By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘An Elopement’ is a short story by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), first published in the San Francisco Call in July 1893. Running to just a few pages, ‘An Elopement’ is about a young woman who disappears from the small town where she lived with her mother and aunt, and is believed to have run off to get married to an unknown man.
‘An Elopement’: plot summary
The people of the small town of Midgeville are excitedly talking about the latest piece of gossip: a woman from the town, Belle Jenkins, has eloped with someone, taking the train to Boston. Jenkins had worked in the town as a nurse and had also been the minister’s assistant in the church and the Sunday school lessons, and this fact makes her elopement even more surprising to the townspeople.
A man named Mr Winterbottom had seen Jenkins boarding the train at the railway station. She was wearing a veil, but her identity was unmistakable. The identity of the man she has run away with, however, is not known. Two women, Mrs Andrews and Miss Pendleton, speculate as to who the man might be, with Miss Pendleton telling her friend that Miss Jenkins’ mother has mentioned a doctor in Boston from whom Miss Jenkins had received letters.
Belle Jenkins’ mother, we learn, runs a successful farm with her sister (Belle’s aunt) and is not short of money, but she insists on keeping her daughter’s wages she earns from nursing and letting her daughter keep very little of her earnings. This means that Belle’s appearance is shabby, as though she were overly miserly with her own money. In reality, her mother takes it all for herself.
And what the townsfolk don’t know, the narrator tells us, is that the evening before Belle ran away to Boston, she had had an argument with her mother because she refused to show her a letter she had received. The narrator tells us that, if the townspeople had known what Belle Jenkins was really like, they would have understood why she spent so much time out of the house and away from her mother, helping out at church and nursing the sick.
At the end of the story, the twist comes: we learn that, several years after the elopement, Miss Pendleton had news from her cousin in Boston that, in fact, Belle Jenkins didn’t elope at all. Instead, she had gone to the hospital there to study to become a trained nurse, and she now works for twenty dollars a week, plus expenses. She has also travelled to Europe, and has said that she will return home when her mother is unwell and needs her to look after her – but not before then.
‘An Elopement’: analysis
Some of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short stories play with established genres of fiction, but innovate with them, using the associations and tropes of the genre to bring to light particular issues faced by women in late nineteenth-century American society. For instance, Gilman’s most famous and widely studied story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, is a kind of Gothic tale in which a woman’s imprisonment (by her husband) in a room of her house is given a psychological twist.
‘An Elopement’ is another case in point, except that in this case, Gilman plays with the mystery genre to explore the figure of Belle Jenkins, who disappears from town one day and is believed to have run away to get married to an unknown man. Like a good mystery writer, Gilman uses misdirection to make us assume that the letter Belle’s mother was so keen on reading, and which her daughter concealed from her, is from the doctor in Boston who has previously sent her letters.
Of course, he may well be the author of the letter that occasioned the blazing row between mother and daughter, but his motivation for writing to her was professional, as he got her enrolled on a training programme at the hospital.
What this twist to ‘An Elopement’ reveals is that, for a young woman like Belle whose mother is controlling both emotionally and financially, wanting to strike out and become independent, with her own source of income and a professional career, is much like running away with a strange man, in that either action would be condemned by her mother.
Belle’s mother represents traditional New England society, whereby a woman having a career is as scandalous as eloping with a disreputable man. In order to break free from the suffocating hold of her mother, Belle has no choice but to run away in secret.
This is an important theme in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s fiction: the struggle for women of her generation to become economically self-sufficient, a topic that she covers again and again in her short stories, such as ‘Making a Change’ and ‘Mrs Beazley’s Deeds’. That the whole town thinks Belle Jenkins had eloped for sexual or romantic reasons, rather than financial and career-based ones, highlights how women who stepped outside of the conventional norms of society at this time were viewed, and what assumptions people would make.
Much of the story is focused on the conversation between several women of the town, who are speculating about what has happened to Belle. But the narrator of ‘An Elopement’ is also, it is implied, a citizen of Midgeville. Note the present tense adopted by the narrator when she writes that Belle Jenkins ‘left home in the middle of the night, it appears – before day at any rate, and walked to Barnford and took train for Boston – that is, we think it’s for Boston.’
This makes the narrator another of the town gossips, relating the mysterious disappearance of Belle, and prefigures William Faulkner’s use of this intimate device whereby the whole town appears to be the story’s narrator, a kind of collective ‘we’ which speaks together about one member of town (as in ‘A Rose for Emily’).