How does new historicism influence Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"?
In Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," new historicism is seen in that the merit of the text was inexorably joined as (and equally important to) the historical context of the day.
New historicists, like formalists and their critics, acknowledge the importance of the literary text, but they also analyze the text with an eye to history.
Both Gilman and Chopin were writing in direct response to the way women were treated in the 1800s. Women had always been second-class, subservient individuals within European and American societies. However, as industry, science and medicine, and even a new middle class advanced, and African Americans were granted (as least on paper) their freedom from slavery, women were not afforded the same rights. Though education was still not mainstreamed for women, some women were attending universities in small numbers, and their intelligence and clarity of purpose created unrest that grew among the female population of Europe and America—as seen, for example, in the women's suffrage movement.
Both authors wrote because of the repression of women that each had experienced in a male-dominated society. Whereas the repression Chopin seems to have suffered was delivered by a society that did not condone the independence of a woman from a man (in her literature), Gilman's repression was delivered (as is her unnamed character in her short story) as she dealt with serious depression soon after giving birth (which is today called postpartum depression). For Chopin:
[The Awakening's] frank treatment of an independent woman who, after an extramarital affair and a sexual "awakening," commits suicide rather than conform to society's mores, provoked outrage among readers and critics.
The book was banned in several places. Publishers were therefore unwilling to publish more of Chopin's work.
Gilman recounted difficulty when she became ill after giving birth. Many doctors at that time refused at first to recognize that there was any problem. Gilman was prescribed the "rest-cure," an ineffectual practice by the male-dominated medical community. For those on the "rest-cure," inactivity and lack of social interaction were destructive forces.
Gilman credited this experience with driving her 'near the borderline of utter mental ruin.' The rest-cure served as the basis for Gilman's [short story].
The female characters in both stories are impressive, but the heart of each story speaks to the author's belief that women had little freedom, that it was something they deserved, and in failing to have it, it was at best mentally destructive, and at worst, deadly.
New historicism refused to looks simply at the story, but saw the powerful impact of stories within their historical context, making them more effective, and more reflective of the social climate in those historical times.
Yes, we can begin to understand the historical context of "The Story of an Hour" when we recognize what Louise Mallard is feeling, having learned of the supposed death of her husband. Though she knows that "he had never looked save with love upon her," she rejoices that she is now "free, free, free!" Louise is not rejoicing in her husband's death; rather, she realizes—now that she is unmarried and independent—that the coming years "would belong to her alone." Thus, it was not her husband that was the problem, but the institution of marriage in the final years of the nineteenth century. She joyfully thinks that, in her future, "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." Marriage gave her husband the right to bend her will to his and to make legal and social decisions for her. This lack of independence, this repression of her spirit and will, has taken its toll on Louise. Even the "lines [on her face] bespoke repression." Chopin sets Louise's story against the backdrop of Victorian marriage, creating a conflict not between a woman and her husband, but between a woman and her society's expectations of her in marriage.
Likewise, the narrator's treatment by her husband and brother, both doctors, in "The Yellow Wallpaper," both establishes and draws inspiration from its historical context. She is, essentially, imprisoned without the ability to work, socialize, or travel. One of the first things the narrator tells us is that her husband "does not believe [she is] sick." He tells her friends and relations "that there is really nothing the matter with [her] but [a] temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency." This practice of blaming any emotional irregularity in a woman on "hysteria," a sort of catch-all term that refers to any such generic disturbance, was also very popular in the late nineteenth century. It certainly downplayed the emotional severity of whatever the woman was actually dealing with—in this story, it seems to be postpartum depression—and made many women feel as though they were at fault for their uncontrollable feelings. The narrator even tells us, "John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad." Again, the conflict in this story does not seem to be between a woman and her husband; he is simply the arbiter of society's rules for women, especially mothers, and their correct behavior. This society is very much situated in a particular historical context that is necessary to fully understand the story.