In many occasions, playwrights and filmmakers have portrayed marriage as an oppressive institution whereby the oppressed, the wife or the husband, responds appropriately towards the oppression.
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The two texts; the short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins and the play ‘Trifles’ by Susan Glaspell strategically illustrate this claim since they both aim at attracting the reader’s attention to the poor conditions and the mistreatment of women due to sexual inequality in the 19th century and the early 20th century respectively.
How these texts address the issue of women and their existence in society paves the way for the struggle towards women’s liberation from the oppression. The men in the stories are extremely cold when it comes to an understanding of the women, a factor that triggers the women’s defiance.
In both texts, the women stand out as weak and not able to think independently. As the paper unfolds, the two stories portray two separate wives who lived in a state of oppressive authority, forcing them to respond to the obligatory roles of that era in the same way, with atypical consequences.
Women’s Roles in The Yellow Wallpaper & Trifles
The two wives in the stories are victims of their husbands in that their husbands repress their efforts of liberating themselves and being happy.
In Perkin’s short story, the physician’s husband denies the female character the pleasure of writing. As a result, she locks her up in an upstairs room where she records her retrogressing health as she sinks deeper into neurosis. She records her experiences in a journal, which forms this short story.
The worsening health is revealed through her interactions with the yellow wallpaper hanging on the wall of the holiday house where her husband, to cure her mental illness, locks her. Glaspell’s masterwork ‘Trifles’ successfully presents the same oppressive conditions as revealed by Meenie Wright, the wife to the slain Mr. Wright.
As the other female characters; Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, later discover, Mr. John Wright had struggled the bird that kept Meenie company, and she might have killed him as a way of getting back to him after he took away her symbol of freedom; the bird (Glaspell 46).
It is this way that women experience mistreatments from their husbands that addressed with a keen interest in the two texts.
How men viewed as portrayed in these two texts is evidence that women had little to say in such male-dominated societies. For instance, in “Trifles,” the female characters Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters do not interrogate the situation as a general crime scene as it is the case with the men.
Instead, they observe minute details that point to the exact happenings during the crime. They show solidarity and loyalty to their gender when they conceal the truth o the dead bird. That could have contributed to evidence to use in further tying Mrs. Wright to the mysterious murder of her husband. The men, on the other hand, just see nothing other than “kitchen things.”
That implies the place of the woman in a male-dominated society. These men could not see anything else rather than that what defined a woman according to them.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the physician husband thinks that he knows what is best for his wife and goes ahead to do it without thinking of the possible implications that the healing can have on her. Instead of getting better, she ends up worsening to the dismay of the husband. Despite the woman’s deteriorating mental health, she was aware of the ridicule that her husband held over her.
She says, “…I turned it off with a laugh. I had no intention of telling him it was because of the wallpaper- he would make fun of me” (Perkins 168). That was when her husband said she was getting better despite the obsession with the wallpaper. That also signals a buildup in her confidence as she prepared to tear down the wallpaper and release the woman.
The two wives in the texts are victims of unquestioned male authority in that they have to live under the mercies of their husbands.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the woman compels herself to be locked up in an upstairs room. That implicates badly on her as revealed in the short story as the only thing that is around her is no more than a disgusting yellow wallpaper that further makes her psychologically disturbed and worsens her neurosis.
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To make matters worse, the husband does not let her touch any writing materials for the simple reason that she ought to rest rather than doing any other thing. Since she has no other option, she opts to sing the tune of her oppressive husband.
This misdiagnosis and a dubious treatment measure, which does not give the woman a chance to question or suggest a way that she thinks is best for her condition, symbolizes the male chauvinism that was at peak during the times when this text was written.
A similar case of male chauvinism is revealed in “Trifles” when the women discover that it is indeed the oppressive state that Meenie was subjected by her husband that led her to result in killing him as a way of liberating herself.
As the details of the crime scene reveal, it stands out that a disagreement had taken place the night before the murder occurred. The ruined fruit preserves, bread that has been left out of its box, an unfinished quilt, a half clean / half messy tabletop, an empty birdcage, and more so the dead bird indicated the wrangles that may have taken place the previous night.
It is clear from this that the husband might have killed the bird, which angered the wife, who took advantage of his sleep to slip a rope into his neck and strangling him to death.
Male coldness towards women seems well displayed in the two texts through a close analysis of the men’s behavior (Holstein 290). For instance, in the ‘Yellow Wallpaper’ story, the husband, although he is not sure of his treatment procedure, exposes his wife to it.
The procedure fails and exposes the woman into more danger as her neurosis worsens. He eventually cannot handle the results of his experiment on his wife as he faints when he opens the door to find his wife crawling on all fours. In “Trifles,” as the title suggests, the men never take women issues seriously and end up dismissing them as trifles. That can be evident through the reaction of the men to the murder of Mr. Wright.
Instead of trying to establish the real cause of the crime, they look for forensic evidence to tie Meenie to the murder of her husband. The women’s wit outweighs the men’s, which makes them succeed in hiding the direct link that could have tied their fellow women to the crime. This paper further contrasts the theme of the treatment of women as manifested in the two masterworks. For instance, the way the two wives respond towards the evident oppressing circumstance differs significantly.
The difference in the two women’s conditions manifests itself only through how they choose to deal with their respective situations. The woman in the ‘Yellow Wallpaper’ finally succeeds in freeing ‘the woman locked up in the wallpaper’ by tearing it up and finally releasing her.
As a result, she manages to free herself as well in that her husband comes to the understanding that his deeds worsened the situation rather than making it better. The fact that even the woman’s husband could not stand up to see her situation is quite ironic, considering that he acted so coldly in deciding to conceal her in the room.
On the other hand, Meenie decides to liberate herself by murdering her husband, a case that further welcomes the arm of the government that arrests her as the prime suspect, and her fate depends on the forensic evidence that the police conducts in her house.
It is not clear whether she ends up free. Still, the fact remains that she actively acts against an oppressive condition as opposed to the woman in the ‘Yellow Wallpaper’ who simply collapses under the weight of her condition.
According to Hocham, the wife in “The Yellow wallpaper” proves her point to her husband as she tramples on him when he falls down unconscious (237). That is an indication that as a woman, she finally emerges the winner. Her husband later realizes that he had committed a mistake in choosing such a harsh treatment method for her wife since she comes worse rather than her condition becoming better.
The fact that her husband becomes unconscious is proof of women emerging victorious despite their harsh treatment. On that stage, she can crawl on him, and he cannot defend himself.
Meenie, on the other hand, liberates herself from one level of male oppression and gets into another. She murders her husband, who oppressed and took away the joy that she had as a young woman before she married him only for the police to arrest and take her into custody.
Her version of the story faces a good deal of ridicule by the male investigators who have no space in their thinking of the possibility of there being another version of the story. That portrays the woman as only a victim in the male-dominated system and cannot liberate herself completely.
Trifles & The Yellow Wallpaper: Literary Criticism
However, critics have set out to give their view concerning the two masterworks. For instance, concerning the yellow wallpaper, they have passed a message to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s doctor Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, to urge him to change his treatment method (Ford 234).
Holstein states that “there are visible parallels between the experiences of the narrator and those of Gilman during the time she was writing the short story” (290). The economy portrayed by Glaspell in writing ‘Trifles’ is a one-act style considered masterful by some critics.
The playwright constructs the play out of small gestures just as the women come up with their theories by connecting trifles to explain the crime. The imprisonment of the woman who intern imprisons a bird is allegorical of the chain that exists in the system. Bigsby (25), states that the play “works by understatement.”
According to Greene, the idea of freedom from oppressive traditional female responsibilities and roles form a common bond between Gilman and her female character in the story. The Yellow Wallpaper is supposed to represent the society as it is for the woman, and that is the reason why Gilman centers her writings on the theme of escape (Gilman Para. 3).
According to Giele, the wife in the Play “Trifles” has devoted much of her thoughts into planning how she can get freedom (49) and so is Glaspell who wants to escape the gender traditions and the male-dominated society by forming a unity of women to defend a fellow woman against oppressive men.
Giele concludes by asserting that the “Yellow Wallpaper” is one of many short stories by Gilman, where she presents characters trying to escape from conditions set by society (35).
According to Phyllis Mael, the evolution of the women’s relationships from the tenuous connection to collusion illustrates the female ethos (282).
Mael contends that the “moral dilemma” in the play highlights the perceivable differences between men’s adherence to theoretical principles of morality and women’s empathic, ethical sense of thinking, which considers “moral problems as problems of responsibility in relationship” (282-83).
The two texts give an elaborate description of the treatment of women and their space in a society mostly controlled by men (Ford 237). The theme stories of the women share more similarities in the treatment, as revealed by the writers.
This revelation triggers defiance in women who react in a way to ascertain their overly confusing space in society and claim their equality with men in the society when it comes to making decisions mostly that concern their wellbeing. The implications of these texts are as per the conclusions where the oppressed overcome their oppressors and reclaim their lost freedom.
Bigsby, Charles. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama: Volume One—1900–1940. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Ford, Karen. The Yellow Wallpaper and Women’s Discourse. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. New York: Random House, 1993.
Giele, Janet Zollinger. Two Paths to Women’s Equality: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Origins of Modern Feminism. New York: Twayne, 1995.
Greene, Gretchen. “the yellow wallpaper and feminism.” New York: Mentor, 1994. 480-496. Web.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles, The Norton Anthology of American Literature.New York: Norton & Company, 2003.
Hocham, Barbara. The Reading Habit and “The Yellow Wallpaper.” London: Duke University Press, 2002.
Holstein, Suzy. Silent Justice in a Different Key: Glaspell’s Trifles. The Midwest Quarterly 44 (2003): 282-290.
Perkins, Charlotte. The Yellow Wallpaper. New York: Dover Publications, 1982.
Mael, Phyllis. Trifles: The Path to Sisterhood. Literature/Film Quarterly17 (1989): 281-84.