Novelists Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Kate Chopin, experienced first-hand nineteenth century married life. During this era, stubborn weight was placed upon separate spheres for the sexes. By entering the labor force, men supported the family financially, and rightfully earned the title of 'breadwinner.' Women, however, were restricted to a more domestic sphere; one that involved cooking, cleaning, and reproducing (Skinner). Consequently, both Gilman and Chopin write of the lack of equality between the sexes in many of their works. Both novelists present two female protagonists in "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "The Story of an Hour," respectively, featuring notable similarities that build climatically until each woman meets her tragic end.
First, both the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper," and Mrs. Mallard in "The Story of an Hour" yearn for freedom from their constrained, mundane lives. The narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" often describes herself as misunderstood, yet bored, explaining: "If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency - what is one to do?Â So, I take phosphates or phosphites - whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well, again.Â Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good" (Gilman 3). The authoritative voices of her husband, and the medical world, force the narrator to second-guess her wants; to be passive. Obviously, the narrator finds that her opinion is of little importance. She yearns to be able to do as she wills, convinced that her illness is that of a lackluster life, not depression. Mrs. Mallard, featured in Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" describes her life similarly, explaining that she is exhausted by the routine demands of domestic life. After she hears of her husband's death, she sits in her room reflecting on the "physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul" (Chopin 2). Mrs. Mallard is described early on as being "young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke of repression and even certain strength" (Chopin 2). This strength, perhaps, was the same strength that kept her sane throughout the endless days of habit she endured.
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Secondly, both women seclude themselves into a room, where they contemplate the search for happiness, and ultimate freedom. Mrs. Mallard "went away to her room alone" to grieve her husband's unexpected death, instead finding herself fighting seemingly selfish thoughts of relief. "When she abandoned herself, a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: 'Free, free, free! (Chopin 2)'" While Mrs. Mallard acknowledges love for her late husband, she also contemplated the years of freedom that are to come. "â€¦she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely, and she spread her arms out to them in welcome" (Chopin 2). Likewise, the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" agreed to be secluded to a room, in hopes that it would cure her depression. The 'rest cure' was a universal form of treatment for many ills, specifically postpartum depression, in the nineteenth century.
Thirdly, both wives firmly believe that their husbands misunderstood them. After accepting her husband's death, Mrs. Mallard realizes that "there would be no powerful will bending her in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they had a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime, and she looked upon on it in that brief moment of illumination" (Chopin 2). Here, Mrs. Mallard reflects upon her marriage, remembering the small injustices that her husband placed upon her, consciously or not. Throughout "The Story of an Hour," the reader often is guided to believe that Mr. Mallard, while he loves his wife, wasn't in-tune with her desires, nor cared to hear about them. The narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" described several misunderstandings in her marriage. While she believes she is ill, her husband John does not. "You see, he does not believe I am sick! And, what can one do? (Gilman 1)" The narrator describes an emotional wall between them: "It is hard to talk to John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so" (Gilman 6).
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Fourthly, both women speculate on their individual 'coming out of the wallpaper.' Depicted in this quote from "The Story of an Hour," Mrs. Mallard reflects on her coming out. "She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long" (Chopin 3). This quote is perhaps one of the most important quotes in the work, describing Mrs. Mallard's elation after processing her husband's death. To Mrs. Mallard, her husband's death meant choice, and newfound independence. She finds her reasons for living through his passing away, and begins to yearn for a long, happy life without him, instead of the short, predictable life she had hoped for in her marriage. The narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" contemplates the lives of nineteenth century women as a whole, symbolized through the wallpaper itself. "I don't like to look out of the windows even - there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?" (Gilman 7) When the narrator completely tears the wallpaper off of the walls, she realizes that the women that her been staring at her, is her reflection. This quote exemplifies the moment the narrator identifies herself, as well as the struggles of many nineteenth century women. The woman trapped in the wallpaper symbolizes the narrator trapped in her own home, dutifully tied to a domestic life of tediousness.
Lastly, both "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "The Story of an Hour" describe the death of a woman brought about by her well-meaning, but autocratic, controlling husband - one mentally, one physically. While there is a distinguished difference in the deaths of the two women, it is perhaps the most significant connection between the works. Mrs. Mallard's death is literal, while the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" suffers a mental death. In a sense, both women lose touch with the real world. Chopin uses a first person, journalistic style, whereas Gilman's narration is omniscient, and involves situational irony. The mental death of Gilman's character was gradual, while Mrs. Mallard's death was shocking; however, both women confront the end of their lives. Both novelists use a tragic ending to elevate their protagonist.
Perhaps based upon the knowledge of an era they experienced first-hand, both Charlotte Gilman and Kate Chopin cranked out numerous novels and short stories describing the monotonous lives of nineteenth century women. It was understood, then, that the reader finds many similarities between the works, including the protagonists' search for a more fulfilling life, quest for happiness, marital misunderstandings, 'coming out' of the metaphorical wallpaper, and tragically, death. Perhaps, through writing works such as these, Chopin and Gilman were 'coming out of the wallpaper,' and rebelling against the constricting domestic spheres of their time, in their own way.