Today and throughout history, women and girls are constantly struggling to find their own individual freedom from the constriction of female gender roles and stereotypes. “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin both focus on this struggle. Both Jamaica Kincaid and Kate Chopin include strong female main characters. “Girl” presents a young girl being restricted by the thoughts and feelings of her conservative mother while, “The Story of an Hour”, dives into the feeling of freedom the main character, Louise, loses her husband in an accident. Both the girl and Louise struggle with the roles that are put on them by their parents, men, and society as a whole, that in the end, hinder their freedom. The main character in Kincaid’s short story “Girl”, struggles to be herself because of her mother’s strict ideas on how a woman, wife, mother, and daughter should act. She is unable to express herself in the various ways she would like, due to her mother’s very conservative thoughts on what is “lady-like”. Similarly, the main character in Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour”, Louise, is being held down due to the expectations and restrictions that were being placed on her by her late husband. These two short stories work very well together due to the fact that “Girl” focuses on a young girl longing for freedom, while “The Story of an Hour” focuses on a grown woman who has finally gained her freedom. Kincaid and Chopin’s female characters show a yearning for freedom because of their restrictions due to female gender roles and stereotypes. Both of these strong female authors work in tandem and use their writings to enlighten the reader on not only what roles and expectations are put on females, but the struggles and repercussions that stem from these assumptions.
“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid provides the perfect portrayal of gender, gender roles, and expectations that are put on young girls. Kincaid organizes this as somewhat of an “instruction manual” on what it means to be a “good girl”; one that abides by gender role expectations. Through the main character and her mother, the author not only describes what girls and women are supposed to do, but what they are not supposed to do, according to expectations around gender. Kincaid explains, “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry” (Kincaid 1-2). She goes on to say, “this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a button-hole for the button you have just sewed on” (Kincaid 15-16) and “this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease; this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease” (Kincaid 18-19). This is a great example of how young females are introduced to gender roles from a young age. Girls are often introduced to gender roles and expectations by their mothers or other female relatives who understand the “rules” of gender role conformity. This is perhaps because mothers or relatives want girls to have a life that is free of conflict and they are aware that playing by the “rules” may make life smoother for them. Trying to break free of or reject gender roles can be hard work. Some women who have attempted to break these rules have learned how hard it is and perhaps have gotten into trouble or lost things like spouses, jobs, or family members who do not agree. So, it is not just “society” or even men who convey these rules on gender to girls – women also teach these expectations. The main character’s mother, throughout the story, teaches her how to be a proper wife and homemaker as she believes a woman should. Additionally, the main character is taught by her mother how to act as a lady and in such a way that will impress others. In modern day society it is largely present that females should act “presentable” at all times. Kincaid explains, “always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach” (Kincaid 9). She also says, “on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming” (Kincaid 10). From a very young age, the main character is not only told what to do to be a “proper woman” but is also told what not to do. Her mother expresses how women are supposed to be pure, chaste, and proper. Her freedom is being stripped away from her as soon as she has the ability to think for herself. Throughout this story, the reader sees the progression of the young girl yearning to be free and express herself as a woman as she would like. However, her mother is standing right in the way.
Kate Chopin’s, “The Story of an Hour” takes a different approach to female freedom. In contrast to the way that Kincaid uses “Girl” almost as an instruction manual for gender role expectations, Chopin highlights the ways that girls and women struggle against these gender roles. The main character, Mrs. Mallard is a middle-aged woman who has been recently widowed. To the reader’s surprise, she is, in a sense relieved in response to her husband’s passing. Chopin states, “She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will – as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been. When she abandoned herself, a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free!’” (Chopin 10-11). The concept of freedom seems to take over Mrs. Mallard. She cannot resist the feeling of freedom from ‘possessing her’. With her husband’s passing, she now feels that she can do, say, and be anyone or anything she wants without being told otherwise. She spent a whole marriage being told what to do and say and finally, she is free. Chopin continues to explain, “There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination” (Chopin 14). Now all that matters to her is that she can achieve freedom. Past ties and expectations stripped of ‘a kind intention or a cruel intention’ are revealed as ties that have been tying her down for years.
One element of fiction that stands out when reading “Girl” is character. In literature, as in the real world, the reader can evaluate a character in response to how they act, feel, and what they do. In this emotional story about the relationship between a young girl and her mother, the reader can clearly observe that the protagonist is unable to formulate her own thoughts and opinions due to the beliefs her mother prescribes her. Kincaid explains, “This is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely” (Kincaid 1). The young girl’s character is created around her mother’s ideas about gender roles and expectations. In addition, the girl speaks a total of two sentences the entire story. This represents the fact that the young girl has no voice and her mother has taken complete control over her freedom. The reader is able to conclude that the main character is suppressed by these expectations through the rules she is given. Another element of fiction that was prominent in these two short stories especially “The Story of an Hour”, is Plot. Plot is an element of fiction used to describe the events that make up a story, or the main part of a story. The lack of freedom the main character, Mrs. Mallard, feels throughout her marriage affects the plot of the story greatly when it is revealed to the reader that she is actually in a sense, freed when her husband passes away. Louise Mallard loves her husband and their relationship is expressed positively throughout the beginning of the story; so, it comes as a shock to the reader when she admits the freedom she feels after is passing. She imagines the years ahead, which belong only to her now. She will be free, on her own without anyone to oppress her. This flips the plot of the story and reveals the restraint she felt when trying to formulate her own thoughts and opinions in her relationship. Louise states, “She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long” (Chopin 4). Before her husband’s death, Louise viewed her life with apprehension, envisioning years of unchanging dependence and oppression. However, now she is free and independent, and her life is suddenly open to possibility and in her own hands for the first time.
A common theme of both “Girl” and “The Story of an Hour”, written by strong female authors is the lack of freedom the main characters possess due to the strong gender roles and stereotypes in their cultures and households. In the scholarly article, Escaping the Colonizer’s Whip: The Binary Discipline, Colena Gardner-Corbett specifically describes the ways that the gender binary (opposing gender role expectations for males and females) is used to control the characters in “Girl”. She states, “In using binary oppositions throughout Kincaid’s works, the mother (colonizer) character attempts to brainwash these binary ideas into the young and innocent character in an effort to suffocate any effort of free thought” (Gardner-Corbett 75). Gardner-Corbett explains how the mother character in Kincaid’s “Girl” uses binary oppositions to control her vulnerable daughters’ thoughts. Binary oppositions create a constant contradiction of ideas such as feminine and masculine and chastisement and oppression. This article proceeds to explain the brainwashing women endure all around the world and the lack of control they have of their own thoughts and opinions due to the ideas and norms the world has created for them. Gardner-Corbett also touches on how this conditioning can affect females especially from a young age. She states, “When the oppressed young develop into adults, these oppressed adults will not question the heterodox; the oppressed will perform trained exercises because they are conditioned; this is where Kincaid directs her anger” (Gardner-Corbett 75). The article enlightens the reader on how female oppression and gender roles exist in a cycle that repeats itself. Young girls are filled with ideas on how they should act rather than making the decision for themselves. Due to the fact that gender role expectations are conveyed directly and indirectly by family and friends every day and then reinforced by society (in schools, jobs, organizations, and society as a whole) they seem “ok or normal.” They are a part of life and society, so girls and women do not always question them or see them as “bad” or restrictive. In response to this, these ideas can get easily passed on to the next generation.
A piece of commentary that directly connects to these issues centering around gender roles is “The Mother” by Lydia Davis. This commentary explains the high standards many mothers hold to their daughters. Not only do men and society cause these gender issues but women are introducing these ideas to their daughters and family members. Davis states, “The girl wrote a story. ‘But how much better it would be if you wrote a novel’ said her mother. The girl built a doll’s house. ‘But how much better it would be if you built a real house,’ her mother said” (Davis 265). This shows the pressure young girls have to be proper and “good” women even from their own parents and role models. Little girls experience extreme pressure from the world and are constantly watched and judged by those around them. Due to this, girls are unable to freely act and speak how they would like and must shelter their thoughts to reflect the role they have been given in society.
It is clear that both of these short stories are, at their foundation, about gender role expectations and, specifically, the ways that these expectations impact female freedom. “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid describes the relationship between a young girl and her mother and reads almost as an instruction manual that her mother uses to teach her daughter about gender role expectations. Additionally, “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, focuses on a middle-aged woman and her relationship with her husband, describing the sense of freedom she feels once her husband dies and she is no longer subject to the gender role restrictions he imposed. Both women are eager to achieve freedom and express themselves however they would like. “Girl” is a perfect example of a female just beginning to lose their freedom, while “The Story of an Hour” is a perfect example of a female just beginning to gain their freedom back. In both stories, these women are being told throughout their lives how a woman should act and how women should spend their day, acting like a lady and taking care of the home and children. These strong female authors, Kincaid and Chopin, are writing about gender roles and, through their characters and what they represent, shine a light on the ongoing struggle and impact this has on girls and women.