World War One and World War Two did much to change the status and standing of women in society, but how were women perceived in pre-1914? By analysing three short stories from that period and the gender relationships within them, I hope to build up a portrayal of how females were regarded.
The three short stories that I’ve chosen from the pre-1914 period are: “26 Men and a Girl” by Maxim Gorky; “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; and “The Woman’s Rose” by Olive Schreiner. I’ve picked these three specifically because each of these stories portrays the relationship between males and females differently, differing from the woman being subtly in control of the males, to the husband completely dominating his wife’s life.
The first theme, which I shall be comparing between the three stories, is the way in which men treat and see the women. “26 Men and a Girl” already gives a subtle hint as to how women were seen from its title, by using the word “girl” and not “woman” it indicates that the males do not judge them to be equal, and are seen as inferior. At the time of writing (1899), the attitudes towards women were far from equal to men, even if the law stated they were. This story follows the story of 26 men, who work all day for little pay and are essentially incarcerated in their workplace. These were working conditions to which at least some could relate to at those times, being forced to work all day long for a minute salary.
At the end of the story, the men lose their respect for Tanya, and end up ganging up on her, encircling her while heckling the young girl. It’s almost as if that once they see that Tanya really is a female, they revert to how they treat all women, with insults and jeering, but while she was something more than just a female: an idol; they treated her with the greatest respect. Suddenly, the roles of power are changed, and the men are freed from Tanya’s hold over them.
But we stood in a ring around her and exacted our revenge, for she had robbed us. She had belonged to us….
This could perhaps reflect how women were still perceived at the time, that while the males had an interest in the woman, they were to be revered and loved, but as soon as the woman showed interest in another man, they would become just another female on the street, to be used and discarded at will, like property.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), John completely dominates his wife, and he believes he is doing the best thing for her, by practically taking control of her life. The control John has over his wife is revealed through his wife’s diary. In her perspective, she believes that John’s decisions towards her health are always right, and that she isn’t “imprisoned” by the shackles of her husband’s choices, but chained because of her health. Reading the story soon reveals that this is altogether not true, through the use of self-revealing irony. Throughout the story, the phrase “But John says so…” appears a fair amount of times. For example, “But John says if I feel so….But John would not hear of it….John says I mustn’t lose my strength….” Gradually, the phrase is repeated so many times to the effect that you can almost visualise the erosion of her will and determination to stay true to herself. John treats her much as one would treat a child; always coddling her and making her do what he wants her to.
At the start of the story, there’s a real sense of how the woman at first stands strong and knows what she wants, and tries to be defiant.
You see, he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?
Her words show that she thinks she is sick, but her husband doesn’t believe her. But through the absolute control John has over his wife, by the end of the story she loses her sanity, and begins to believe that she is the “woman in the wallpaper”. This also reflects the attitudes towards women at the time, they were not seen as people with valid opinions, and that men were the people who dragged them down, hindering their ability to reach higher status. In a way, the loss of the woman’s sanity can be viewed as an escape to freedom: if she can have no physical freedom in the prison John has slowly built up around her, then at the very least she is able to free her mind to whatever she wants.
The story is based on a personal account of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s experiences, as she too went through post-natal depression and was forced into bed-rest by her physician. The supposed cure of resting and no work nearly drove her insane, and she felt that she was left to live “a crippled life”. In this story the gender relationship is all about complete subjugation of the male over female, and one that leads to the ruin of the woman in the end. It shows that when women and their opinions not taken into account, you do far more than just suppress their voice, you suppress the person entirely. This story was shocking to the readers at the time, showing how such attitudes of “I know better than you…” could destroy people. Even in present times, it is widely received by readers who feel that they can feel parallels with women’s lives today.
“The Woman’s Rose” by Olive Schreiner does not revolve centrally around men and women, but instead the relationship between two women in a village, both vying for male attention. In contrast to “26 Men and a Girl”, the females in this story are not yet 18, but the author calls it “The Woman’s Rose”, which could by symbolic of all females and the unspoken sisterhood which binds them just because they’re women. By naming it “The Woman’s Rose” it doesn’t speak for just those girls in the village, but for all women everywhere.
In this story, all the men worship the women because they are the only ones, which is reminiscent of 26 Men and a Girl, who worshipped Tanya because she was the only one who paid attention to them. The choice of first-person view gives us a different side to the story, which could be compared to “26 Men and a Girl” to imagine how Tanya felt, being able to control the men with the mere fact that she was female.
The way men treat women in the three stories differs greatly, but while it was the common view that women were seen as lesser, these stories have demonstrated that women also had control over the men. Therefore, the second theme I shall be analysing is the power women have over the men.
In “26 Men and a Girl”, Tanya is elevated to an almost goddess-like status – because she is the only female who pays them even the slightest bit of attention. They respect her to the ends that they don’t even seem to visualise her as a woman, rather, something that they all depended on and worshipped.
…an act of daily sacrifice to our idol, an almost sacred ritual which bound us more closely to her with each passing day…
The author mixes semantic fields of religious practise, with that of merely giving a gift, to emphasise on what the gift symbolises to the men. The men spend every day believing that Tanya is theirs and that they are growing close to her, when in actual fact, she is merely using them and taking advantage.
But when one day one of us asked her to darn his shirt, the only one he had, she snorted scornfully, saying: “I’m not doing that! Whatever next!”
The men seem to realise this, yet they do nothing about it, because they feel the need to have at least someone in their lives that they can love. In this way, the female has a great deal of power over the men, not because she’s stronger or faster, but merely because of what she is, a female. It is a subtle domination, and not one achieved through the act of forcing someone to submit, but one gained by sheer respect and idolatry.
By the end of the story the roles reverse, as mentioned before, but Tanya still stands defiant when she calls them “pigs” and “brutes”, which is another recurring theme which has appeared in the stories, as in the act of standing up against the male oppression, and while in some of the stories they succeed, sometimes they fail, for example “The Yellow Wallpaper”. This could be compared to the struggle of women, suffragists and their fight for their rights. The power women have over men is almost non-existent in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which seems to be more like a father-daughter relationship rather than a husband-wife one.
“The Woman’s Rose” is written in the first person by the newly arrived girl to the village, which helps to show how much power the females had over the men.
I liked my power. I was like a child with a new whip, which it goes about cracking everywhere, not caring against what.
The choice of wording indicates that the concept of power over men is new to her, and by being compared to a child, it shows that she used her power whenever she could, like a new toy. By mixing the semantic fields of children and toys with power over men, it helps to build the image that the men were at her beck and call for anything she wanted.
In conclusion, the language between all three stories differ, and they change to reflect the gender relationship shown. In 26 Men and a Girl, the language is at first being mixed with a semantic field of praying and religion, to show that they worship Tanya. By the end it changes to replicate the almost bestial instincts the men have by jeering and encircling the girl.
And with ever increasing violence we bombarded her with the filth and venom of our words.
Tanya even replies to them as “You pigs….you brutes!” The second story uses much more subtle language, to show how the husband asserts his control over his wife and how she gradually gives into him. As already mentioned, the repeated phrase of “But John says…” shows her will begin to break down and erode throughout the story until she goes insane.
And finally, The Woman’s Rose uses language that is blunt and gets to the point to show the control the female has over the male, like “whip” and she describes the males as “curious creatures”, to show that they’re no more than pets she can control. Comparing the themes has also helped build a portrayal of gender relationships, by showing the contrasts and also the similarities, which seem to lead me to the belief that while women were widely regarded as the lesser and inferior sex, and were given less opportunities, they still wielded a great deal more power than first thought from a glance at the surface of the social context.