During the pre-1900 era, feminism was rising. This engendered many writers to write about the situation that women were in at that time and which therefore seemed to advocate certain feminist beliefs and attitudes. Some of the writings can even be said to be trying to make certain feminist-related changes. In this essay, I shall attempt to determine the ideas they seem to be suggesting and the feelings they try to incite. I will use Kate Chopin’s The Story Of An Hour as well as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper as the basis of my exploration. One of the primary topics that the works of this era explore is the idea of marriage.
They appear to be contending the notion that marriage is comparable to a cage where women are locked in and their freedom removed. The Story Of An Hour certainly supports this conclusion. No doubt, the moment Mrs. Mallard receives the news of her husband’s death, she goes through a “storm of grief”. Yet, the storm is short, and soon she “could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring of life” and that “there were patches of blue sky… in the west facing her window”. It is as though her husband’s death implies life and a new beginning for Mrs.
Mallard. This realisation then grows into a “monstrous joy”, so that “she was striving to beat it back with her will”. She is so excited about this that “she said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free! ‘ ” and “her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body”. All these emphasise how strong Mrs. Mallad’s emotions and craving for freedom are. Hence, Chopin is probably not just trying to say that married women are like criminals put behind bars, she is also trying to communicate a sense of blame and censure for what marriage is doing to them.
Some texts go further with their negative feelings about marriage. They suggest that, in the process of being locked like birds in a cage, the women also end up ruined or destroyed. The Yellow Wallpaper, which essentially records the process of a woman going mad, is an apt example of this kind of work. It may be true that the immediate cause of the narrator’s descent into madness is her obsession with the wallpaper in her room, but there are enough clues in the text which suggest that it is marriage which drives her into her obsession with the wallpaper in the first place.
Already at the beginning of the story does she believe that the wallpaper is making her condition worse, but she has to ask her husband for his approval first for all that she wants to do with it. Thus, it is evident that the narrator is totally under an authoritarian rule of her husband – which is essentially the cause of her madness. Whether it is to transfer to the room downstairs, to repaper the room or to leave the mansion to “make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia”, the reply that she gets from John is always negative. This means that the narrator has no choice but to end up face-to-face with the wallpaper everyday.
It is therefore understandable that she ends up obsessed over her disgust for it, in turn resulting in her losing her mind. So it appears that Gilman condemns marriage, and she justifies this feeling not only with the premise that the husband harshly imposes his own beliefs, thinking and decisions on his wife, but also with the additional premise that this kind of practice is likely to end up destroying her. This idea of Gilman decrying marriage for the detriment it does to the woman is corroborated by an additional clue that can be found near the ending of the story.
I am referring to the juncture when the narrator, having already lost her mind, keeps on talking about noticing a woman in the wallpaper. This woman seems to be caught behind bars, “[taking] hold of the bars and [shaking] them hard”. She is “all the time trying to climb through” and yet “nobody could climb through that pattern”. Now that the narrator is no more able to differentiate between what is external and internal, it is possible to believe that the woman in the wallpaper that she is describing is really herself.
This view is strengthened by the fact that in later parts there is sudden change of the pronoun that she uses in her description: from “the woman” to “I”. This carries very large implications on the attitudes to marriage in the prose. The narrator, and reasonably the author and the text as a whole, is really frustrated over her situation. She mentions that the woman in the wallpaper “is always creeping” and that “when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines” and goes on to say that she “don’t blame her a bit” for “it must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight”.
It is possible to say that the narrator is really alluding to her own marriage as taking her freedom away such that she must end up doing things behind her husband’s back and that this is humiliating to her. So far, I have managed to establish that there is a strong sense of contempt for marriage in the texts. In addition to this, the works also explore the notion of the woman. But while it is quite a straightforward case for that of marriage, it is not that clear-cut for the attitudes towards women.
On one hand, there is the intuitive idea that the feminist writers of pre-1900 would present a more favourable disposition towards themselves (if they are women) or women in general, which is to an extent true as from a reading of the texts. First of all, there is this general ending where the woman somehow triumphs over the man and where this triumph is being celebrated. In The Yellow Wallpaper, for example, there is a reversal of roles between the narrator and her husband at the ending. Throughout the story, the superiority and control that the narrator’s husband has over her is clearly shown.
Yet when the narrator becomes mad, the reader soon sees that she has a kind of superiority over her husband. For example, initially “John laughs at me [the narrator]” but at the end she herself “turned it off with a laugh” when John expresses his delight over her improvements. When she locks herself in the nursery at the very end of the story, she teases John for not being able to open the door and calls him “young man”. This is also true for Chopin’s work. The whole prose is basically about Mrs. Mallard finally gaining freedom.
While Mr. Mallard is away killed in an accident, she is “drinking in a very elixir of life”. The works, therefore, suggest a sense of regard for the woman by showing that the woman can triumph over the man and by communicating a feeling of celebration for this possibility. But there are a number of loopholes that can be found with this interpretation. Certainly, the women did in a sense triumph over their husbands, but these victories are more a result of circumstances rather than of their own doing or their own inherent strengths.
Mrs. Mallad triumphs only because her husband died from a disaster, for example. In fact, they did not really triumph at all. Mrs. Mallad dies in the end, while the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper appears more superior to her husband only because she has totally lost her mind, becoming completely cynical of the people around her. In fact, it now seems more feasible to say that the works favour a rather negative notion of the woman, for they portray them as having far more (and even totally of) weaknesses than of strengths.
Take for illustration, the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper when she is still sane: “I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time. ” When “we just had mother and Nellie and the children down for a week”, “it tired me all the same” despite the fact that “I didn’t do a thing”. Then there is the time when she tries to have “a real earnest reasonable talk with him [her husband]” – the result is that she is “crying before I had finished” and that she cannot “think straight”, attributing all these to a “nervous weakness”. In retrospect, it is quite questionable to deem marriage as fully responsible for her descent into madness.
I say this because, if one were to see her as a mature adult, it would be reasonable to expect her to exercise self-control over her disgust and obsession for the wallpaper. But she did not. In other words, the text could really be enforcing the notion of the woman as immature and incapable of self-control, thus supporting the practice of looking down upon them. This notion is reinforced by the instant when John suggests that “I [the narrator] was letting it [the wallpaper] get the better of me” and she even agrees by saying that “he is right enough about… .
It is also corroborated by the parallels that the narrator herself makes to when she was a child: “I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture… ” Isn’t this what she is doing right now with the wallpaper? So the text seems to be suggesting a low opinion of its narrator, saying that it is more appropriate to see her as a child, as opposed to a mature adult. Similar conclusions can be drawn from The Story Of An Hour. Mrs.
Mallad may sometimes look as if she is stronger – being occasionally described as having “a fair, calm face… and even a certain strength”, but one can see her weaknesses far more clearly. She “wept” when she hears the news and continues to “sob” later on “as a child who has cried itself to sleep continues to sob in its dreams”. She waits for the feeling of freedom but “fearfully” and when it comes it is so strong that she is compared to it “as [being] powerless as her two white slender hands would have been”.
Close to the ending, there is “triumph in her eyes” but it is a “feverish” one. Hence, the idea of a woman in pre-1900 prose seems to be one which is laden with weaknesses rather than anything else. But true as it may seem from the texts themselves, a negative notion of the woman by feminist writers is really quite unbelievable. Certainly, the assumption that feminists must favour women could be wrong, but negative attitudes are far too unlikely. For how can a person who feels against something or someone find the motivation to advocate radical changes for the betterment of them?
I have found that the key to this seeming contradiction lies firstly in the false but convenient assumption that the ideas and feelings found in a text must be consistent with that of the writer’s and secondly in the context in which feminist and women authors were writing. Here is how it may be reconciled: It cannot be underemphasised how immense the pressure that feminist and women authors of the pre-1900 era were facing was in getting their messages and attitudes across.
They were trying to put forth what at that time would look to the general population totally radical and perhaps irrational views. Moreover, the fact that most of them were women themselves meant that not many would take their ideas seriously. The result was that they did not just have trouble getting people to accept the views or changes that they were trying to advocate, but also that of getting readers and publishers in the first place. So they could not produce writing which at first glance seemed to promote the woman as a superior figure.
The idea of the woman had to be negative firstly so that the publishers (which were mostly males at that time) would be willing to accept their works and secondly so that after being published the public would be willing to read the writing as well. But the most important function that such an idea of a woman would serve was that of increasing the acceptability of the other feminist messages or themes found in the works. This was important because the premises from which many of these messages were argued from had got to do with the betterment of women.
If it appeared to the public that the writers had a certain bias towards women (which was understandably the prevalent view of feminists), then the odds of them accepting their views or attitudes (about marriage, for example) would be highly compromised, much less the odds of them deciding to act after considering the views. Thus the negative portrayal of women in pre-1900 feminist prose can be seen as a shrewd device to enhance the acceptability of the other more important feminist messages that they were trying to get across.
This did not necessarily align with how they felt about themselves and women in general. In conclusion, writers of the pre-1900 era present a negative disposition towards marriage. While it may be more possible by instinct to assume that their works would favour a sense of regard for the woman, it can be proved otherwise from the texts themselves. This contradiction can be solved by undoing the assumption that writers hold views consistent with those suggested in the texts that they produce.
But what I have gained from this discussion is a far larger and more significant insight into the works of women than what feelings they are trying to communicate and how they do – these works have proven themselves worthy of aesthetic value from the way they are crafted to suit the aims they have in mind. They certainly deserve to be considered “literature”, and the only reason why they have not until recent years is because of the unreasonable bias against women that the works themselves were striving to eliminate.