What are the common themes, with examples, of the story "The Yellow Wallpaper," the play "A Doll's House" and the poem "Barbie Doll"?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Main Theme

The most salient common theme shared among the female characters found in the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the play A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, and the poem "Barbie Doll", by Marge Piercy, is what Mary Wollstonecraft identified in 1792 as "the vindication of the rights of women" under a male-centric society. This entails that the rights of the women to act how they want, being who they want to be, or looking how they want to look, are blocked by imposed, preconceived social expectations and constructs that aim to control women from the core.

This powerful theme permeates, and attempts to mold, the behaviors and lifestyles of the female main characters of each of the works, respectively, the unnamed main character of "The Yellow Wallpaper", Nora Helmer in A Doll's House, and Piercy's lead speaker in the poem "Barbie Doll". 

Secondary themes

Along with the main theme, come the secondary themes that stem from the ordeals that the women go through. They include:  a) The lack of social support that they experience, b) the unrealistic expectations bestowed upon them, c) the imposed regulations that are expected for them to follow  and, d) the overall sense of angst, betrayal, isolation, and disempowerment that is infused through the primitive social dynamics that these woman had to endure.

"The Yellow Wallpaper"

In "The Yellow Wallpaper" the main character is suffering from something that is uniquely a woman's issue: post partum depression. As such, the woman is told by her doctor (a man),  and by her husband, that she needs to retreat into isolation to deal with her blues on her own. This means no mental stimulation, and no support, overall. Her problem is that her issue is being downplayed by a health system that does not focus on women's issues and is, therefore, inattentive to what they really need. Her other problem is that she has nowhere to go. Her rights are vindicated by the system. Her husband, who would only abide by what the doctor says, downplays her situation and says that there is nothing to worry about. To a point, she even feels guilty!

He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get. "Your exercise depends on your strength, my dear," said he, "and your food somewhat on your appetite; but air you can absorb all the time."

As a result, her needs are neglected and her condition worsens. This is to the point of implosion: The woman has a mental breakdown and insists that, beneath the yellow wallpaper that covers the wall of her lonely room, there is an equally lonely and desperate woman that is screaming to be let out. This is allegorical to the conditions of many women of Gilman's time: Women who already could feel that their gender was being undermined for no reason.

The rights of this particular female characters were vindicated by the preconceived notion that she is not to have any special treatment, and that her condition is a normal consequence of pregnancy. In the end, all of these notions rendered her a victim of her own circumstances.

A Doll's House

While Nora Helmer has a wide range of benefits to enjoy as a middle class society wife, she has vindicated herself by acting like a young child thus enabling the established notion that women should serve as nurturers to their children, lovers to their husbands, and entertainers to society.

The tragic flaw in Nora's character is that she thought that men (namely, her father and her husband) had the capability, nay, the willingness, to look beyond those social constructs and give Nora the value that she has earned with the sacrifices that she has made. Yet, why do that, when she has no rights to begin with?

True, her sacrifices were shady because they involved making a money transaction with a man beneath her husband's status, which was a social faux pas for anyone to make. However, society was so bent in its ways at the time, that even if Nora had given her life, her social status as a "doll", or a fixture in the household, would have still been superseded by the fake notions of what women were, and what their rights should be.

Nora was quite tired of it toward the end, when she realized that her husband bought into social notions as well and completely missed the point of what she was trying to do for him:

NORA: "What do you consider my most sacred duties?"
HELMER: "[…] your duties to your husband and your children."
NORA: "I have other duties just as sacred. […] Duties to myself."

Here, Nora demands her rights: A right to care for herself, to look after herself, and to make herself feel like a functioning member of society. She is tired of acting the part of a doll.

The poem "Barbie Doll"

Here, the social expectations of women range from behavior to aesthetics. In this poem, the main speaker is complaining about how society wants women to be, essentially, like Nora: dolls.

"Act this way, eat this, look like that, do not dare use these words". Why aren't these same tenets expected of males? What makes them more valuable to society "by default?". Conversely, who has taken the reigns of imposing a credo upon women on how they are supposed to be like?

She was healthy, tested intelligent, 
possessed strong arms and back, 
abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity. 
She went to and fro apologizing.    
Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs.

Here, the freedoms of women are vindicated by social expectations one more time. People just do not see beyond the looks, or the wits of females; not even those powerful hands of hers.

It is all about playing a part and packaging oneself to please the senses of others. This is the primary complaint in the poem, and the reason why she feels disempowered as she recognizes that nothing she does will ever be enough.

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