How much would you sacrifice to have the ability to make your own decisions? What would you do to be truly free; from debt, poverty, sadness, addiction, or from anything that causes you misery, pain or unhappiness? Would you risk insanity or even your life? Both “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin are two short stories that can today be categorized as feminist works of fiction. The main characters are females who are struggling for freedom from their husbands.
Although the characters situations differ and the women react differently once they are aware of their suppression, the authors use similar motifs, imagery and themes. Both Gilman and Chopin use irony and the themes of repression of women in marriage and the importance of freedom to suggest that liberation from oppression can only be achieved through drastic means. Irony, of all types, is rife in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper. ” Dramatic irony occurs within the first thirty lines, as the narrator describes some of the bizarre aspects of her bedroom.
She states that the room was previously a nursery and a gymnasium as the “windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls” (327). When she reveals more details about the room, that the wallpaper and floor is scratched and ravished and that the bed is nailed down, it becomes plausible to the reader that the room was not previously used as a nursery, but instead as a room to house an insane person. Irony is present even in the other characters in this short story. The narrator’s husband, John, is a physician as prescribes rest to cure the temporary nervous depression (326) that ails his wife.
This treatment only allows the narrator to sit around, think, and obsess it eventually just causes her to become more anxious and leads her mind further towards madness. Likewise, in Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” there are examples of both dramatic and situational irony. When Mrs. Mallard first receives the news about her husband’s death, she is very upset: “She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment” (316). This is considered a normal reaction to hearing that a loved one has passed away. But after Louise confines herself in her room, she has a different reaction to the loss of her husband.
Instead of being saddened and depressed, she becomes relieved and joyful as she realizes she is now free. She exclaims, “Free! Body and soul free! ” (317) as she become conscious of the fact that she can now live life on her own terms. The last sentence of the story is ironic: “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease – of joy that kills” (318). This implies that Mrs. Mallard was so happily startled and excited to see that her husband was actually alive, that she ended up having heart failure.
Because of her earlier reaction when she was alone, readers can infer it is more likely the loss of joy and her freedom that killed Louise. The oppression that the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” handles from her husband, John, is apparent within the first twenty lines of the story. The narrator writes that her husband is “a physician of high standing” (326). She implies that she cannot argue with her husband about her condition because of this fact, even if she disagrees with him and his assessment of her apparent illness.
There is a specific line that is repeated three times in the beginning: “what is one to do? (325). The repetition marks the importance of this statement and suggests that the narrator does not have the freedom to make her own decisions; that John is the controlling and deciding factor in their relationship. The narrator believes that congenial work would do her good (326) and that writing is a relief for her troubled mind, but John forbids both. Instead he confines his wife to a room with barred windows and hideous yellow wallpaper, does not allow her to exert herself physically or mentally, and prevents her from seeing her friends and family.
While “The Story of an Hour” is arguably less detailed, there is no doubt that the main character, Louise Mallard, is also oppressed by her husband. Instead of feeling melancholy about the loss of her husband, Louise exalts in the freedom that Brently’s death has now given her, realizing that the years to come “would belong to her absolutely” (317). Her oppression has ended and she now has the liberty to do what she pleases. Instead of dreading living a long and repressed life with her husband, she is happy with the realization that her life will be long and full of independence.
Chopin also writes, “A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime” (317). It is not that Louise’s husband is willingly choosing to deny power to his wife, but more so that marriage is inherently oppressive. It is only as the unnamed narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” slips further into obsession and insanity does she begin to understand that she is not in total control of her life. The narrator begins to see a woman confined by the wallpaper and knows that the woman is a prisoner.
She becomes fixated on freeing this woman. Readers can interpret that this woman is really just an extension of the narrator, as both the wallpaper woman and the narrator are trapped and wish to escape. The narrator wishes so much to be free that she devotes her time to trying to help the woman break out of the wallpaper as this is something in her life she can finally control. In the end she writes, “I’ve got out at last, in spite of [John] and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back! ” (336).
She has escaped the oppression of her husband, but has fallen into insanity as a result. The same freedom is envisioned in Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” but is achieved differently than the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper. ” As she begins to understand that her husband’s death means her freedom, Louise is overcome with positive emotions. Even her body reacts favorably, “Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body. ” (317). It is the idea of liberty that causes changes in her and she is now able to fully embrace life.
Unfortunately this freedom is taken abruptly from Louise when her husband is found out to actually be alive and it is this such rapid loss of freedom that causes her heart failure. “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Story of an Hour” are two works that allude to the importance of freedom for women in the oppressive world of men. Both make the point that a woman might not necessarily always realize she is under the power of her husband, but once she does she will strive to be released from it. However, freedom is not achieved normally in either of the short stories, but is gained only through insanity and death.
January 9, 2018
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