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The State of Women As Reflected in Americal Literature Essay

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Updated: Dec 1st, 2021

Introduction

Until relatively recently, the state of women in American society has been revealed as one of conformity or death. The Civil War had emancipated the slaves and the Industrial Revolution had made it possible, finally, for women to find some form of self-expression as they entered the publishing field. However, female characters who were unable to constrain themselves to the ideal image of the feminine found only death or insanity as their only means of escape from the sorrow of their lives. This state of women in America is revealed through such diverse literature as Henry James’ novella Daisy Miller published in 1878, Susan Glaspell’s one-act play “Trifles” released in 1916 and John Steinbeck’s short story “The Chrysanthemums” published in 1938.

Daisy Miller

In his novella, James uses a realist perspective to tell the story of a young girl named Daisy Miller as she tries to make her way into European society. He focuses on the actual and attempts to capture a true-to-life depiction of his character. As the story begins, Daisy is staying at a hotel in Switzerland with her family, but she is seen wandering alone in the hotel garden. She tells Winterbourne how strange this is for her because she is used to being a part of the activity. “There isn’t any society [here]; or, if there is, I don’t know where it keeps itself. Do you? I suppose there is some society somewhere, but I haven’t seen anything of it. I’m very fond of society, and I have always had a great deal of it.” Mrs. Walker informs her of what is expected of her, and the reason why she hasn’t been accepted into proper society, when she tells her “You are old enough to be more reasonable. You are old enough, dear Miss Miller, to be talked about … Should you prefer being thought a very reckless girl?” However, Daisy has only been able to find companionship by flaunting the European customs like a typical American teenager and eventually dies as a result.

Trifles

Although women had gained the ability to speak with their own voices by the end of the 19th century, the female characters remained just as constrained within rigid social boundaries as the new century got into motion as Glaspell’s play “Trifles” reveals. As Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale start gathering things for Mrs. Wright as she sits in prison after her husband was found murdered in bed by strangulation with the noose still wrapped around his neck, they begin to solve this mysterious murder. Their men laugh about the ‘trifles’ that the women worry about; however, it is these trifles that reveal what really happened. Tucked deep inside Mrs. Wright’s sewing basket, the two women discover a decorated box intended to hold scissors, but that instead holds the body of a small song bird with its head twisted backward. As the women discuss the evidence they’ve found, they realize “Wright wouldn’t like the bird – a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too.” Although the women realize that Mrs. Wright must have committed the murder after being driven mad by the harsh treatment her husband gave her and her attempts to honor his expectations of the ideal, between these women there is an almost unspoken agreement that Wright’s harsh treatment of his wife, keeping her in isolation and silence, was also a crime that deserved punishment. They determine between themselves to keep the knowledge of the murder to themselves. This ending, while harsh for Mrs. Wright as she is both insane and in prison and thus still constrained, reflects the optimistic mood of the turn of the century literature as it hopes for changes in American society that will enable women to emerge from their confinement.

The Chrysanthemums

However, by the late 1930’s, women were still just as severely constrained as is seen in Steinbeck’s short story “The Chrysanthemums.” Elisa Allen is the main character and she spends her time employed in meaningless activities. She is confined within her garden space throughout most of the story, only leaving it toward the end of the story when her husband decides to take her into town with him for a rare treat. Although the story is uneventful, it depicts an unusual day for Elisa because she receives a visitor. This visitor is a tinker who seems very interested in her beautiful flowers. The day is also unusual because Elisa’s husband expresses more affection and interest in her than he typically does. The story ends, though, before Elisa gets too far from her house that evening at a point where she finds the flowers she had given to the tinker smashed on the side of the road. The story ends with Elisa “crying weakly – like an old woman.” In using the flowers as a symbol of a woman’s ability to contribute something beautiful to society, Steinbeck is openly questioning the status quo of women in society while remaining in keeping with the more figurative forms of expression that were popular in his time.

Conclusion

All three of the women featured in these stories were isolated from society mostly through no fault of their own. Daisy Miller was rejected before she had even learned she’d done anything wrong based solely on her unfamiliarity with the customs and rules of the European upper class. Because she couldn’t fit in, she suffered and died a mysterious illness. Mrs. Wright also loved society but was isolated because of the need to conform to her husband’s concepts of what the ideal housewife should be. Because she couldn’t fully constrain her need for beauty in the face of her husband’s opposition to it, she went insane and murdered him in his sleep. Elisa Allen is also constrained within her world 60 years later, showing that society had not really made any progress in allowing women more freedom of movement or self-control. Styles and forms of expression might have changed, but the state of women remained the same.

Works Cited

Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles.”

James, Henry. Daisy Miller and Other Stories. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.

Steinbeck, John. “The Chrysanthemums.” The Long Valley. New York: Penguin Books, 1995: 1-13.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'The State of Women As Reflected in Americal Literature'. 1 December.

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