Comparison of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Story of an Hour”
This essay compares and contrasts two short stories – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892) and The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin (1894). Both the stories analyzed in this essay are short stories.
In The Story of an Hour, Louise Mallard receives the news of her husband’s accidental death from a friend (Richards). Louise, a patient of heart ailment, instantly starts crying. She goes through a rapid series of emotional outbursts and eventually embraces the feeling of freedom from her married life – “She said it over and over under the breath: “free, free, free!” (Chopin).
As she embraces the “very elixir of life,” she receives another shock, a complete reversal of the initial situation, which ends her life. The significance of the story lies in its brevity, the significance of the open window, and the presence of the intrepid melodramatic irony with which the story ends. Louise’s character is an epitome of “self-assertion” one that tries to embrace freedom.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is about an ailing married woman, confined to recuperate in solitude from her nervous disease, by her doctor husband. The unnamed narrator, while recuperating grows an interest in the wallpaper of her large room. The dominating and loving husband of the narrator forbids her to write and therefore, chokes her only method of self-expression.
In her obsession with the patterns in the wallpaper, she presumes that there is a woman behind the wallpaper. The woman, she imagines, is trapped, and crawls along the wall changing the pattern on the wallpaper continually.
She begins to believe that she is part of the wallpaper and begins crawling on it. In the end, she locks herself in the room and peels off the paper. On finding, his wife in such a state, the husband faints, and the narrator continues crawling on him.
Both the stories reverberates the confinement of women in married life. In The Story of an Hour, Louise shows extreme emotions when she learns of her husband’s death. Louise undergoes a profound transformation and a sense of empowerment as if she had been set free.
Outwardly, she resented the growing feeling of exaltation and tried to subdue her “monstrous joy” but there, within her, emerged a “clear and exalted perception” and she knew she had a “long procession of years … that would belong to her absolutely” (Chopin).
Chopin’s story demonstrates an elevated sense of emotional emancipation of Louise through her realizations on the eve of her husband’s death. Chopin’s protagonist reasserts her life through heightened emotional realization instead of logical reasoning.
When she hears of her husband’s death she loses interest in life and questions the vainness of existence: “It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long” (Chopin). The news ushers in gallows of emotions in her and she immediately “wept … with sudden, wild abandonment” (Chopin). Then when the truth of her past and present life dawns on her, she realizes that her life was that of “repression” even though “she was young” (Chopin).
Watching the blue sky beyond the open window, she felt alive; she felt the “sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air” (Chopin). Chopin in this description of Louise staring at the sky demonstrates her longing to embrace the moving, vibrant life beyond the confines of the room and the open window is a symbol of her yearning to be free.
Similarly, in The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman presents the repression of the unnamed narrator and the changes in her from an ideal woman to the new woman. Her doctor husband confines her in a room, which she detests, for three months, to treat her. She repeatedly entreats her husband to change the room or redecorate the walls with happier wallpaper.
However, the dominant husband pays no heed to his wife’s requests. As the story unfolds, the narrator falls into a hypnotic engagement with the wallpaper. She starts believing that there was a woman trapped behind the walls. The only way she could emancipate the woman in the wall was by peeling off the wallpaper, which she eventually did.
This is a psychological tale of a woman who was an ideal woman throughout her life and grew to be an ideal homemaker. However, when her dominant husband, in his over-attentive love, confines her to a room, she begins to imagine her alter ego (another woman) trapped behind the walls she so detests.
In her desire to free that woman from behind the wall, she peels off the wallpaper. This is an act to free herself, from the traps of the patriarchal institution.
Gilman shows that men are free to enjoy society while women stay within the walls of the house. The narrator’s desires to move to the beautiful rooms downstairs; her husband refuses to do so. This shows that the narrator lack of freedom. Her confinement is not limited to demarcating her physical existence but to a psychological level. Her husband prevents her from writing as he “hates to have me write a word.”
In another instance, the narrator says that she was “really getting quite fond of the big room, all but that horrid paper” even though she hates the room. Her husband’s wishes are imposed on her, and she fails to disassociate from them. In her isolation, the narrator befriends a chair.
Gilman’s narrator is the epitome of the discoursed ideal woman of the nineteenth century. She is the ideal woman living in an ideal household condition, with a benevolent and loving husband. She has servants looking after all her familial work while she rests.
Gilman’s narrator is an emotional slave of her husband. The inconceivable pressure that her husband puts on her that eventually wavers her mental balance. She lives within the confines of the four walls of the room, in her private sphere. Nevertheless, in this sphere, she creates an imaginative world of her own.
In her effort to peel off the wallpaper and to get beyond it shows her desire to obliterate the corrupt power of the male dominance and escape her confinement. This was her cry for freedom. Thus, the message to free themselves from male dominance in their private life is a major theme in both the stories.
Identity of both women grows through their realization of freedom. Freedom, that Louise experiences on her husband’s death in The Story in an Hour, and the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper experiences by peeling off the wallpaper shows the cry for the emancipation of women in the nineteenth century. This freedom created a new, self-assured, confidence in both the women. For instance, Louise’s life was for her husband and tending to his wishes:
There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. 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. (Chopin)
Her excitement rose at the thought of all the years to come that would solely be hers: “Free! Body and soul free!” (Chopin). Similarly, the narrator from The Yellow Wallpaper, says “Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be” (Gilman) as she unfolds the mysteries behind the changing pattern on the wallpaper in her mind.
When the narrator says, “I have discovered something at last,” it almost seems as if she has found herself in the changing patterns on the wall. Initially, she thinks that there is a woman who creeps out of the wall but through the course of the story realizes that it is she who is the woman:
“ I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?” (Gilman) In the end, she starts creeping on the floor, and her husband on seeing her in such a state faints. However, his unconscious state does not stop her from creeping. She finds herself in this creepy activity.
Both the stories reverberates the tale of two women who find themselves in confinement of domesticity. Dependent and highly dominated by their strong-willed husbands, both these women want to leave their lives. However, the treatment of freedom by the authors is completely different. Both the authors show the subjectivity that women face by the patriarchal society and how freeing themselves from this may help them find their identity.
Chopin, Kate. The Story of An Hour. 1894. Web. 13 November 2013. <http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/hour/>.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.The Yellow Wallpaper. 1892. Web. 13 November 2013. <http://web.archive.org/web/20110214094847/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=GilYell.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1>.