Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Steinbeck's “The Chrysanthemums
“The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman are short stories which have a female protagonist struggling through a suffocating marriage and living in a society that says that women can not exist outside of marriage. “The Chrysanthemums” written by John Steinbeck is a story about a woman worn and oppressed by a male dominated world. A world which breaks a woman’s will, strips away their humanity, and obscures who they really are and what they really want out of life.
Eliza, a married woman forgotten by her husband and the world, has found a bit of happiness in her garden. It is here that she finds solace and comfort. The flowers are her companions.
Similarly, in The Yellow Wallpaper, written in the century before The Chrysanthemums, is also about the oppression of women in society by men. On the surface it was the story of a woman who has a child and suffered from depression.
Her husband, who is also her doctor, prescribed the “The Mitchell Treatment”. This was a standard treatment for all mental disorders during this time which consisted of isolation and rest. The woman, the main character, was placed in an attic for a month of recovery. Her only companion was the peeling yellow wallpaper. In the end, both women find, brief as it may be, freedom. Though written decades apart, both Steinbeck and Gilman use symbols and character development to develop a theme of female oppression and survival.
The major symbol in Steinbeck’s short story is the Chrysanthemum flower. Chrysanthemums are hearty flowers which need specific care, patience, and tending. Like children, they must be cared for daily, treated with delicate and gentle hands. Within her garden paradise she hides herself, as a woman. Steinbeck describes her as a woman that wears “a man’s black hat pulled low down over her eyes, clodhopper shoes, a figured print dress almost completely covered by a big corduroy apron…” (1). Eliza, who is childless, takes pride and comfort in her ability to grow these amazing flowers. They represent for her the children she was never able to have. She is extremely protective of these flowers caring and feeding them like mother nursing her baby.
She creates a “crib” of wire to ensure that “[n]o aphids, no sowbugs or snails or cutworms” are there. “Her terrier fingers [destroy] such pests before they [can] get started” (1). Like pointy corners of tables and light sockets, Eliza protects her “children” from the hazards of life. She cares for this flowers like she wishes someone had cared for her — gentle fingertips caressing her own blooms. These flowers inspire the only intimate moments that occurred between Eliza and her husband in the entire short story. He husband stops by her garden and tells her how lovely her flowers are. She blushes and Steinbeck observes “on her face there [is] a little smugness”(1). Eliza gives “birth” to these amazing creatures which bring so much beauty to the world, and supplies Eliza with her only taste of motherhood (Demott 3).
Similarly, Gilman uses the symbol of yellow wallpaper. The Yellow Wall-Paper” is a small literary masterpiece. For almost fifty years it has been overlooked, as has its author, one of the most commanding feminists of her time. Now, with the new growth of the feminist movement, Charlotte Perkins Gilman is being rediscovered, and “The Yellow Wall-Paper” should share in that rediscovery. The story of a woman’s mental breakdown (Gilman 37). A major symbol in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is the wallpaper itself. The “Yellow wallpaper was a familiar character in realist fiction and was often found to be distasteful.” (Roth). The narrator is annoyed and eventually repulsed by her only companion, the yellow patterned wallpaper.
The evolution of what the wallpaper symbolized parallels the mental state of the narrator. When the narrator first settled down to her month’s worth of rest in the attic of her house, it is the wall paper she hated most. It was old, tattered, and a dirty yellow color. She commented that the worse part of the wallpaper was the dull pattern.
She pondered about the wallpaper : It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide–plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight (Gilman 24).
The pattern became the focus of much of the narrator’s time. She attempted on many occasions to figure out what the pattern was with no success. “She is mad, of course, by this time, reduced to a paranoid schizophrenic who writes, “I’ve got out at last … in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (36).”(Bak). After several days of trying she began to see a sub pattern which can only be seen at certain parts of the day depending on the amount of light being filtered through the windows. She decided that the sub pattern is that of a woman who is creeping along the floor on her knees, not even being able to stand. She states “There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down” (Gilman 25).
This woman was imprisoned by the main pattern and wished only to escape her cage. The main pattern became clear to the narrator. She believed the main pattern were heads of those women who attempted to escape but were caught between the bars. It was clear that as the month passed the mental state of the narrator became increasingly unstable. The wallpaper and it’s pattern also represented the societal chains (treatment, family, and marriage) which have imprisoned her for so long. The yellow wallpaper has become synonymous with the domestic bars which trapped women in their inferior roles as wives and mother in the 1800s.
Through the use of both symbols, Steinbeck and Gilman track the internal conflict of their respective protagonists. In Steinbeck’s short story, it is the Chrysanthemum which are indirectly responsible for Eliza awakening. The chrysanthemums create a situation in which Eliza meets a man which stimulates and re-ignites her female sensuality, that has been long forgotten. Steinbeck describes Eliza stripped of her female side and like her home, that she was “hard-swept and hard-polished” (1). Henry fails to notice and takes for granted the feminine qualities which Eliza brings to the relationship. His love for her did not exist anymore.
The couple lives like strangers. Eliza, submissive and loyal, does not addresses her discontent with her husband and their relationship remains empty. He remarks, to her about her chrysanthemums, “I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big” (1). She is resentful and unhappy which causes her to hide in her garden. One afternoon while she is attending to her flowers she meets a traveling salesman who stops and admires her flowers. Steinbeck describes the stranger in the following way:
Elisa saw that he was a very big man. Although his hair and beard were graying, he did not look old. His worn black suit was wrinkled and spotted with grease. The laughter had disappeared from his face and eyes the moment his laughing voice ceased. His eyes were dark, and they were full of the brooding that gets in the eyes of teamsters and of sailors. The calloused hands he rested on the wire fence were cracked, and every crack was a black line. He took off his battered hat. (1)
When he flirts with her indirectly, she melts. She is thirsty for the attention a man gives to a woman. The stranger visually caresses the flowers, commenting that the flowers were like delicate “quick puff[s] of colored smoke,”(243) and she can feels his fingers like they were on her skin. Chrysanthemums represent Eliza long last sensuality and her need to be fulfilled physically and emotionally. Eliza quickly responds and “[tears] off the battered hat and [shakes] out her dark pretty hair”(1). The cold Elisa suddenly becomes the image of perfect femininity soft and flowing, contrasting against the strong male.
She is attracted to him and offers him the only gift she can, a singe red chrysanthemum — a symbol of her sacred femininity. Through this stimulation, Eliza is inspired to again get in touch with her body and soul (Wilson 34). After a dinner eaten in silence with a man who does not love her, Eliza is forced to endure the car trip home. Weeping, and staring out the window she sees her bloody red chrysanthemums tossed on the side of the road, and she feels her soul die once again.
Gilman utilizes her symbol of the yellow wallpaper in the same way, her protagonist is first imprisoned and then awakened by the wallpaper. Gilman actively asserts through her use of symbolism and the mental deterioration of the narration that women, at the turn of the century, suffering from mental illness were mistreated. Her husband, who is also her doctor, prescribed the “The Mitchell Treatment” (Hume).
This was a standard treatment for all mental disorders during this time which consisted of isolation and rest. The woman, the main character, was placed in an attic for a month of recovery. Her only companion was the peeling yellow wallpaper. Slowly the unnamed narrator slipped into deep depressive psychosis. It is not until she shirked off the treatment and the invisible societal chains that she becomes well again.
The theme of oppression is overwhelmingly present in both short stories. Eliza’s gift of the chrysanthemum represents the physical interaction between a man and a woman. After the stranger leaves, with quicken breath, she almost floats into her house and draws herself a hot bath. She finds her “little block of pumice” and literally scrubs her body — “legs and thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red”(1). She urgently washes, symbolically bringing blood back into her lifeless body and soul. She dresses slowly finding her best lingerie and dress. She applies makeup and prepares to go out on a “date” with her husband.
She patiently awaits for her husband to come in from the fields. She hopes her husband will feel romantically toward her again. She hopes that he provide her with the same sensual stimulation that those few brief moments with the stranger. Unfortunately, her hopes are not fulfilled. When Henry finally sees his wife, he casually comments “You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon” (1). Eliza laments her husband’s lack of charm, as if he is intentionally trying to crush her soul. She slowly loses the woman that she had found hours before. After a dinner eaten in silence with a man who does not love her, Eliza is forced to endure the car trip home. Weeping, and staring out the window she sees her bloody red chrysanthemums tossed on the side of the road, and she feels her soul die once again.
Gilman’s narrator is also mistreated by her husband and society in general. John, her husband, a “wise” man of medicine, inflicts a loutish and gender-biased “cure” on her–and this tale, as Gilman claims, exposes such boorish barbarism. However, Gilman’s mad narrator unveils not only the ills of the rest cure treatment and a repressive domestic culture filled with Johns and Jennies, but also her hatred for a domestic (and maternal) role she has no desire to assume. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” not only rejects, as Gilman intended, the gender-biased rest cure of the nineteenth-century, but also indicts, less successfully, gender-biased definitions of mental illness.
Married women during this time were “’freed’ from the necessity of contributing to society outside the home, presumably because marriage befit her for motherhood and motherhood required all of her energies.”(O’Donnell). Despite her triumphant unmasking of medical (predominantly male) gender bias in this tale, Gilman’s narrator falls apart so completely in the end that she tends, unfortunately, to reinforce the common nineteenth-century gender stereotype of the emotionally and physically frail nineteenth-century woman.
Steinbeck through the use of chrysanthemums asserts that women are oppressed and imprisoned by world that was built for men. Through intricate detail, wit, and symbolism Steinbeck breathes life into the story of a woman completely controlled by her husband, and suffocated by world. She experiences momentary awakening during a brief interaction with a stranger. Steinbeck uses chrysanthemums evoke the feeling of rebirth, renewal, autonomy, and femininity. Eliza completely broken down and she crumbles “crying weakly-like an old woman”(X).
Her husband takes her granted and does not notice that she is woman with needs and desires. Not only does her husband ignore her but so does the world. The stranger which seemed to admire all of Eliza’s qualities represents the world. Just as that man tossed away Eliza’s beautiful flowers because they were unnecessary. Steinbeck’s point is that is exactly the male dominated world views and treats women. Society is oppressive to women, allowing them not to “bloom”, keeping women submissive and docile. Eliza is not valued by the world because she is female. She meant only to exist for her husband and family. Eliza tries to be a woman in world where her womanly charms are ignored by her husband and the world in general.
To survive she forgets about who she truly is and finds happiness in her garden. When she is briefly re-awakening, she attempts again to find her true self. However, her husband and the world will not let her and she must once again, for the last time, suppress who she is and what she wants. Through the use of similar literary devices the theme of female oppression and liberation is explored differently in “The Chrysanthemums” and “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The oppression of women in a male dominated world has plagued society for centuries. The stories of women are often left untold and considered unimportant. To fully explore this theme both authors use symbolism and careful character development.
The main symbol found in The Yellow Wallpaper is that of the decaying yellow wallpaper that is in the attic where the narrator is sent for isolation. It’s decay parallels the decay of the narrator. In addition, Gilman details this decline and explores the inner workings of the narrator through the character development leading up to the narrator’s decision that she did want to live.
Similarly, Steinbeck uses the symbol of the Chrysanthemum to represent Eliza’s life, isolation, liberation, and emotional death. There is only a small set of literary tools available to authors, of any genre, through which themes like oppression can be examined. It is through the unique manipulation of these tools, and the intense expertise of great American authors that such a varied approach to survival can be interrupted, demonstrated, and shared.
Bak, John S. “Escaping the Jaundiced Eye: Foucauldian Panopticism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”.” Studies in Short Fiction 31.1 (1994): 39+.
DeMott, Robert. Steinbeck’s Typewriter: Essays on His Art. Revised ed. Troy, NY: Whitston Publishing, 1997.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wall-Paper. Revised ed. New York: Feminist Press, 1996.
Hume, Beverly A. “Managing Madness in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper”.” Studies in American Fiction 30.1 (2002): 3+.
O’Donnell, Margaret G. “A Reply to “Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Reassessing Her Significance for Feminism and Social Economics.” Review of Social Economy 54.3 (1996): 337+.
Roth, Marty. “Gilman’s Arabesque Wallpaper.” Mosaic (Winnipeg) 34.4 (2001): 145+.
Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs. 4th Compact ed. New York: Prentice Hall, 2007.
Wilson, Edmund. The Boys in the Back Room: Notes on California Novelists. San Francisco: Colt Press, 1941. Questia.
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