Comparison of Two Young Women Characters in Two Classic 19th Century Short Stories

            Women have traditionally been known as the less dominant sex.  Through history women have fought for equal rights and freedom.  They have been stereotyped as being housewives, and bearers and nurturers of the children.  Only recently with the push of the Equal Rights Amendment have women had a strong hold on the workplace alongside men.  Many interesting characters in literature are conceived from the tension women have faced with men.  This tension is derived from men; society, in general; and within a woman herself.  Two interesting short stories, “The  Yellow Wall-paper and “The Story of an Hour, “ focus on a woman’s plight near the turn of the 19th century.  This era is especially interesting because it is a time in modern society when women were still treated as second class citizens.  The two main characters in these stories show similarities, but they are also remarkably different in the ways they deal with their problems and life in general.  These two characters will be examined to note the commonalities and differences.  Although the two characters are similar in some ways, it will be shown that the woman in the “The Story of an Hour” is a stronger character based on the two important criteria of rationality and freedom.

            In “The Yellow Wall-paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the unnamed female protagonist is going through a rough time in her life.  (For now on, this paper will refer to this unnamed character as the “the narrator in ‘Wall-paper,’” short for “The Yellow Wall-paper.  The narrator is confined to room to a room with strange wall-paper.  This odd wall-paper seems to symbolize the complexity and confusion in her life.  In “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, the protagonist, Mrs. Mallard must also deal with conflict as she must deal with the death of her spouse.  At first there is grief, but then there is the recognition that she will be free.  The institute of marriage ties the two heroines of these two short stories together.  Like typical young women of the late 19th century, they were married, and during the course of their lives, they were expected to stay married.  Unlike today where divorce is commonplace, marriage was a very holy bond and divorce was taboo.  This tight bond of marriage caused tension in these two characters.  Their personal freedom was severely restricted.  For Mrs. Mallard, marriage was a nemesis to be reckoned with.  She knew inside that her marriage was wrong, but she could not express her feelings openly.  Her husband was not a bad man, but he was in the way.  After hearing about her husband’s death, Mrs. Mallard comments, “now there would be no powerful will bending her in that blind persistence with which men … believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature” (Chopin 72),  Her husband definitely was a thorn in her back.

            The narrator in ‘Wall-paper” faced similar circumstances.  Her husband, John, was a physician and imposed his will on her.  Because men usually were the working partner of the household, they held a higher status compared to their spouses.   With their leverage, they dominated and made the rules of the household.  John fits that description well.  Because his wife is suffering from a nervous depression, John confines her to the house and more specifically to a room.  John regulates every detail of her life and is a male nemesis like Mr. Mallard is.  In the narrator’s words, “So I take phosphates, or phosphites- whichever it is  - and tonics, and air and exercise… and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.  Personally, I disagree with their ideas” (Gilman 160).  This disagreement inevitably leads to fighting.  Says John, “My darling, I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea (obsession with the wall-paper) enter your mind” (Gilman 167).  Although the narrator in ‘Wallpaper’ fight, they try to work things out.  This is more than what can be said about Mrs. Mallard and her husband.  Mrs. Mallard has a stronger need to get out of the relationship for her desires for freedom might be greater.

            As far as the very important quality of rationality is concerned, there is a significant difference between these two main characters.  Mrs. Mallard is the more rational of the two female heroines.  She is very articulate and she knows what she wants.  Her depictions of life are very clear and intelligent.  For example, in her thoughts is this:  “In a street below a peddler was crying his wares.  The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrow were twittering in the eaves” (Chopin 71).  With such depiction she reveals a sharp mind.  Her sense of hearing is acute and she is very aware of her surroundings.

            On the other hand, the narrator in ‘Wall-paper” is more irrational.  As mentioned before, she is obsessed with the wall-paper in her room. She just stares at it with the intent of finding some meaning in her life.  Being confined to her room, this is how she passes her time.  She, however, gets too involved.  Here is some of her crazy description:  “But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing sea-weeds in full chase” (Gilman 165).    Her expression is a little insane because her mind goes all over the place, for example ‘outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror.’  It is like she is seeing something she does not want to see.  Also inanimate things like ‘seaweed’ seem alive.  During the entire six week stay at the house, all her mental energies are put into dysfunctional tasks like figuring out the wall-paper.  She has great trouble relating to others because of it.  Short story critic, Conrad Shumaker, makes the point that “maybe the reason Gilman had the narrator unnamed was to show that as a person, she had completely lost her identity.  Behind the bars of the wallpaper, she given up a sense of who was and really turned into a lost soul” (Shumaker 170).

            With such a sad case for the narrator in ‘Wall-paper’, there is no doubt that Mrs. Mallard is the freer character at  least during the brief time of the short story.  Freedom, the second criteria of character judged in this essay, shows openness of expression and the ability to do as one pleases.  With the news of her husband’s death, Mrs. Mallard shows an expression of great freedom many times in the short story.  Here is one example, “Her fancy was running riot along these days ahead of her.  Spring and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own” (Chopin 72).  According to critic, Bert Bender, “Mrs. Mallard, one pioneer character in literature, shows a women with shocking unorthodox feelings about marriage. She shows great individual freedom and female independence” (Bender 79).  Indeed, Mrs. Mallard seems a very independent women for her times.

            There are, however, two ways in which the narrator in ‘Wall-paper’ gets some sense of freedom.  One way is through a journal which she privately keeps.  It really is important to her as she writes, “But I can write (in my journal) when John’s sister is not in” (Gilman 164).  This journal gives her the means to freely express herself.  Another small source of freedom is the wall-paper itself.  Although examining the wall-paper is overall bad for her, it is a little therapeutic.  She can let loose her imagination and release tension.  According to Shumaker, “Within her descriptions of the wallpaper appear to a potentially liberating force” (Shumaker 164).  In a way she has hours of entertainment.  In her words, “You think you have mastered it, it turns a back-somersault and there you are, it (the wall-paper) slaps you in the face and knocks you down” (Gilman 167).  As much as the narrator in ‘Wall-paper’ gets enjoyment, it must be noted that since she is confined to the attic throughout the story, her freedom is limited.

            Although these two characters reside in the same era, the late 19th century, there are important differences between the two.  By looking at a few key areas such as rationality and freedom, Mrs. Mallard seems to be the stronger character.  Although her brief stint of joy was a short one it was very fulfilling and of high quality for “she saw a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely.  And she opened and spread her arms out to this welcome” (Chopin 71).  Now it could be argued that since Mrs. Mallard died, she was in a way a weaker character but it must be remembered that “Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble” (Chopin 70),  The narrator in ‘Wall-paper had too many personal problems with herself and with her relationship with John to be called a strong character.

            There are many similarities between these two heroines in these two short stories.  Due to the fact that they live in the same era, they face similar  circumstances.  They are both married and have domineering husbands.  Also, in some way they both struggle for their rationality, however, Mrs. Mallard succeeds best in doing so.  Both are confined to their reality, but the narrator in ‘Wall-paper’ falls into a worse - the wall-paper obsession.  Overall, even with a relatively short life, Mrs. Mallard is a stronger character because she is more rational and freer.   In sum, she has a more sane life and makes the most of what she has.
                                                      

Works Cited

Bender, Bert.  Short Story Criticism.  Vol. 8.  Ed. Thomas Votteler.  Detroit:  Gale

          Research Inc., 1991. 64-65.

Chopin, Kate.  “The Story of an Hour.”  Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. 3rd Ed. 

          Eds.  Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell.  Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace, 1997.

          70-72.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.  “The Yellow Wall-Paper.”  Literature: Reading, Reacting,

          Writing.  3rd ed.  Ed. Laurie Kirszner and Stephen Mandell.  Fort Worth:  Harcourt

          Brace, 1997. 160-172.

Shumaker, Conrad.  Short Story Criticism.  Vol. 13.  Ed.  David Segal.  Detroit:  Gale

            Research Inc., 1993.  164-170.