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Women’s Position in the Nineteenth-century America: Analytical Essay on A White Heron and The Yellow Wallpaper

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The issue of social and economic discrimination of women or the unequal treatment between men and women, was one of the issues remained in America after the Civil War. Women were expected to be caring and obedient and they were viewed as weak and submissive, which is coined by the term “Angel in the House”.They were simply the properties of their husbands, whom they aimed to give pleasure, and were only appreciated through the domestic work they applied in the house. In 1960s and 1970s, women started to seek for equal legal and social rights. Sarah Orne Jewett and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were among the female writers who tried to shed a light on this issue of inequality through their writings. While Jewett’s short story “A White Heron”(1886) depicts the growth of a young girl, named Slyvia, via a moral choice that she has to make, Gilman’s work “The Yellow Wall Paper”(1892) tells the story of a young woman, who appears to be under the control of her husband and descents into gradual madness. However much these two stories differ from each other, both works address the issue of inequality between the two sexes during the late 19th century, and their endings emphasize the same idea, that is, the woman is in control as they reject the male patriarchy. As an example of regional fiction, “A White Heron” begins with a focus on both its setting, which is a rural district in New England and the main character, Slyvia, who is the heroine of the story.

Jewett applies the elements of media res as she informs the reader about what the main character is doing, while at the same time she describes this remote setting in great detail. Within this introduction, we immediately get the sense that Sylvia, walking her cow home, is this young girl, who doesn’t need any guiding through the woods and that she is one with nature: “their feet were familiar with the path…whether their eyes could see or not” (37). Sylvia, after having been lived in the crowded city for eight years, feels alive and complete in the countryside, where she lives with her grandmother. In fact, she is so content with nature that “she never should wish to go home”(37). Her life in the country is simple and convenient for a young girl, who is shy in nature and afraid of male presence.

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Another convention of regionalism shows itself in the story when a “tall young man, who carried a gun over his shoulder”(37) intrudes into her simple and ordinary life, and both the internal and external conflict start. The external conflict in the story appears through symbolism. While the young man, who hunts birds for pleasure, symbolizes the intrusion of technology and civilization, therefore the city, the white heron, which the hunter tries to capture, symbolizes purity of rural life and it also stands for Sylvia’s innocence. She struggles with an internal battle, while she’s trying to decide whether or not to reveal the white heron’s location to the hunter. The fact that she develops feelings for the hunter is the main reason that she suffers internally. Throughout the story, we see that the hunter somewhat tries to dominate both Sylvia and her grandmother. For example, while he’s in their house, he says to the grandmother “You can give me some milk at any rate”(38), possibly indicating that it’s the woman’s duty to care for the man. Similarly, when he gives Slyvia a “jack-knife” as a present, he seems to be getting her to accept his destructive ways. By the same token, the gun that he carries also a symbol of masculinity and experience in contrast to their simple and innocent way of living. In the end, though, Sylvia manages to break through this male dominance by not revealing the white heron’s location: “Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron’s secret and give its life away”(39). The connection she has with the nature appears to be so strong that not only she rejects the male patriarchy, but also the possibility of what this man could have provided for them. So she is loyal to the white heron but feels guilty for causing disappointment for the man. At this point, the narrator, who acts like an external observer and therefore remains detached from the story, directly addresses the reader and expresses pity for the child. Jewett leaves it to the reader to decide whether or not Sylvia’s choice of the nature over the man was right.

Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wall Paper” falls more likely under the category of naturalism, which is an extreme form of realism. The naturalist movement emphasizes the idea of determinism, indicating that humans have no free will to shape their lives. In the story, the protagonist, who is also the narrator, is unable to act upon free will as she is completely controlled by her husband and physician, John. She is severely depressed after having a child and put under a treatment called “rest cure”. The narrator, living under patriarchal rule, is not taken seriously by her husband and she is treated like a little child: “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage”(60). The tone of the narrator seems to be sarcastic in a way as it is clearly not expected to be laughed at in a marriage, however, it may also be considered a genuine comment as it was normal to infantilize women in order to prevent them to protest their own treatment in a marriage. In the late 19th century, women were conditioned to be submissive, rather than objecting to their unequal position against men. Therefore, the narrator follows the general opinion of society and does whatever her husband tells her to do throughout the story. On the other hand, the narrator consciously or unconsciously rebels through her writing. Although she is forbidden from working and especially writing, she begins her secret journal as a way to “relieve her mind”. Putting her real thoughts secretly on paper shows that she is trying to establish her own identity as well as trying to find her own voice, even though she is constantly discouraged from self-expression. She also starts describing the house as a way of relieving her mind, however, her mind becomes fixated with the yellow wallpaper in the bedroom that she’s practically locked in. She expresses her severe disturbance about the wallpaper by saying “I never saw a worse paper in my life”(61), but being unable to change her conditions, she begins to see a figure behind the main pattern of the wallpaper. She thinks this figure to be a woman, who is “by daylight…subdued, quiet” (66), just like herself. While this woman represents the narrator at this point, later she represents women in general, who is under the same kind of male oppression.

The narrator asks “I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?”(69). Like all other women in her position, she wants to be set free from all the gender norms and thus she wants to be able to express herself freely. At the end of the story, she goes insane, but free at the same time as she tells John “I’ve got out last, in spite of you and Jane. You can’t put me back”(69). Here, it can be said that there is a reversal of their roles for she creeps over John when he faints on the sight of her madness. For the first time, she is the one in control as she walks over him, thus, she is triumphant and John is weak and sickly. However, it can be argued that the ending, in fact, points in the defeat of the woman since she practically becomes mad. It can also be interpreted as a sad ending as she completely loses control over her own mind and body. Although the hero in Jewett’s story appears to be disappointed at the end by choosing to stay loyal to the rare bird, and the woman in Gilman’s text goes completely insane, both of these female characters break through the problem of male dominance that existed at the time. Both stories point to the submissive position of nineteenth-century women in general and their entrapment under the male-dominated society rules. Sylvia, being left with the feeling of intense solitude, and the unnamed narrator of the second story, who lost grip of the real world, become free of the suppression and impotency of women in nineteenth-century America.

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Women’s Position in the Nineteenth-century America: Analytical Essay on A White Heron and The Yellow Wallpaper. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 4, 2022, from
“Women’s Position in the Nineteenth-century America: Analytical Essay on A White Heron and The Yellow Wallpaper.” Edubirdie, 12 Aug. 2022,
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Women’s Position in the Nineteenth-century America: Analytical Essay on A White Heron and The Yellow Wallpaper [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 12 [cited 2022 Dec 4]. Available from:
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