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Kate Chopin's 'The Story of an Hour' and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 'The Yellow Wallpaper': Comparative Analysis

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Escaping the Prison of Marriage

In Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’, Mrs. Mallard is the wife of Mr. Mallard. It is believed Mr. Mallard is dead due to an accident with a train. Josephine, Mrs. Mallard’s sister, and Richards, a family friend, tell Mrs. Mallard talks about her husband’s fate gently because she has a heart condition. Afterward, she locks herself in her room to grieve and begins to have a conversation with herself. She refers to her husband’s passing as giving her freedom and after she seems to come to terms with her husband’s death ( some would even say she seems happy), she leaves her room hysterically and the scene changes immediately. Mr. Mallard appears at the front door, is rushed by Richards, and startled by Josephine’s cry until he’s informed that his wife had died of heart disease…’ of joy that kills”. The part of the story that stands out most is the irony of Richards and Josephine worrying about Mrs. Mallard dying from grief when in fact she died from the opposite. This work is comparable to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, because of how both women seem to be prisoners inside of their marriages. The authors of both works show the audience that the social norm at the time was women being an accessory to men. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and ‘The Story of an Hour’, the authors address the theme of marriage as particularly restrictive for women, use symbolism to describe the sense of isolation and imprisonment that these women feel in their marriages, and complex characterization to convey past injustice against women. It’s interesting Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman chose to write short stories about women who seemed to be suffering internally due to their marriages because of the possible social outcasting they could have experienced but, they believed their short stories needed to be told so thousands of other women’s stories could be told as well.

Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour’ and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ are both feminist short stories that were meant to bring awareness to women in the 19th century’s lives. Many women had their voices silenced by society whether it was because they suffered from mental health issues, they felt they were not meant to be a mother or wife, or they just simply are women in the 19th century. Both narrators from the stories seemed to be suffering from these injustices and feel like prisoners. The theme of both stories is Conformity versus Self-expression. Both narrators seem to be struggling with the want to find who they are as individuals but not being able to. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, the narrator describes her marriage through several interactions between her and her husband. One time specifically, the narrator states ‘…and he (her husband) hardly lets me stir without special direction’ (Gilman 65). In her marriage, she has no room to do anything other than what her husband says even when it is regarding her own health. The narrator expresses that she believes that ‘congenial work, with excitement and change’ (Gilman 65) would help her condition. Instead of doing what she feels would work best, she listens to her husband and to every instruction her husband gives to her even as time goes on and she says she feels her health has not gotten any better. In ‘The Story of an Hour’, Mrs. Mallard described her husband’s death as being painful but, she now could live for herself, she states ‘There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence that men believe they have a right to impose a private will..'(Chopin 49). This quote supports the theme because it shows how restricting marriage was on self-expression for women of the time.

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Symbolism is used often to help build the theme of both stories. In ‘Story of an Hour’, Mrs. Mallard has ‘heart trouble’. The heart is considered the core of a person which is much like marriage is the core of society in the 19th century. The windows are symbolic of the boundaries/ restraints of their marriages. This is interesting because in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, Gilman uses the narrator’s room and surroundings to give the audience a physical representation of her marriage and mental illness that are imprisoning her. When the narrator looks out of her barred window, she is reminded of how trapped she is/ feels. This is expressed in the quote, “I do not like to look out of the windows even- there are so many of those creeping women…I wonder if they came out of the wallpaper as I did” (Gilman 76). The women the narrator sees outside of the window are symbolic of all the women in society who were trapped due to mental illness, or social standards. Similarly, in “The Story of an Hour” the narrator states “she (Mrs. Mallard) could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver in the new spring life…countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves…there were patches of blue sky…” (Chopin 48). The description outside Mrs. Mallard’s window is of spring and spring is symbolic of a fresh start and the beginning of life. Mrs. Mallard’s marriage ending due to her husband’s death symbolizes her new life as an individual. The description, much like in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, is used to remind the women of how confining their marriage was and in this case, was.

Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman use characterization to help develop the theme of Self-expression versus Conformity. In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Gilman used the characters, Jennie and Mary, to represent the common women of the century. These characters do not want to or need to be anything other than caretakers. They conform perfectly with the expectations society has molded for them as women. Jennie is the sister of the narrator’s husband and the couple’s housekeeper who seems to agree with her brother’s prescription for the narrator and Mary is the nanny for the couple. Their characters are used to remind the narrator of her inability to be a traditional mother and wife. The narrator’s husband, John, represents medical professionals of the 19th century as well as husbands. John trusts in facts, he is belittling at times, controlling, and does not quite understand what his wife is experiencing. This is understood when the narrator states ‘John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him’ (Gilman 66). John refers to the narrator as a ‘little girl’ and a ‘blessed little goose’, treating her much like a child. The narrator tells the readers that her husband is a doctor which could be why she “isn’t getting better faster”. That could be due to his control over her and how she treats her illness. The narrator is a gentle woman who is struggling with her sense of individuality and mental illness. She feels like a prisoner in her marriage, her home, and her mind. Throughout the story, the narrator seems to crave self-expression and intellect which is why she writes inside her secret journal. The most interesting thing about the narrator’s character is her lack of a name. Her lack of a name symbolizes her lack of identity outside of her marriage. In ‘The Story of an Hour’, Chopin uses the characters of Richards and Josephine similarly to Gilman’s characters, Mary and Jennie. Richards and Josephine’s characters were there to represent society. Their characters treat Mrs. Mallard much like Mary and Jennie treat the narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and show how society treats women who are suffering whether that was because of mental illness or the death of their significant other. Mr. Mallard isn’t described in depth in the story but, when he is the narrator states ‘ she still loved him sometimes. Often she had not'(Chopin 49). This leads the audience to believe that love does not seem to be an important factor during this time period. At the beginning of the story, the author tells us that Mrs. Mallard has a heart condition which is why Richards and Josephine try to be careful when telling her about her husband’s death. Despite what others assumed would happen when she finds out about her husband, Mrs. Mallard finds her voice and in reference to her marriage ending, she states ‘Free! Body, mind, and soul'(Chopin 49).

In both ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and ‘The Story of an Hour’, the authors both use literary devices such as theme, symbolism, and characterization to relay the message that in the 19th century, marriage made women feel trapped because of the expectations held for them by society. The authors’ ability to convey this message relied greatly upon the fact that they had personal experiences that related to their characters. Kate Chopin found herself after her husband died much like her character in “The Story of an Hour” and she became a writer, writing novels that spoke openly about sexuality, women, and their relationships/emotions with men, and children. Charlotte Perkins Gilman suffered from Postpartum Depression after giving birth to her daughter and much like the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, she did not agree with the treatment she was prescribed and experienced episodes of hallucination. The authors’ ability to convey their message relied greatly upon the fact that they had personal experiences that related to their characters. Chopin and Gilman gave women a voice, and future generations a look back into their history as women.

Works Cited

  1. Green, John, director. The Yellow Wallpaper: Crash Course 407., Crash Course, 10 Jan. 2018
  2. Smith, Melanie “Good Husbands in a Bad Marriages.” Literature: A Portable Anthology, Edited by Janet E. Gardner Et Al., 4th Edition, Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2017, pp.1286-1288.
  3. Sheidley, William E. “Kate Chopin: ‘Story of an Hour.’” Resources for Teaching. Literature and Its Writers: A Compact Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, edited by Ann Charters and Samuel Charters, 4th ed., Bedford, 2007, pp. 19.
  4. Chopin, Kate. “Story of an Hour.” Literature: A Portable Anthology, edited by Janet E. Gardner, Beverly Lawn, Jack Ridle, Peter Schakel, and Joanne Diaz, 4th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007, pp.48- 50.
  5. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Literature: A Portable Anthology, edited by Janet E. Gardner, Beverly Lawn, Jack Ridle, Peter Schakel, and Joanne Diaz, 4th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007, pp. 64- 77.

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