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In this essay, I will try to compare and contrast “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Gilman using character analysis of Mrs. Louise Mallard and the story-teller for The Yellow Wallpaper. I will compare the two characters using author backgrounds, the concept of the works, as well as the disagreement in the viewpoints, and I must say that both stories are grim, although realistically presented.
The characters of Louise Mallard in “The Story of an Hour” and the storyteller for “The Yellow Wallpaper” are representative of what the authors want to express about themselves and their current situation.
There are various ways and reasons why authors write and treat their stories and the stories’ characters in certain ways that could get into the reader but with subjective, albeit, different interpretations. It is therefore necessary to infuse a little background about the authors prior to delving into their stories and characters in order to provide an insight on what could be being represented or why such matters occurred in a story.
For The Yellow Wallpaper, there had been conflicting views on Charlotte Perkin-Gilman’s motive in presenting an intrusive “wallpaper” on the story’s lead character and narrator. Nevertheless, to peek a view on Gilman herself, it was suspected that “The Yellow Wallpaper” was based on her own bout with mental illness and misguided medical treatment as when she married Walter Stetson in 1884 and gave birth to her daughter Katherine a year later, she became depressed that first year as she adapted to the domestic life of a wife. It has also been suggested that she felt pain rather than happiness when she held her baby (Kessler, 1995).
The short story was about an upper-class white woman taken by her husband’s doctor to a country estate to recover from what is presumably postpartum depression. Assigned her room and instructed to remain in bed as she had been ailing, the woman becomes obsessively fixated upon the yellow paper on the walls of the room to which she is confined. At first, she only notices the deterioration of the wallpaper, but gradually envisions movement, and eventually a woman, behind the wallpaper’s mesmerizing patterns. Until which the woman with whom she had also been able to identify with, started crawling, creeping.
There had been Lanser’ point that the narrator has “relentless pursuit of a single meaning on the wall” (420), although other critics have read the story as a critique of the so-called cult of true womanhood, an indictment of the medical establishment, and as a manifestation of Gilman’s now well-documented nativism. But Edelstein (2007) suggested that “The Yellow Wall-Paper” draws its symbolic strength from the imagery and iconography of yellow journalism in Gilman’s time as descriptions of the wallpaper throughout the story echo those used by the general public in reference to the turn-of-the-century tabloid. “Like the tabloid, the wallpaper is yellow, sprawling, and guilty of “committing every artistic sin” … Gilman’s emphasis on visual aesthetics in the story, as in her poem in the Forerunner, reflects the cultural preoccupation with the striking appearance of the sensational newspaper as well as its debasement of literary and artistic standards,” (Edelstein, 2007).
Likewise, it has been noted that the narrator’s vexed relationship to the wallpaper allegorizes Gilman’s own relationship to the journalistic community as she had been disgusted with the rise of the intrusive, money-driven newspaper culture (Edelstein, 2007). Gilman, nevertheless, was involved in the mass media both to support herself financially and to cultivate a female reading community, as such, she could not disregard the newspapers or periodicals although she found fault with the transformation of print culture. Gilman, candid about her commitment to artistic and intellectual standards, wrote “I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin”.
Edelstein also proposed that as Gilman wrote “I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of” the author is pointing out that the media is aesthetically disorganized and confusing with its frenzied design represents a break from the straightforward, instructional patterns with which the narrator had been familiar (Edelstein, 2007).
However, others interpreted the story as Gilman’s treatment at the hands of her psychologist Dr. S. Weir Mitchell as paradigmatic of the patriarchal silencing of women. As the story is easily viewed as a fictional account of a young wife and mother whose physician husband takes her to the country to recuperate from a “temporary nervous depression”. It has also been suggested that the story is “a case study of the psychical consequences of the masculine refusal to listen to a woman’s words, a refusal that critics link to the more general proscription of female self-expression—literary and otherwise—within a patriarchal culture. That Gilman’s contemporary reviewers did not appear to perceive its feminist meanings was construed as lending weight to this analysis, for it fueled the call for a new, feminist mode of reading that (allegorizing the narrator’s own activity with the wallpaper) would peel back “the dominant text” to reveal “the second muted text” beneath,” (Thrailkill, 2002).
I wish, like other feminist critics, to take seriously Gilman’s own claim that “the real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways.” 12 I diverge from these critics, however, in arguing that Gilman thought Mitchell’s error inhered not in his semiotics, which was underwritten by his physiological theories about the nervous disease (and which Gilman shared), but in Mitchell’s extension of the category of gender beyond a few circumscribed anatomical differences to a woman’s health, capacity, and cultural role more broadly construed. In fact, scholars who discern an écriture féminine in Gilman’s text, who locate and celebrate gender distinctions in an extra-corporeal domain of female production, replicate Mitchell’s commitment to mapping the world in terms of gender differences despite the strenuous objections of Gilman herself that “there is no female mind…. As well we might speak of a female liver.” 13 I also differ from earlier feminist readings in taking seriously Gilman’s own claim that her text had a “purpose.” I argue that recent critics have not only reprised Mitchell’s gendered logic, they have also subscribed (somewhat paradoxically) to the semiotics of psychoanalysis insofar as they privilege subtext over text, symbolic meanings overstated intentions, and sex over everything—even over Gilman’s explicit feminist commitment to decoupling sex from the issue of women’s work. (The housewife, she believed, traded sex for food, an abhorrent arrangement that made all women’s domestic work a form of prostitution.) (Thrailkill, 2002)
Another review on the story went: “an eerie tale of insanity that is uncommonly effective. Most attempts to work up insanity as “material” are ineffective; but here the progress from nervous sensitiveness to illusion, and on to delusion, is put before the reader so insidiously that he feels something of that same chill alarm for his own mental soundness that accompanies actual contact with lunatics,” (Anon., 1899)”Book Notes,” The Criterion 21 (New York), 22 July 1899, 25, in Folder 301, Gilman Papers).
Kate Chopin, on the other hand, had been a wife and a mother prior to the death of her businessman husband. Although she started to write only in the late 1890s as the short story on this topic had been written in 1894, it was only after her death that her stories were acknowledged for their feminist contents.
It had been suggested that “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin was inspired by the writing style of French Guy de Maupassant with his direct, swift, inevitable narratives, that are inexorable in their straightforward movement, as well as formulaic “trick ending”, or the sudden reversal of fortune which an author “uncorks a surprise for the reader” (Fusco, 1994).
I shall take it directly from the story as well as the background for Chopin to present my own interpretation of Chopin’s Mrs. Louise Mallard, supposedly a faint-hearted woman who sometimes loved her husband. In the day and hour of the story, it had been presented that Mr. Mallard died in an accident, and Josephine, her sister, and family friend Richards were to break the news, as gently to her as possible.
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After the news of her husband’s death was declared, Josephine broke down and cried uncontrollably, and later on, went to a room where she resigned herself, alone. Inside the room, after much mourning, she realized the dawn of new life, where she would be “free at last.” This realization connotes that Josephine, although she loved her husband sometimes, was not really living her life in full, or as she would want it to.
Outside the room, Josephine had been worried that Louise would be hurting or endangering herself. But towards the end, it was revealed that Louise’s husband Brently Mallard had been alive and kicking, and far from any danger. Heart attach killed Louise.
The characters of Louise and the storyteller of The Yellow Wallpaper are women that are physically ailing. Both also have some sort of repressed thoughts and emotions they were not able to express. But the similarities end there.
As Louise was repressed, she knew her present standing, consciously. She knew she loved her husband, sometimes, which suggests she was not domestically happy at times. She had accepted the implication of the supposedly “death” of her husband, as well as found the long-term implication, which she earlier tried to suppress, or deny: freedom from marriage and duty as a wife (or mother). And she knew she will be fine, that she had wanted that freedom, and that she will live according to her will.
Her sudden death, nevertheless, signified another: since her husband was actually well and far from danger, her faint heart was not able to contain whatever emotional impact the “good” news brought. But good or bad, the reader is left to decide. As earlier suggested, Maupassant was one of the influences of this story form, and Louise’s death could still mean “freedom at last.”
On the other hand, the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper was strikingly similar to Gilman, who suffered postpartum depression after giving birth to her only child. The story, an interweaving of diary entries, nevertheless, pictured a healthy mother who was happy for her child, although obviously again, happy for her baby in the hands of Jennie, the capable maid.
In my own point of view, and in consideration of modern times, due to lack of background on the cause of the narrator’s disturbances, it could easily be pointed out she had been a victim of hallucinatory drugs.
But since it had been indicated that the physician-husband was aware of her unstable condition, the narrator was able to supply the problem was her mental capacity, as she herself became a product of her much despised and maligned wallpaper. At this instance, I want to believe that that yellow journalism theory of Edelstein was more convincing as compared to Gilman’s own acceptance that she wanted to reach out to her doctor Mitchell.
Both stories are tragic and realistic. Hopefully, modern situations have improved for most women, feminists or not.
- Anon. (1899) “Book Notes,” The Criterion 21 (New York), 1899, 25, in Folder 301, Gilman Papers.
- Edelstein, Sari (2007). “Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Yellow Newspaper” from Legacy 24, 1 (72-92)
- Fusco, Richard. Maupassant and the American Short Story: The Influence of Form at the Turn of the Century. Pennsylvania State UP, 1994. 230 pp
- Kessler, Carol Farley (1995). Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia with Selected Writings. Syracuse University Press, New York, 1995
- Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies 15 (1989): 415–41.