In the last half of the nineteenth century, Victorian ideals still held sway in American society, at least among members of the middle and upper classes. Thus the cult of True Womanhood was still promoted which preached four cardinal virtues for women: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Women were considered far more religious than men and, therefore, they had to be pure in heart, mind, and, of course, body, not engaging in sex until marriage, and even then not finding any pleasure in it. They were also supposed to be passive responders to men’s decisions, actions, and needs. The true woman’s place was her home; “females were uniquely suited to raise children,care for the needs of their menfolk, and devote their lives to creating a nurturing home environment.” (Norton, 108). However, the tensions between old and new, traditional and untraditional , were great during the last years of nineteenth century and there was a debate among male and female writers and social thinkers as to what the role of women should be. Among the female writers who devoted their work to defying their views about the woman’s place in society were Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a social activist and theorist of the women’s movement at the turn of the twentieth century. She developed her feminist ideals in her novels, short stories and nonfiction books such as Women and Economics. Charlotte Perkins Gilman is best known for her short story The Yellow Wallpaper, (1892) which is based on her own experience.
As the story begins, the woman-whose name we never learn- tells of her depression and how it is being treated by her husband and brother who are both doctors. These two men are unable to see that there is more to her condition than just a stress and depression and prescribe for her rest as a cure. The narrator is taken to a summer house to recover form her condition where she is not allowed to do anything but rest and sleep. Furthermore, she cannot do one thing that she loves the most: writing. ” I must put this away, -he hates to have me write a word.” She spends most of her time in a room with yellow wallpaper and very little to occupy her mind with. She becomes obsessed with discovering what is behind the pattern of the wallpaper and becomes determined that the image is a woman who is struggling to become free. The narrator wants to set this woman free, so she peels off the yellow wallpaper. Then she locks herself in the room and throws the keys out of the window. When her husband gets to the door and wants to break in, she tells him over and over again where the keys are. After he gets in and sees her creeping on the floor, he faints, and the narrator “had to creep over him every time.”
Though The Yellow Wallpaper is a fiction, it was based on Gilman’s own experience after being diagnosed as a hysteric and prescribed a rest cure which prohibited her writing. However, The Yellow Wallpaper is more than a case study in mental illness or a horror story, it is a story of a dominant/submissive relationship between husband and wife. John, the narrator’s husband, never takes her seriously. At the very beginning of the story she says ” John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.” Anytime the narrator would make a suggestion for her recovery, John would give her a ” stern reproachful look.” Although the narrator feels desperate, John tells her that there is no reason for how she feels. He treats her like a child and makes her doubt herself. John is the man of the house and he expects the narrator to trust him completely, just as small children trust in their parents. The narrator often speaks in a manner that suggests that she cannot disagree with anything her husband says. She is a typical nineteenth century submissive wife and her “What is one to do?” means that she has no authority and no control over her life. The idea of resting is not something she likes, she would rather work, but she has no choice. Still, she manages to disobey her husband and write her journal without him knowing it. There are many other evidences of dominant-submissive relationship, and one of the most convincing is when John says, ” I beg of you, for my sake and our child’s sake, as well as for your own” By placing himself and the baby first he is unintentionally saying that she is not important enough.
The main cause of the narrator’s mental condition is her overbearing husband who stifles her emotional and imaginative impulses and forces her to concentrate on the objects that surround her. Furthermore, this inactivity pushes her deeper into madness. John imprisons her in a room that has no escape with bars on the windows and immovable bed which is “nailed down.” But the narrator is not just a prison of this room, she is a prison of her marriage. Her developing insanity is a form of rebellion and a way to gain her own independence. Her struggle to set the woman in the wallpaper free symbolized her fight for independence.
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) carried out the same theme of struggling woman in a dominant/ submissive relationship. However, Kate Chopin was different from Gilman because she never joined or supported organizations though which women fought to gain political, economic, and social rights equal to those of men. At the same time they both felt that relationships founded on economic dependence and household duties had to be reconsidered. Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman had very different views on women’s sexuality. Gilman spoke out strongly against eroticism in women’s life while Kate Chopin concentrated mainly on the biological aspects of women’s situation and was the first writer in her country ” to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction.” ( Per Seyerted, 198)
The Awakening tells the story of a middle class woman, Edna Pontellier, who lives in New Orleans. She is married to a man she no longer loves and she looks for excitement and passion that they don’t have in their relationship. She falls in love with a young man, Robert Lebrun, but he goes to Mexico when he discovers that his feelings toward Edna are very strong. During their separation Edna becomes involved with another man even though she doesn’t love him. After Robert Lebrun comes back from Mexico, he meets Edna and admits to her that he loves her, but their happiness doesn’t last long. Edna leaves to see her friend, Adele, and when she comes home, there is a note that is left by Robert Lebrun that says, “I love you. Good-by- because I love you.” Edna decides to take a swim and she never returns.
Edna, as the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper, isn’t satisfied with her marriage which is based on dominant/ submissive relationship. Her husband, Mr. Pontellier, doesn’t treat Edna as human being , rather he treats her like one of his possessions paying just enough attention to make sure Edna is physically well and does everything that is expected from her. Mr. Pontellier lives for his business, social respect, and a decent family. As soon as he sees Edna’s behavior changing, he seeks advice of a doctor. He is concerned about the fact that Edna “lets the housekeeping go to the dickens” and about her “some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women.”
While Edna seeks romance as a source of happiness, she experiments with art, and as she awakens personally, she develops a deeper commitment to it. Art plays a very important role in the life on the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper too. For Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, art is work because it is both difficult labor and “one’s true vocation”, the idea that wasn’t very common among nineteenth century women. Adele plays piano to enrich lives of her family and to beautify her home; she sees music a supplement to family life. Edna and the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper were not able to succeed in art because of the limitations of family life. Edna’s dependency disturbed her from her work, although she isn’t prohibited from doing what she likes, while the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper is told to keep away from writing by her “loving” husband.
Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman held different views on motherhood. The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper doesn’t talk a lot about her baby, but every time she does, she speaks of her baby with love, “There’s one comfort, the baby is well and happy, and doesn’t have to occupy this nursery with this horrid wall-paper.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman sees motherhood to be essential for women’s lives. Edna, on the other hand, understands “that her role of a mother also makes impossible her continuing development as an autonomous individual.”(Dyer, 27) Edna fears motherhood, perhaps because this is the role she cannot change. The nineteenth century’s message of the importance of motherhood was so extremely strong and intense that it couldn’t be entirely opposed even by women like Edna who valued their independence more than family life. Still, Edna refused to live for her children rather than for herself. Edna’s friend Adele is perfect in her role of mother, she is an example of “mother woman”.
It isn’t a coincidence that last pages of the book’s final chapter are dominated with the issue of motherhood. When Edna parts from Robert to go to Adele when she gives birth, Edna still believes that she has control over her own destiny. But seeing Adele’s agony reminded her about her duties toward her children as their mother and she realizes that her dreams about her independence can never come true. This realization that comes along with loosing the man she loves forces her to take her life because she understands that there is no way for a mother to be truly independent. The Robert’s note makes her understand not just that he is scared of having an affair in public, but that he would never be able to accept her urge for independence and equality.
Female passion was thought to be immoral and unhealthy by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and other proponents of realism and feminism in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The color yellow in The Yellow Wallpaper has been interpreted as the narrator’s “sexual repression, her sexual fear, her disgust of sexuality” (Knight, 13).According to Denise D. Knight in her A Study of the Short Fiction, in the original manuscript of The Yellow Wallpaper, there was a sentence that described this color as ” a sickly penetrating suggestive yellow, ” that points out the fear that narrator feels toward sexuality. (p. 12)
Kate Chopin in The Awakening suggested that guilt shouldn’t accompany sex even if it isn’t sex in marriage. She didn’t judge Edna as a fallen woman, moreover, it seems like Chopin’s view of sex was that sexual growth of a woman didn’t end with her marriage. To us, modern readers, sexual descriptions in The Awakening may seem hardly explicit, however, contemporary readers would have founds them inappropriate. However, Edna’s awakening to her own sexuality can bring only partial fulfillment because Edna comes to understanding that female biology can also enslave and she thus takes her life because she needs sexual and spiritual freedom, but acknowledges a duty toward her children.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman suggested that women in dependent relationships are always removed from their physical environment( Dyer, 55) Could it be that Edna and the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper responded to the environment that surrounded them because they started doubting their own place in the dependent/ submissive relationship? Excessive physicality of Grand Isle are irresistible to Edna, and her sexuality awakens under the influence of nature, sea, Creole women and men, and her longing for love and passion. This environment sharpens Edna’s senses. The sea becomes very important to Edna as she learns to appreciate it. At first, Edna was afraid of swimming not because of her physical limitations, but because of her fear of being alone in the water. Edna’s desire to swim alone in the sea without anyone standing near emphasizes her growth as an individual. She is no longer afraid of loneliness, she realized that she is not only part of domestic place, but part of the world. The Awakening is about the beginning of selfhood, and Edna’s return to the sea, ” the source of life” can ‘be interpreted as a beginning of self-understanding. Edna’s victory is in her awakening to an independence, passion, and self-understanding, but she refuses to live without human status and be judged by her ability to be a dutiful mother.
The narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper doubts her husband’s opinions and her own role in their relationship; being unable to write and communicate with her friends, she sees herself in the image of the woman in the wallpaper and identifies her thoughts and doubts with this image. The narrator’s urge for independence is more unconscious than Edna’s , who fully understands expectations that her husband has of her and her own urges and desires. In the final scene when John faints and she creeps over him she says, ” I’ve got out at lastaAnd I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” She achieved her independence and doesn’t need anybody to rely on for survival. She achieved her independence from her submission to her husband, but this independence came at a terrible price- her sanity.
The uniqueness of The Awakening and The Yellow Wallpaper caused early reviewers to greet it with hostility. Thus the nation was not ready to wake up to the truth about feminine passion and independence. Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman saw no happy end to the woman’s urge for freedom. The narrator’s and Edna’s achievement of independence brings them despair rather than fulfillment and happiness. The Yellow Wallpaper and The Awakening are both about the beginnings; they begin a painful process of ” bridging two centuries, two worlds, two visions of gender.” (Dyer,116)
Dyer, Joyce. The Awakening: A Novel of Beginnings New York: Twayne Publishers,1993.
Knight, Denise D. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997.
Scharnhorst , Gary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.
Per Seyersted. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography .Norway: Universitetsforlaget, 1969.
The Awakening Chicago:Herbert S. Stone;Co.,1899. Reprint
The Yellow Wallpaper. Boston: Small, Maynard ;Co., 1899. Reprint. Afterword by Elaine Hedges. New York: The Feminist Press, 1973