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Both of these stories, Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," offer a chilling view of the treatment of women, most especially during the Victorian and post-Victorian era (in America as well as Europe)—carried out not only by society at large, but enforced by family members, both male and female.
Gilman wrote her story in 1892, after running away from her husband—fleeing to California. Women, though seen by Charles Darwin (in The Origin of the Species) as the heartier of the species, were delegated by the male-dominated society to an inferior position:
Throughout much of the 1800s, the common law doctrine of femme convert was prevalent in the United States. Under this law, wives were property of their husbands and had no direct legal control over their earnings, children, or belongings.
In this specific story, Jane (the protagonist) suffers from a "nervous disorder" and her treatment at the hands of the men in her life drives her to a complete mental break. The reader learns that not only is Jane's physician husband treating her, but his treatments are also supported by Jane's brother—also a doctor.
The reader sees how Jane's husband's behavior reflects a woman's place in society—for his understanding of the world is law:
John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.
John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.
Jane's sister-in-law (Jennie), by behaving submissively toward her brother with regard to Jane's treatment (isolation from others, the inability to see her baby, prohibition against writing), demonstrates not only Jennie's acceptance of her place in society, but further promotes Jane's precarious grip on her mental stability, and the powerlessness of her position within the family and, in a greater sense, society.
In Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," we see family members once more depicting the social role of women. When Louise Mallard (the protagonist) loses (or so she believes) her husband in a railway accident, she is overcome by grief. However, behind closed doors the reader learns that Louise's life has been far from ideal. She has felt a prisoner of her husband, though he has always been kind.
There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.
She has been cared for, but has not been allowed a freedom of will or thought, reflective of the limitations of the society of which she is a part.
Chopin wrote this story in 1894. It was a time when women were fighting for the right to vote. Like Gilman, Chopin found society's expectations and freedoms restrictive:
While the suffrage movement sought reform, mainstream Victorian culture regarded the self-sacrificing wife, dependent on her husband and devoted to her children, as the ideal of femininity.
The theme of dependency is seen in Louise's sister Josephine. Josephine cannot understand why her sister would want to be alone following the news of Brentley's death. Society has taught its women that they are dependent on the male-dominated conventions of society not only in being subservient, but also in control exerted over them in terms of their thinking and even—in this case—their acceptable form of mourning.
Josephine was kneeling before the closed door with her lips to the keyhole, imploring for admission. "Louise, open the door! I beg; open the door--you will make yourself ill. What are you doing, Louise? For heaven's sake open the door."
Josephine conveys society's belief that a woman in Louise's position would be unable to handle the duress of such a situation—that she must be completely dependent upon others to survive.
In both of these powerful short stories, the reader is left with a sense of oppression and domination carried out against each story's female protagonist, not only by society but also by family members.
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