Describe the female characters in the stories “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and “Roman Fever” by Perkins Gilman and Wharton. Are these examples of "new women"? What do the authors seem to be saying about the role of women in their stories?
The suffrage movement both contributed to and reflected the growing independence of American women by the turn of the century. Women were acquiring education, working in the business world, and achieving economic and social self-sufficiency in greater numbers than ever before. Some women began wearing trousers, smoking, and asserting their sexual freedom. These "new women," as such emancipated women were called, resisted the ideals of domesticity and "true womanhood" that had dominated women's lives in the first part of the nineteenth century. Instead, they demanded new freedoms and transformed the position of women in the United States. Their legacy lives on in contemporary women's movements in support of such causes as economic equality and reproductive freedom.
The women in both "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "Roman Fever" are repressed and restricted in their lives in an era greatly dominated by males. Nevertheless, the main character and narrator of Gilman's story finds her way out of this repression by breaking free in her mind. Also in Wharton's story, Grace Ansley breaks from of the mores of her age without losing her social position.
During the Victorian Age in England and the Gilded Age in America there were certainly many social ills, but too often these were ignored. During these overlapping periods which fell between the mid-1800's and the turn of the century, women were very limited in lives. For one thing, they were fairly well locked into a social position from which they could not rise. Even those of the upper classes were restricted because of the feme covert laws which placed them under the legal protection of their husbands. That is, after a woman married, her wealth and property all transferred to her husband. Women had no political vote, as well, and their positions were mainly social ones. While some of the middle and lower classes worked, the jobs were menial ones for the most part. All in all, women were quite restricted in their opportunities and in their ability to express any individuality.
Neither Gilman's narrator and protagonist of "The Yellow Wallpaper" nor Grace Ansley of "Roman Fever" can be described as a "new woman," except on a temporary basis as they have performed but single acts of rebellion against the norm.
After being subjected to the sensory rest cure of Dr. Weir Mitchell, which held that any physical or intellectual stimulation is damaging psychologically as well as physically to a woman, Gilman's protagonist is clearly damaged by this cure itself. Deprived of going into a lovely garden she has seen, deprived of any contact with her baby, deprived of any reading material, and deprived of any meaningfully sympathetic communication, the protagonist is driven to mental illness because of this severe repression and lack of understanding of her as a woman.
In her prison of a bedroom, the artistic mind of the protagonist eventually breaks free of her confines in the only way that she can; namely, she imagines herself as a woman imprisoned behind the hideous asymmetrical yellow wallpaper and sets about freeing her. Truly, the protagonist's act of tearing the paper to free the woman as she creeps along the wall "so I cannot lose my way," is a defiant act as well as a declarative act of her independence from oppression. "I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?" the protagonist asks as she sees other women behind the paper.
Grace Ansley's single act of rebellion against the dictates of her upper class New York society demands a certain amount of courage, as well, as she defies the mores of her society and the fictions of women's place. For, she risks shame by clandestinely meeting the fiancé of her friend, Delphin Slade, while they all vacation in Rome. Fortunately for her, this secret is never learned until she reveals it to Mrs. Slade many years later when they return to Rome with their daughters.
Certainly, both authors expose the restrictive societies of the settings of their narratives, suggesting with their characterization that this repression is, indeed, damaging. The role of woman denies them respect and freedom and is restrictive to the expression of the feminine soul. As evidence, Wharton demonstrates how even Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade who have lived near each other for many years and vacationed together, do not know one another, but have only "visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope."