Sociología y Trabajo Social
IMAGES OF WOMEN IN
The Yellow Wallpaper and
4º Filología Inglesa.
The aim of this article has been to analyse women´s images in The Yellow Wallpaper and in The Awakening, since the two readings has become the focus of feminist controversy.
Both stories were written by women, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin. But is this fact important to understand the aim of every story? Would they have had the same effect if the had been written by men? I will explore these matters.
I also considered it could be rather interesting to study and compare how heroines act, how they are constricted by patriarchy, how their husbands treat them, and if they triumph or not, in every story.
There is no doubt that the literary written by men and women is different. One source of difference is the sex. A woman is born a woman in the same sense as a man is born a man. Certainly one source of difference is biological, by virtue of which we are male and female. “A woman´s writing is always femenine” says Virginia Woolf
But we all know that Western societies have normally divided many human activities labelling some of them as masculine and others as feminine. So women are naturally femenine, and men are naturally masculine, and this fact should be reflected in their writings. I don´t agree with this assertion, a woman is naturally female, and by means of every culture, she is femenine. The same happens with men.
According to nature all human beings should write in the same way, but according to culture women are forced to write in a different way. And this difference “must be sought ( in Miller´s words) in the body of her writing and not the writing of her body” ( Showalter:252)
The two stories I am going to study were written by women. I think it is virtually imposible to tell, without previous knowledge, that these stories were written by female authors. Virginia Woolf says that “ the first words in which either a man or a woman is described are generally enough to determine the sex of the writer” . I don´t agree with this point, that is very difficult, and it must be also very difficult for specialists. But I must say that there are always something inherently different.
Women have a different way of viewing the world, because of the culture not the nature. They tend to write diaries, autobiographies, poetry…because the cultural context in which they write asks for that kind of literature . They write about the daily lives and experiences, they often treat problems of love, sexuality and marriage. These matters were undervalued, private life and feelings are less important. For example Virginia Woolf´s Mrs Dalloway ( 1925) presents a day in the life of a married woman giving an evening party. Mrs Dalloway has a lot of responsabilities such as buying flowers, arranging food and drinks….These tasks can be considered as being trivial, but what Woolf is trying to point out is that these trivial tasks perfomed by a women make it possible for other characters to live in comfortable circumnstances. Woolf helps the reader to appreciate the importance of aspects of life which are considered to be trivial.
The Yellow Wallpaper and The Awakening are centered on a female character. Is this relevant?. I think that we cannot say that a novel focused on a female character is a feminist novel, a femenist novel can also be centered on a male character. Perhaps, in works by women, there are relatively few male characters, or they occupy a less central place that the women characters do. Of course, few writers write about the experiences of one sex only. For example, Shakespeare´s plays have a predominance of male characters, but the few women appeared are of central importance. But it is of course not the case that women write only about matters specific to themselves, or about private rather than public matters. Nor do women necessarily write novels in which the central characters are women. It is imposible to generalize, although as I have done before we can talk about tendencies. But in the past, works which focused on women were often thought to be aimed at women readers, while works which focused on men were considered to be aimed at general audience.
Are The Yellow Wallpaper and The Awakening aimed at women readers? I think every story is aimed at general audience, suitable for reading and study by both men and women.
But what was the intention of writing these stories? Was it merely unintentional or on the contrary these female writers were in search of something? The literature becomes a mirror for women´s position in society, patriarchal opression appears in both texts. They reflect their situation. Gilman and Chopin wanted to be recognised as women first and as writers. They wanted to take part in a society which mistreated them. They were “new women” who went against the rules imposed by a male society. They wanted to liberate women of all the archeotypes attached to them. They wanted to change social and cultural structures. They tried to demonstrate that there were no “general women”, and that writing was not something only for men.
Both authors were unfairly treated, but at present they are being studied more and more and they are considered to have played an active part in the feminist movement. The Yellow Wallpaper and The Awakenig are considered to be classics within the feminist theory. When they were published, critics criticized them severely. Some critics asserted after reading Kate´s story, that they felt a kind of relief, when Edna drowned herself, and dissapeared forever.
Both stories deal with women dominated by men, Edna and the nameless main character in The Yellow Wallpaper are repressed, controlled and overprotected by their husbands. Both stories represent the effects of that oppression. In Gilmnan´s tale we have a hysterical woman who is taken to a summer house to recover from a nervous condition. She is told to rest and sleep, she is not even allowed to write. The things she has to do are reduced to sleep and to have a domestic life. In The Awakening we have a woman who is submitted to her husband. The only thing she has to do is to take care of the children because it was her place. But as in Gilman´s tale, Edna decides to lose her chains, and start a new life. We´ll explore later the consequences of these defiant facts.
I will start studying and comparing female characters in both stories. How are they portrayed? Do they represent all female society? Are there different kinds of women within every story? Which role do they play? Do they triumph or not? In which way do they rebel against their overbearing husbands?
In both stories, we have a woman as the main character, and I should say that the whole stories are told from a female perspective.
In The Yellow Wallpaper the nameless narrator is not the only female character in the story. Gilman´s decision of not giving a name to the narrator is quite significant, and I will explain this later. As well as in The Awakening, there are more female characters apart from Edna Pontellier.
We have the two basic types of women in every story. The narrator in Gilman´s tale and Edna Pontellier represent “ the madwoman in the attic”. They were submitted to their husbands, and they assumed several obligations imposed by their husbands. In the first case the narrator is forced to live in a house which she doesn´t like. “ I would say a haunted house”(Gilman, 1996:46). She feels that “ there is something queer about the house”(46). Then her husband choooses a room for her that she doesn´t like either “ I wanted one downstairs that opened on the piazza”(48). So since the beginning the narrator is portrayed as a submissive wife, she starts explaining how her husband and other men in her life direct her.
Personally, I disagree with their (her husband´s and brother´s) ideas. Personally I believe that congenial work with excitement and change would do me good. But what is one to do?(…) I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal- having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition (48)
So, we have here a woman who has a formed opinion, a woman who thinks that she needs to write, although she is not allowed. The way in which the narrator speaks suggests us that the narrator has no means to disagree with her husband. She does´t have any power to do what she thinks is best for her. But she is courageous and starts writing in spite of her husband. This is the first act of defiance.
In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier, the main character also suffers the oppression of her husband. She is not happy, but her husband is said to be the best husband in the world, and she has to admit it. Edna assumed that her responsability was to take care of children. At the beginning, we see Edna crying, she is very oppressed by her husband. Her husband returned late, and a bit drunk, sat on a chair to smoke, and ordered his wife to look after one of their children because is ill. And he also remembers her that is the only thing she has to do. She realises that is not happy, and starts thinking about herself, thinkink about her life, she started following whatever impulse moved her, she wanted to renew herself. The first act of defiance is when she refused to go to bed with her husband. “ You must come in the house instantly” but she didn´t yield, she decided to stay outdoors.
But what are the other types of women appeared in every story? In The Yellow Wallpaper the narrator is not the only female character in the story. John´s sister is the other one, Jenny. Both the narrator and John´s sister are completely different. Jenny is “ the angel in the house”, she is the typical housekeeper, a woman who has no hopes. She is forced to stay at home and the only thing she has to do is to keep the house clean and take care . She is a “silenced woman”, a woman kept in dark. The most significative of this character is the she agrees with her brother. She thinks that the narrator shouldn´t write at all.
The equivalent in Kate´s story is Àdele Ratignole, she is the perfect wife. “Never were hands more exquisite that hers(Adele), and it was a joy to look at them when she threated her needle”. Ratignole was in charge of keeping the harmony at her home.
Mademoiselle Reisz is another female character in The Awakening, she is the best depiction of “the madwoman in the attic” or of the “new woman” from the beginning to the end. She lives alone, she doesn´t have children. She is always ready to fight against anyone. Àdele and Reisz play the piano but this activity has different meanings in each one. For Àdele, playing the piano is a way of keeping the harmony in the family. But for Reisz is a way of rebellion in the society.
Edna, the main character, is fond of the music, she thought it was a way of evoking pictures in her mind. The music of Reisz is the basic element which helps Edna to find out herself, to rebel against society. It is of prime importance the passage, at the beginning of the book, when Reisz was playing the piano, and made Edna cry. The music made her be aware of her situation as a woman.
What about “the great husbands”? How are they? Do they have similarities in common? Of course, they have!! In Gilman´s tale, John is a physician “of high standing”( 46) which implies the high ranking of men in society. Léonce Pontellier is a bussinesman. Both causes to feel their wifes like a child, they must be obedient and follow all their orders. Burt the difference lies in that they can do whatever they whish. Mr Pontellier is fond of playing a game of billiards, so he used to go to a hotel every night. His wife stayed at home, because it was her place, the home. Personally I think that these two great husbands are womanizers who don´t give a damm about their wifes. John prescribed his wife complete rest. A good prescription to carry out an affair. And Leonce, spent whole nights outside of the home, which implies that he could also be having an affair.
And what about the two marriages? At first sight, neither in Gilman´s tale, nor Kate´s story, there is warmth or passion, we don´t have any passage where we may see that we are talking about a couple. Edna says that her marriage was an accident, she wasn´t sure. And she also says that there is no passion in her marriage. In The Yellow Wallpaper John never takes his wife seriously. He also says things to her which put her down such as “his little girl”(54), “blessed little goose”(66). He doesn´t take into account his wife´s feelings and desires. “And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid and read to me till it tired my head”(64). Who could ever say that this passage is about a wife and her husband? For me this passage is more of a father than of a husband. Edna and the narrator og Gilman´s tale should complete faith in her husbands as most children put faith in their fathers.
Children? These marriages have children. Edna has got two children, and John one. They are mentioned very little. But why? Does it mean that the mothers don´t love their children? No, of course not!
The narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper does not mention the baby very much, she is somewhat ignoring the baby. “ I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous”(52) “I suppose John never was nervous in his life”(52).In saying so, the narrator is implying that John, as the man in the house, was never suppossed to look after children. The problem here is that the narrator is not allowed to see her child, so she avoids talking about him because it saddens her. But, personally I think that she avoids the child to emphasize that children is not the only place for a woman. Something similar happens in The Awakening, Edna ignores her children up to the point of getting rid of them. A woman in Iberville was in charge of them. I think that Kate´s decision of not mentioning the children is not arbritary, she wanted to highlight that women´s place was not the care of children as well.
But what happens in every story when the “blesssed” wifes decide to lose their chains? How do John and Lèonce react?
In Chopin´s story when Mr Pontellier realises that his wife´s attitude is changing, he gets angry and furious first, but then he thinks she has driven crazy. Edna starts doing different things, she starts painting pictures. She does so to be able to live on her own and to develop her own creativity. She lets the housekeeping go to the dogs, and what´s more, she dares to rent a house to live alone,and have an affair. What a crime!!!
But Leonce is not worried because he thinks that his wife can be a little bit unstable. He went to a doctor to observe Edna´s behaviour. Edna´s father also thinks that Edna is crazy, but she is not crazy, she just does what she wants. She is struggling to get independence and identity. It is as if when a woman decides to stand up for rights, is crazy.
On the contrary in Gilman´s tale the narrator loses her grip on reality because of the oppresion she endures. The author´s representation of the narrator´s madness is critical, in this story what drives the narrator mad is a confining of her creative imagination. So what Gilman is trying to say is that women have ideas and aspirations, and that if they find obstacles to do so, they will be driven crazy.
But do these heroines triumph at the end of every story? They should have but they don´t. In The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator sees the wallpaper, and the rest of the room as her situation. She tries to free herself by tearing off all the paper, but that is not the solution to her problem or situation. It is clear that the narrator starts leaving her position as a submissive wife, and adopts ans agressive position.” But I´m here and no person touches this paper but me no alive!(80). Here we have a display of power, but although she manages to be heard, she is driven crazy. She sees herself as having escaped from behind the wallpaper, but she will be trapped physically and emotionally in a world ruled by one man, her husband. In some way Gilman´s narrator wins and loses. Madness is an escape from one state into another, from one cage to another. So the heroine in this story is destroyed.
The same happens in The Awakening, in this story we have soon a display of power in Edna, but the her end is quite discouraging. She gets independence, she lives on her own, and she realises that her true love is Robert, in short she is happy. But she was not able to carry out her decisions to a courageous end, and decided to drown herself. So here the heroine is also destroyed.
Wouldn´t it have been better to create two stories with a happier ending, especially for the female characters? Because these stories create woman characters who are strong, and try to be free. They could serve as “role models” for women readers. But the end is quite discouraging, they present a hopeless picture and ignore the real strengths that these heroines have done. Personally I think that all these literature written by women should not reflect their situation, but should seek to change it, and not emphasize the difficulties women must struggle.
GILMAN, CHARLOTTE PERKINS The Yellow Wallpaper and the Giant Wistaria.Universidad de León.1996.
CHOPIN, KATE The Awakening.Madrid. Ediciones Hiperion.1997
SHOWALTER,E. “ Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness”