How are women portrayed in Steinbeck's "The Chrysanthemums," Hurston's "Sweat," and Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

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In all three of the stories you ask about – “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; “The Chrysanthemums,” by John Steinbeck; and “Sweat,” by Zora Neale Hurston” – women are presented mainly as dissatisfied victims.

  • In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the woman is rather economically privileged, but it is partly this privilege that leads to her sense of social and mental isolation.  She is undergoing a “rest cure” that involves no real work and no real mental stimulation, but this supposed “cure” helps lead to an increasing mental breakdown.  Ironically, if the woman in this story were outside, working, interacting with other people, and feeling productive in some way, she might feel more mentally healthy.  Her husband (who is, ironically, a doctor) exercises great control over her life, and she has very little contact with others, especially other women.  Her husband seems to mean well, but he has no idea how the “treatment” he endorses is contributing to his wife’s mental collapse. At the end of the story, the woman has literally been driven crazy by her role as an oppressed female.
  • In “Chrysanthemums,” Elisa Allen does do physical work outside (unlike the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper”) and also seems less isolated from her husband. They are not a wealthy couple (unlike the couple in “The Yellow Wallpaper”) but might instead be considered members of the lower middle class. Even in this story, however, Elisa feels somewhat isolated and unappreciated; she is not especially content with her drab, routine existence. Thus, when a travelling male “fixer” stops at her farm, she is intrigued by this representative from the outside world and they engage in extended conversation. A talented gardener, she eventually gives him some chrysanthemums, which he seems to admire.  Only later does she discover that the flowers have been tossed onto the road, although the tinker has kept the pot. At the end of the story, Elisa, accompanied by a husband who loves her but cannot appreciate her needs, weeps in loneliness.
  • In “Sweat,” a poor black woman named Delia Jones, who works harder than either of the other two women, is married to a genuinely abusive husband named Sykes. Unlike the men in the previously mentioned stories, he is deliberately and almost sadistically unkind; he makes no pretense of even caring for his wife but instead treats her like a slave. Of the three wives in the three stories, Delia is by far the most obviously oppressed, as she herself implies in the following passage:

"Looka heah, Sykes, you done gone too fur. Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin' in washin' for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!"

Similarly, of the three husbands presented, Sykes is by far the least attractive and most purposefully malicious. The husband in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is well-meaning but ignorant; the husband in “The Chrysanthemums” is well-meaning but a bit obtuse; but the husband in “Sweat” is a genuine (if somewhat cartoonish) villain for whom the reader finally feels little if any sympathy.

  • The three stories, then, present oppressed women whose oppression varies greatly according to their invididual circumstances.  The stories offer many opportunities for detailed comparisons and contrasts.

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