Symbols As Used In Yellow Wallpaper And Story Of An Hour
Nineteenth century society saw the concept of separate spheres being used in society to help women understand their place, the ideology rested on the definition of the ‘natural’ characteristics of men and women. Men were seen as the superior sex and women inferior, both physically and mentally, and to be unhealthy for women to partake in activities that could exert them both physically and mentally. This led to the belief that women were best suited to the domestic sphere, leading many women of the time to grow up believing their sole purpose in life was to become a wife and mother. There were, however, women who challenged these beliefs, among these courageous women were writers who in turn faced multiple challenges and obstacles when they stepped out of their spheres, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin.
Gilman’s psychological thriller and feminist piece highlights the social and political climates of the time, written at the beginning of the progressive era, The Yellow Wallpaper is loosely based on Gilman’s own experience with mental health and critique of societies indifference towards women’s potential. The form of a short story about psychological decline allows Gilman to convey what she believed were dire circumstances for women in a male dominate society. As a prominent figure of first -wave feminism her work served as way to highlight the lack of women’s independence and how it undermined their mental and emotional well-being, like that of Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour, written a year after the first U.S state granted women the right to vote and displays the idea of female independence and the obstacles in place to achieve it. Focusing on how women in the 19th century are meant to behave, especially in emotional circumstances, Mrs Mallards character is described at the beginning of the story as “afflicted with a heart condition.” (Chopin, 1894) reinforcing the idea that women are physically weak and must abstain from becoming over exerted. Both authors use their work to voice their opinions on how society treated women, through the structure of their stories. Gilman uses the form of a diary to give the reader a personal insight into the mind of the narrator while Chopin’s story spans over a single hour, both use these varying methods to create a powerful piece of literature.
Gilman claimed that only when the dynamic of the patriarchy changed would women finally be free and work towards an economically rewarding future. These views are evident in The Yellow Wallpaper through the theme of conformity versus self-expression, through the relationship between the narrator and her husband John. Deciding that she must remain inactive, abstaining from any physically and mentally straining activities, even that of tending to their new born child. John is not only her husband but also a doctor, the narrator as a woman and wife, must conform to the norms of society and obey her husband. Her need for self-expression reveals itself through her diary, the narrator’s sense that the act of writing, which she has been forbidden to do “I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.” (Gilman, 1899) is what believes she must do to feel better suggests this is a stifled form of self-expression. Due to her being unable to communicate with her husband without judgement and misunderstanding the diary becomes an outlet for the thoughts that would cause John to worry “I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time” (Gilman, 1899) The depth of the conversations that are recorded within the diary reveal the extent in which her husband John misunderstands her inner life, shows further when we see how dramatically her relationship changes with her husband and how blind he is to her growing distance the longer she stays in the yellow room. As the reader we can see this but being the reader, we are unable to do anything about it, coming to inhabit a similar position to that of the narrator and her growing isolation. Chopin also suggests that all marriages in this time, even the nicest are essentially oppressive, Louise finds a form of joy when she is told he has dies, though not through any malice as Louise did love him, she sees his death as an end to the oppression. Although Louise never specifics a way in which her husband Brently oppressed but does hint “Free! Body and soul free!” (Chopin, 1894) Believing that marriage supresses both men and women robbing them of their independence so neither party will ever be truly happy.
By reading the series of entries within the diary of The Yellow Wallpaper we as the reader are privileged position to witness the narrator become fixated and her decent into madness, foreshadowed by her increasing paranoia and obsession with the figure hidden behind the wallpaper. As the narrator’s gradual mental breakdown is portrayed, we are offered an insight into the perception of mental illness and treatment available in the late 19th century. ‘The rest cure’ developed by Silas Weir Mitchell was a treatment often used to deal with hysteria, neurasthenia and over nervous illnesses. With isolation from friends and family, enforced bed rest and reducing the patients to the dependency of a child. (Stiles, 2012) The treatment however was seen more about breaking women to conform to a mans will, reinforcing the notion that women should submit without question to male authority. You could, in a sense see, the story as a form of propaganda criticizing the ways in which mental illness was treated as Gilman herself received a very similar treatment to that of the narrator. We also see in Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour how people perceived illness and emotional changes in the 19th century. We see Richard and Josephine in the story be there when they break the news to Louise, demonstrating the idea that women are weak and fragile, prone to emotional outbreaks and needing to be tended to like a child as they do not believe she will cope on hearing the news. Josephine later advises Louise “you will make yourself ill. What are you doing Louise?” (Chopin, 1894)
The forced confinement in The Yellow Wallpaper, and her husband instructions to abstain from writing, mirrors that of Gilman’s own experience. The narrator’s decline into madness is demonstrated through her feelings towards the wallpaper in the first entry of the story we see her distain for the wallpaper “The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow” (Gilman, 1899) the details within the room foreshadow its possible sinister past, the bars on the windows and stripped off wallpaper could be the result of a previously ill occupant. Creating suspense and suggesting that the narrator’s experience is one shared; the narrator is one of many women affected by societies treatment towards them. With the narrator’s obsession growing in her isolation, her relationship with the wallpaper changes, mirroring her declining mental condition, expressing that “I have finally found out.” (Gilman, 1899) While her paranoia grows, believing there is a woman or possibly multiple women trapped behind bars within the wallpaper, the narrator is similarly trapped within her mental state, desperate to escape the grasp of her sickness and the patriarchal society. The narrator identifies as the woman in the wallpaper at the end of the story as she descends into complete madness “I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!.” (Gilman, 1899) The irony that the colour of the wallpaper, being the lightest hue on the spectrum is seen to be an uplifting colour, invoking hope, happiness and positivity, often linked to infancy and a powerful symbol for the rest cure, often reducing its patients to the dependency of children.
While women gained more rights within the 19th century the struggle to achieve this and reality of their lives is strikingly different, to the modern age. Their property, money and body became the sole ownership of their husband and was not until 1857 that women were given the right to divorce their husbands, but at the risk of losing their children who were also the property of your husband. Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour demonstrates the confines for women in society, showcasing, the devastating circumstances of becoming a widow, the suffragist’s concerns by placing the protagonist as a woman who finds herself suddenly no longer financially or socially dependent on a man, finally able to achieve freedom. While the story only covers an hour of Louise Mallard’s life, the short, heavy structure of the piece reflects the intense hour she spends grieving, contemplating her new freedom, and finding happiness. The story has a powerful impact on the reader giving the insight into the control of the patriarchy at the time. The open window in The Story of an Hour that Louise spends much of her time looking out of represents the freedom and opportunities that await now her husband has died. From the window Louise senses something “creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her”. All these things she experiences suggest the idea of spring and new life, and that Louise has been reborn like spring itself after struggling with the limitations set by her husband and society, she has managed to survive like nature through a difficult winter and re-emerging in the spring. The window provides Louise a clear and bright view into her future, now unobstructed by the demands of another person. A striking image for the reader is that when Louise turns away from the window and the view, she quickly loses her freedom and life once her husband returns. Similary in The Yellow Wallpaper we see John as practically minded, happy to stick to societal norms, and the decision maker within the family, often infantilizing his wife by referring to her as “blessed little goose.” (Gilman, 1899) and ignoring her complaints and advice “I don’t care to renovate the house for just three months’ rental.” (Gilman, 1899) While he is not the sole villain of the story, we see he is unable to adequately communicate with his wife, constrained by the gender roles of the time and his own happiness and life is being affected by the structure of society and the separate spheres. The structure of the short story and the varying levels of sarcasm throughout the entries becomes a symbol of the narrator’s rebellion against her husbands’ commands, while the willingness of John’s sister Jennie to submit to a domesticated life only reinforces the narrator’s own guilt at her dissatisfaction and unhappiness. The resolution of The Yellow Wallpaper after the narrator tears at the paper leads her husband to faint at the sight of her actions and madness, a reversal of the traditional role for men as protector has now changed to what would be considered the more female emotions of fragility, prone to fainting, and hysteria. Gilman ending the story here is a powerful message, showing that fixed gender roles and ideas are dangerous for both sexes and can lead to unhappiness and danger.
Both stories explore the oppression of women in the 19th century through differing thematic elements. The Yellow Wallpaper uses both mental and physical imprisonment to explore the limits and restriction imposed on women, it is forthright visceral in its commentary. The Story of an Hour, on the other hand, uses the hope of liberation to show us the realities of oppression. Whilst many novels of the period used a didactic form to enforce gender expectations, Gilman and Chopin use literature to instead teach us the reality of womanhood in the 19th century, as opposed to what it expected. Whilst Gilman’s story was an insightful look into how society attempts to control the minds of women, Chopin’s story was a more subtle and enlightening analysis how the patriarchy affects the average women, even when the situation at first does not seem too awful.
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