Cult of Domesticity
Women faced many restrictions during the 1800’s based solely on their gender. The Cult of Domesticity served as a basic guide that explained the appropriate ways women of this time period were expected to act. It essentially laid out four proper characteristics women had to portray: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. Many authors captured the difficulties in a woman’s life with having to deal with such strict expectations in their writing.
These included Emily Dickinson with her poems “I felt a funeral in my brain”, “This is my letter to the World”, and “These are the days when the Birds come back”, Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”.
These pieces of literature proved women’s struggle to live with the pressures of the Cult of Domesticity, and society itself. Emily Dickinson herself was a very odd, secluded woman and that expressed her thoughts through her poems. In “I felt a funeral in my brain”, Dickinson writes “And I and silence some strange race/ wrecked, solitary, here” (15-16).
This is a prime example of the solidarity that held her captive and caused her descent into madness. Her poem is a cry out for help, but being the submissive woman she was supposed to be, she hid away her feelings while still acting weak and inferior. Another example of submissiveness can be taken from her poem “This is my letter to the World”. It starts off “This is my letter to the world/ That never wrote to Me” (Dickinson 1-2). She is again crying out against the unfairness that the “world” never wrote to her, or acknowledged her because of her sex.
As a woman she was constantly in the shadow of a man and therefore did not matter. From “These are the days when the Birds come back”, Dickinson wrote “Thy consecrated bread to take/ and thine immortal wine! ” (17-18). Her allusion to the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist enforces piety. Women needed to always act as the “handmaidens of God”, to repent for the sins of Eve in the Old Testament. Religion was a big enforcer of a woman’s quiet way of life and acted as something to occupy their time at home with. Emily Dickinson’s struggle with society’s expectations is greatly shown through her poetry.
Dickinson’s many poems were great in number, but creates only one part of the perspective from a woman about the Cult of Domesticity. In Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour”, young Mrs. Brently Mallard discovers the news of her husband’s death. Once the shock and grief wear off, she comes to an important realization. “’Free! Body and soul free! ’”(Chopin 2). Louise finally is free, without her husband’s name bearing down on her and out of the clutches of domesticity. She no longer needs to act like the perfect wife at home, constantly taking care of the house and looking after her husband’s every need.
She can live for herself like she always wanted. “There would be no powerful will bending hers” (Chopin 2), and she would no longer be the victim of submissiveness. Her husband no longer had the superior power, which all men were granted at the time of birth, to control and dictate her every move to the point where she was just like a small child that needed guidance and direction. But, in the end her joy is all for naught. Brently is not dead. And Mrs. Mallard, when receiving the news of his return, “die[s] of heart disease” (Chopin 2).
The thought of being pushed into that submissive state of being that she had just escaped from ultimately caused her premature death. Chopin’s character Louise was a lot like the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” in regards to their relationship with overpowering husbands. “John laughs at me of course, but one expects that in a marriage” (Gilman 1). The narrator acts with submissiveness as she accepts that she is inferior to her husband, he is always right, and she is just the silly woman. She feels she must take his lead and constantly follow because that is how society wants her to feel.
Her opinion does not matter at all, and she even states outright “I don’t like our room a bit” (Gilman 2). She detests the room, with its ugly, yellow wallpaper and barred windows, but since her husband says it is the best place for her she just, once again, accepts it and does not say another word on the subject. The room she would like to sleep in was prettier and airier. But John said that “there was only one window and not room for two beds” (Gilman 2). This not only reinforces her submissiveness, but also her purity as a woman. The narrator, though married and a mother, sleeps in a different bed from her husband.
This is not to keep her “gift” safe anymore, but to keep from tempting him and to guarantee the rest she needs to recover from her anxiety. Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were all talented writers and advocates in their own ways for the struggles of women with the Cult of Domesticity in the 1800’s. Each accomplished a way to present a light into the minds of the women who were being suffocated by the men’s superiority. Emily Dickinson created poems full of solemn and even remorseful moods that mirrored depression and repression that women felt because of society’s expectations.
Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman created characters that not only used the same suffocating repression, but empowered their women by taking the men out of the equation. Only then were their characters given a chance; Louise without Brently and a small taste of freedom, and the narrator’s ability to finally “creep” along the room in peace when John faints. The Cult of Domesticity was a cause for women’s repression but also their strength and growing stand to the unfairness of the treatment they were being dealt for so long.
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