The Struggle for Freedom in “The Story of an Hour” and “The Yellow Wallpaper”
The Oppressive Nature of Marriage in “The Story of an Hour”
Finding out that your husband had passed, and instead of being distraught about it, you are more filled with joy, or maybe your husband is a doctor, and he insists you are fine and that you just need a little rest cure, but in fact, it makes your problems worse. Well, that’s what the women in these stories felt. The stories we will be comparing were both placed in this type of setting where women did not have much independence. “The Story of an Hour” is written by Kate Chopin, and the main character’s name is Louise Mallard. The theme of this story is the oppressiveness of marriage. Louise feels that her marriage limited her and that knowing her husband is dead will free her from that feeling.
Trapped Minds: Symbolism in “The Yellow Wallpaper”
In the story The Yellow Wallpaper written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the main character has no name, so we will call her narrator. Self-destruction caused by lack of self-expression is the theme of this story because the narrator has mentioned multiple times that she shall not be writing in her secret journal, for if she does, her husband will not be happy with her, but in the end, the self-expression could have kept her sane. In both Chopin’s and Gilman’s stories, the main characters, who are women, are living in a time period where freedom for women was rare. They both had condescending husbands in their own ways, and their doctors wrongfully conducted their conclusions about the women.
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The Triumph and Tragedy of Louise Mallard’s Freedom
In “The Story of an Hour”, Chopin really emphasizes the search or gain of freedom in Louise’s life. Louise has been in a happy marriage, but she believes that all marriages result in women losing themselves and that this result is inevitable. In the story, Louise has just found out her husband has passed in a train accident. She goes to her room to take it all in, and once her grieving is over, she feels this sense of relief.
“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!’ The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.”
This sense of relief we know as the readers is the sense of freedom she has just gained from her husband’s passing. She no longer has to live for him, but rather, she will live for herself, something she has been longing for a while.
Also seen throughout this story is the act of a patronizing husband, a man who thinks they know what’s best for their wife, but in reality, they don’t. We, as the readers, already know that Louise feels tied down to her marriage and that she no longer lives for herself, but with this quote, we can see that there seems to be a little bit of bitterness within her marriage.
“And yet she had loved him sometimes. Often, she had not. What did it matter? What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in the face of this possession of self-assertion, which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being.”
We can assume that maybe Mr. Mallard, Louise’s husband, was not the best husband based solely on the quote where it said she had not often loved him. But because of the time period of this story, we can also assume that maybe he wanted the best for her, and really, what he thought was best for her was not what she wanted at all. Louise is full of joy when she hears of her husband’s death, so much so that she is filled with happiness when picturing her life without him in it.
Misunderstanding of a Woman’s Emotions: A Fateful Diagnosis
Most doctors in this time period were men because, of course, the men were looked at as the educated ones. So, in this idea, we will be looking at how the doctors wrongfully concluded how Louise died. At the end of the story, Louise comes out of her room to find out that her husband has, in fact, not passed away. He has just come home, and Louise is so shocked by this that she has died right there in their home when he walks in.
The story ends, “When the doctors came, they said she had died of heart disease of the joy that kills.” Louise had a heart problem mentioned earlier in the story, and this is why the doctors think she had a heart attack because she was overfilled with joy when we, the readers, know what really happened. We were able to understand Louise’s inner thoughts. We know that she has died from the shock that after gaining this freedom again, it is ripped from her in seconds. The doctors thought it revolved around Mr. Mallard and that he was important in her death, but really, his coming home caused her to die of sadness.
The Dangerous Misjudgment of a Patronizing Spouse
Now that we have looked at the ideas throughout “The Story of an Hour”, let’s look at the same ideas but throughout the story The Yellow Wallpaper. In The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman writes about a woman we will call a Narrator who has depression and is trying to obtain freedom from her marriage. The marriage could be what is causing the mental depression of the narrator. In the process of trying to help herself and find a way to get better, the narrator and her husband move to a secluded house, and her husband confines her to one room in the house. The narrator goes insane and starts to have illusions that the yellow wallpaper on the walls is moving. This can be illustrated by the following,
“The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes, I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern it strangles, so I think that is why it has so many heads.”
In this part of the story, it can be inferred that Gilman is trying to make a point that the narrator does not have her own freedom. Gilman is trying to refer to the wallpaper as the marriage, and the woman shaking it is the woman trying to get her freedom back.
The Catastrophic Consequences of a Forced “Rest Cure”
Along with “The Story of an Hour”, the idea of a patronizing husband can also be seen in The Yellow Wallpaper. In The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator’s husband is a doctor of high prestige, and so he thinks he knows what’s best for his wife. He thinks he knows the answer to how to help her get better, but really he doesn’t. This quotation illustrates the feelings the narrator has toward her husband,
“He loves me very dearly and hates to have me sick. I tried to have a real earnest, reasonable talk with him the other day and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. But he said I wasn’t able to go nor able to stand it after I got there, and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished.”
In this quote, you can see that all the narrator wants to do is to go and see her cousins, thinking that it might help her. Instead, the husband does not allow her, and this shows that he thinks he knows what’s best for her. An individual knows what is best for themselves over what anyone else thinks, but during this time period, husbands believed they knew what was best for their wives. And this eventually leads to the increase in insanity that the narrator experiences.
The Interplay of Patriarchy and Mental Health in “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Lastly, in The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator’s husband is a doctor. He controlled what she did and was the one who decided she was not as sick as she thought. The narrator did as she was told by her doctor, who also was her husband. The narrator knew she was sick, but she believed that he was only making it worse by confining her to the room with the yellow wallpaper. She never questioned her husband’s work and ideas directly, but we, as the readers, understand that she did not agree with what his treatment options were. This can be illustrated in the following quotation,
“So I take phosphates or phosphites whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?.”
After reading this line in the story, we can see that the narrator believes her husband does not see her real problem. He just believes that a rest cure would do the trick, but in fact, it does not. Rather, it makes her go more insane. The husband does not see this until the very end of the story when he comes into the room. The wallpaper is all ripped up, and his wife is creeping around, but at this point, he faints because of the severity of the narrator’s insanity.
As we can see after comparing these two stories together, there were major similarities that they had. The overall cause of that could be because they took place in the same time period. If we looked at another story that took place in this time period, these similar ideas would also likely have been seen throughout in some way. Although the themes taken from these stories were different, the ideas of freedom, patronizing husbands, and doctors projecting thoughts of men were similar in their own key ways.
- Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.”
- Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.”