How is feminist criticism demonstrated in Gillman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Chopin's "The Story of an Hour?"
In both short stories, the feminist perspective is at the core of each story. The criticism is found at the way in which each woman is controlled by the male-dominated society in which each is a part.
The unnamed narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is suffering from what is known as post-partum depression—an illness unrecognized then—that affects many women after childbirth.
Most modern commentators now interpret the story as a feminist indictment of society's subjugation of women...
However, the narrator, though married to a doctor, is treated like she is a child. She is "kept" in the house's former nursery, at the top of the house; the windows are barred, and the narrator is little more than a prisoner. She knows what would be good for her and tries to secretly engage in healthy activities:
I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meeting with heavy opposition.
The opposition is her husband, John. For him, because he sees no problem that he can put a name to, there is no problem.
[John] knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.
Society's control is also found in the narrator's response to her husband's care. His manipulation of her life is causing her great damage. (In fact, by the end of the story she has traveled into madness.) For having any ideas contrary to that of John, she feels guilty:
...he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.
In Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," Mrs. Mallard has been a dutiful wife, following the expectations of society and her husband. While at first reading it may seem that this is the sad story of a woman with a weak heart, upon careful inspection it is clear that it is more about finding and losing freedom in the space of sixty minutes.
When Brently Mallard is reported killed in a train accident, a repressed desire to have her own independence—her own ideas—comes to the surface. At first, she is resistant for she has always lived as society dictates—having no opinions or ideas other than her husband's:
She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will...
When she allows her mind to accept the truth of her new life, it is as if she has been liberated from a prison. She is exultant:
Free! Body and soul free!
Whereas the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" loses her mind in face of the freedom she has been denied, Mrs. Mallard's heart is broken—not because Brently has not died ("...she had loved him—sometimes"), but it is in knowing she has tasted freedom and lost it in one day. It is for this reason that she dies. The reader knows she is broken in knowing that her prison door has been shut once again. The doctors (men—symbolizing society) attribute it to a wondrous shock to weak heart in finding her husband alive:
...they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills.
In both stories, a woman's need for intellectual and physical freedom is shown from a feminist standpoint to be as essential for life as it is for a man.
Critics of Gillman's story say it was simply a vehicle for her feminist ideas. Gillman summed up the importance of her story—and one might note, that of all pro-feminist literature—especially for that time:
One girl reads this, and takes fire! Her life is changed. She becomes a power—a mover of others—I write for her.