what could I do to get even? Nothing could ever put back the dollars into the millions of pockets; but it might be stopped now, this beautiful process.

So I wished that all persons who profited by this performance might feel a shame so keen that they would make public avowal and apology, and, as partial restitution, offer their wealth to promote the cause of free railroads!

Then I remembered parrots. This was lucky, for my wrath flamed again. It was really cooling, as I tried to work out responsibility and adjust penalties. But parrots! Any person who wants to keep a parrot should go and live on an island alone with their preferred conversationalist!

There was a huge, squawky parrot right across the street from me, adding its senseless, rasping cries to the more necessary evils of other noises.

I had also an aunt with a parrot. She was a wealthy, ostentatious person, who had been an only child and inherited her money.

Uncle Joseph hated the yelling bird, but that didn’t make any difference to Aunt Mathilda.

I didn’t like this aunt, and wouldn’t visit her, lest she think I was truckling for the sake of her money; but after I had wished this time, I called at the time set for my curse to work; and it did work with a vengeance. There sat poor Uncle Joe, looking thinner and meeker than ever; and my aunt, like an overripe plum, complacent enough.

“Let me out!” said Polly, suddenly. “Let me out to take a walk!”

“The clever thing!” said Aunt Mathilda. “He never said that before.”

She let him out. Then he flapped up on the chandelier and sat among the prisms, quite safe.

“What an old pig you are, Mathilda!” said the parrot.

She started to her feet–naturally.

“Born a Pig–trained a Pig–a Pig by nature and education!” said the parrot. “Nobody’d put up with you, except for your money; unless it’s this long-suffering husband of yours. He wouldn’t, if he hadn’t the patience of Job!”

“Hold your tongue!” screamed Aunt Mathilda. “Come down from there! Come here!”

Polly cocked his head and jingled the prisms. “Sit down, Mathilda!” he said, cheerfully. “You’ve got to listen. You are fat and homely and selfish. You are a nuisance to everybody about you. You have got to feed me and take care of me better than ever–and you’ve got to listen to me when I talk. Pig!”

I visited another person with a parrot the next day. She put a cloth over his cage when I came in.

“Take it off!” said Polly. She took it off.

“Won’t you come into the other room?” she asked me, nervously.

“Better stay here!” said her pet. “Sit still–sit still!”

She sat still.

“Your hair is mostly false,” said pretty Poll. “And your teeth–and your outlines. You eat too much. You are lazy. You ought to exercise, and don’t know enough. Better apologize to this lady for backbiting!
You’ve got to listen.”

The trade in parrots fell off from that day; they say there is no call for them. But the people who kept parrots, keep them yet–parrots live a long time.

Bores were a class of offenders against whom I had long borne undying enmity. Now I rubbed my hands and began on them, with this simple wish: That every person whom they bored should tell them the plain truth.

There is one man whom I have specially in mind. He was blackballed at a pleasant club, but continues to go there. He isn’t a member–he just goes; and no one does anything to him.

It was very funny after this. He appeared that very night at a meeting, and almost every person present asked him how he came there. “You’re not a member, you know,” they said. “Why do you butt in? Nobody likes you.”

Some were more lenient with him. “Why don’t you learn to be more considerate of others, and make some real friends?” they said. “To have a few friends who do enjoy your visits ought to be pleasanter than being a public nuisance.”

He disappeared from that club, anyway.

I began to feel very cocky indeed.

In the food business there was already a marked improvement; and in transportation. The hubbub of reformation waxed louder daily, urged on by the unknown sufferings of all the profiters by iniquity.

The papers thrived on all this; and as I watched the loud-voiced protestations of my pet abomination in journalism, I had a brilliant idea, literally.

Next morning I was down town early, watching the men open their papers. My abomination was shamefully popular, and never more so than this morning. Across the top was printing in gold letters:

All intentional lies, in adv., editorial, news, or any other column. . .Scarlet
All malicious matter. . .Crimson
All careless or ignorant mistakes. . .Pink
All for direct self-interest of owner. . .Dark green
All mere bait–to sell the paper. . .Bright green
All advertising, primary or secondary. . .Brown
All sensational and salacious matter. . .Yellow
All hired hypocrisy. . .Purple
Good fun, instruction and entertainment. . .Blue
True and necessary news and honest editorials. . .Ordinary print

You never saw such a crazy quilt of a paper. They were bought like hot cakes for some days; but the real business fell off very soon. They’d have stopped it all if they could; but the papers looked all right when they came off the press. The color scheme flamed out only to the bona-fide reader.

I let this work for about a week, to the immense joy of all the other papers; and then turned it on to them, all at once. Newspaper reading became very exciting for a little, but the trade fell off. Even newspaper editors could not keep on feeding a market like that. The blue printed and ordinary printed matter grew from column to column and page to page. Some papers–small, to be sure, but refreshing–began to appear in blue and black alone.

This kept me interested and happy for quite a while; so much so that I quite forgot to be angry at other things. There was such a change in all kinds of business, following the mere printing of truth in the newspapers. It began to appear as if we had lived in a sort of delirium–not really knowing the facts about anything. As soon as we really knew the facts, we began to behave very differently, of course.

What really brought all my enjoyment to an end was women. Being a woman, I was naturally interested in them, and could see some things more clearly than men could. I saw their real power, their real dignity, their real responsibility in the world; and then the way they dress and behave used to make me fairly frantic. ‘Twas like seeing archangels playing jackstraws–or real horses only used as rocking-horses. So I determined to get after them.

How to manage it! What to hit first! Their hats, their ugly, inane, outrageous hats–that is what one thinks of first. Their silly, expensive clothes–their diddling beads and jewelry–their greedy childishness–mostly of the women provided for by rich men.

Then I thought of all the other women, the real ones, the vast majority, patiently doing the work of servants without even a servant’s pay–and neglecting the noblest duties of motherhood in favor of house-service; the greatest power on earth, blind, chained, untaught, in a treadmill. I thought of what they might do, compared to what they did do, and my heart swelled with something that was far from anger.

Then I wished–with all my strength–that women, all women, might realize Womanhood at last; its power and pride and place in life; that they might see their duty as mothers of the world–to love and care for everyone alive; that they might see their dirty to men–to choose only the best, and then to bear and rear better ones; that they might see their duty as human beings, and come right out into full life and work and happiness!

I stopped, breathless, with shining eyes. I waited, trembling, for things to happen.

Nothing happened.

You see, this magic which had fallen on me was black magic–and I had wished white.

It didn’t work at all, and, what was worse, it stopped all the other things that were working so nicely.

Oh, if I had only thought to wish permanence for those lovely punishments! If only I had done more while I could do it, had half appreciated my privileges when I was a Witch!

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6 Responses »

  1. What a lovely story. I had not read it before, although I know of Ms. Gilman. It makes me wish, most particularly, for the color coding for the news.

  2. My First Unfiltered Impressions:
    A thoroughly enjoyable story. But the first thought I had was, this character was somewhat petty and mean, and had a rather skewed vision of things. Granted, her horse wishes were compassionate, but to start off killing all those cats and dogs, to focus so much on inconveniences to her life, etcetera, kind of turned me off of the character.

    I understand intellectually that the story hinges on the fact that she was wishing black, and the Woman Power wish was white. I could also see an argument that human nature, and American society, is such that change for the better tends not to occur until the status quo becomes too painful or sufficiently undesirable for those who maintain and profit from it.

    And I quite liked her wish on the Church, and her solution to newspapers, and would love to see that extended to online and television news and pundits today. So she started to win me over with these examples.

    I can also see that this was an honest character portrayal. People naturally tend to be rather focused on themselves and their immediate environment, and to portray her as being altruistic and wise in all her thoughts and choices, especially before she realized her wishes came real, would have been false. Having had a few bus and ferry doors slammed in my face, or watched them drive right past me, I can totally empathize with the character’s angry wishes about the cabs, for example, and so this does a good job of connecting me with the character, making her believable.

    But nonetheless, imagining this in the context of a piece meant to inspire thoughts and discussion on feminism, I wondered if it might not backfire somewhat. While I found the story itself charming, again, I found the character rather unlikeable, especially for the first two thirds of the story. And if she is meant to represent feminist ideals, or to be a pro-feminist voice, then might any perceived selfishness, or the perception that her approach to other social problems were somewhat misguided, then be used by readers to rationalize that her feminist stance might also therefore be selfish and misguided?

    And just to be clear, I am not saying feminists are selfish and misguided, I’m saying might someone who wishes to believe so or is battling cognitive dissonance in accepting feminist principles not find just as much justification in this story to support their anti-feminist views as a pro-feminist might find the story positive for having raised the issue at all?

    And I wondered if one point of the story was that even a woman selfish and relatively privileged should see the bond she has with all other women and wish for them to be empowered?

    Anyway, I imagined this story more as preaching to the choir than converting anyone who didn’t already feel as she did.

    But again, strictly looking at it as a piece of speculative fiction, it is a wonderful story.

    Anyway, this is just first (rambly) impressions, open to revision upon rereading the story or other additional input. Feel free to tell me all the ways in which I am entirely incorrect and ill informed :)

  3. I really enjoyed a few sections of the story. The part about the lap dogs, for instance, brought to mind Paris and Britney hauling around their tiny little rat-dogs everywhere, and how unhappy those dogs always look. Honestly, if I were one of those dogs, I would rather be dead, too.

    I could relate to the bit about the subway, too, like Randy said. The stress and frustration that come to a head when you realize, nope, I’m really not gonna get on this train, is a unique sensation. Really gets that blood pressure spiking :0)

    I didn’t care for the fact that words and ideas around “feminist” and “witch” were linked. To make a sweeping generalization, a lot of outspoken and intelligent women throughout history have been branded witches or heretics or what have you, and been tortured and killed (or in today’s political arena, skewered for wearing pantsuits instead of something more “feminine”…). I think that the author unconsciously played into a lot of those old negative stereotypes and superstitions by calling her character a “witch,” and I think that she damaged her message by doing so. Her character didn’t strike me as much of a witch (her power just kind of fell into her lap, no rituals or effort involved) so I don’t think that the word “witch” was necessary to understand what was happening in the story. Plus the theme of “the wicked witch is dead! (or has no powers left!)” is really overdone in literature.

    Please note that I am not super up on feminist theory or the history of the witch trials, so please feel free to correct me if my assumptions are incorrect.

  4. Randy: Gilman was, for all her work, a product of her time. Today, she is recognized as a highly flawed feminist – an important woman, to be certain, particularly in the field of sociology, but as a feminist, she was highly skewed towards white, middle-class issues, and she was, as the paragraph on women indicates, very much a gender essentialist. Gilman did not recognize the social pressures and systems in place (that we can see today) which would probably have enabled her to have been kinder towards women of the upper-class.

    I saw the first two-thirds of the story as more driven by her sociological background than feminist intentions. As a piece of speculative fiction, I thought it worked very well, and I broke off in laughter several times (I was also reading this out loud – it’s very conducive to that.)

    Cat C.: As you have noted, in that era, any woman even suspected of being not of the natural order (loud, outspoken, opinionated) would have been branded a witch. Whether she was using the word “witch” self-reflexively, we will never know, but using the term for any woman with a quirky magical talent works fairly well, I think. Today, we have many women reclaiming all sorts of terms, in order to change their meaning. Indeed, the connotations are important when we consider who is saying it – a minister accusing a woman of being a witch, and a woman calling herself a witch, have two very different dynamics, after all!

  5. I think the section:
    “Then I wished–with all my strength–that women, all women, might realize Womanhood at last; its power and pride and place in life; that they might see their duty as mothers of the world–to love and care for everyone alive; that they might see their duty to men–to choose only the best, and then to bear and rear better ones; that they might see their duty as human beings, and come right out into full life and work and happiness!”
    is a most beautiful thought and creedo to live by, as a whole. I like the idea that to promote humanity the owness is placed on women, we are not victimized. It suggests that women are also responsible for the state of the world. A woman should choose only the best of men as their partner and raise even better sons. What a wonderful world that would create.

  6. I especially liked the part with the parrot (you’ve got to love that part XD!),
    the one with the newspaper, and of course the last part, the one Jessica mentions .

    ‘You see, this magic which had fallen on me was black magic–and I had wished white.’ – quote

    I love it <3!

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