Pre 1900 prose literature coursework Essay

Woman writers in the late nineteenth century aim to highlight how society oppresses females and the effect this oppression has on females.

Discuss with reference to your reading of the ” Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and/or “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin. The suffragette movement at the beginning of the of the 20^th century is acclaimed for the freedom and equality of opportunity that it brought to women. The right of women to vote and the thrust of their activities and campaign was in reality a revolution against the place of women in society.

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It was a determined fight to give women control ver their lives at a personal public and financial level. No longer would women accept that they were second class citizens in a patriarchal society dependent on men. To the average woman today the constants of life prior to this revelation are difficult to comprehend but interesting insights into the restrictive lives of women emerge in the study of pre 20^th century literature.It is notable that women writing at this time often did so secretly and felt obliged to use a male nom-de-plume to gain publication, Charlotte Bronte being a famous example. `The Yellow Wallpaper’, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a short story hich focuses on the life of one middle class woman as she experienced the misconceived ideas of her time. The protagonist is suffering from Post Natal Depression when such a condition was not recognised or treated appropriately.

In Victorian times ignorance led to nervous conditions being treated much as any physical illness- a great deal of rest, little intellectual stimulation and limited exercise. However what is striking about her story and life is the complete lack of control and input into decisions that directly and in many cases only affected her. As she says ” Personally I disagree with his ideas.

… But what is one to do?The control was so complete that expressing opinion was somehow considered disloyal and ungrateful.

” But John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition and so I take pains to control myself” The clawing oppression is expressed with few verbal hints of the extent of inner frustration felt by the writer. However, here we have a lady like so many of her time – accepting but questioning the `Rules’ of the time. Writing, her escape and therapy was frowned upon and of necessity becomes a secret activity. “There comes John and I must put this away – he hates to have me write a word” she even hides her writing in ront of her sister in law. Her lack of control over her day-to-day existence is further revealed in her attempts to move from the nursery to another room.”But John would not hear of it”.

Perhaps what comes through so clearly and inexplicably to the modern reader is the sense of a human being without a personal identity, feeling, Rights and needs. “But John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least”, “He says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow – case as to let me have those stimulating people about now ” , “John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall” The writers ife in reality was one similar to the one of the protagonist.Charlotte Perkins Gilman, after giving birth to her child sunk into post- natal depression, she was assigned to days upon days of rest and to never write, touch a brush and to keep her life as domestic as possible.

We can see her feelings coming out about that time in solitude in her short story. She was very much in the thick of nineteenth century discrimination which strongly shows in her writing. This nursery plays on the protagonists mind as we see straight from the beginning “The wallpaper, as I said before is torn off in spots”.She describes the nursery in such detail that we have to wonder why.

At first she detests the room by saying such things as ” I am sitting by the window now, up in this atrocious nursery” then changes to such things as “I wasn’t alone a bit”, reflecting on the wallpaper in the nursery that she becomes so engrossed by. She personifies the wallpaper and contrasts it to her own life, she is trapped in the man run society and this wallpaper has a lady, longing to get out behind the bars in the wallpaper, “As she is all the time trying to climb through” The protagonist is a woman whose ideas and opinions are not taken eriously and so her personality must fit with the ideas of her husband. She is not considered to be an equal either in terms of intellectual ability or physical capacity.This is reflected in the way her husband treats her like a child and being kept in the nursery is a concrete example. When he speaks to her it is in the tone of parent to child ” What is it , little girl? ” and later ” Bless her little heart! “… ” She shall be as sick as she pleases! “.

But despite the apparent care , there is a clear sense that here is a woman trapped in an unhappy relationship and the birth of her child did not compensate.In reality she displays few real material instincts and like many women of her class and time is happy to leave the child’s upbringing to a nurse. Throughout the story there is a backdrop of oppression with the yellow wallpaper which she describes as having ‘One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin `. And with a hint of what is to come she develops her feelings with ` And when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide- plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions’.

Here is a lady who represents `unheard f contradictions’ in her desire to write and tendency to question her husband and brother , ” Personally I disagree with their ideas” The final act- suicide -would have been considered scandalous at the time but represents her rebellion against her lot and the hopelessness of her situation.It is noteworthy that “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin also ends with the suicide of the protagonist who cannot live with the reality of the life that society expects from her. Edna finds release in her Art but knows it is an acceptable hobby with no possibility of more.

The oppressiveness of Victorian society and the strict code of ehaviour expected from women but not men were reflected in her inability to live with the guilt brought about by her adultery. She sees no way out rather than through taking her own life to avoid her disgrace. Like the protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper” her children are not central to her life and her relationship with her husband unhappy. ” They were part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could posses her body and soul”.Edna’s limited existence is reflected by the image of ” A bird with a broken wing, fluttering, circling, disabled down, down to the water. For her only escape is to leave the life behind her so that her soul can ` wander in abyss of solitude’. It may be argued that women no longer live in the patriarchal society and are able to control their own financial, personal and career destinies.

The more cynical observer might argue that there is much more to be achieved if true equality of opportunity is to be a reality. However both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Awakening” present us with a stark image of socially acceptable control and oppression of women just a century ago and the tragedy of two women unable to free themselves from its effect.


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