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
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
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.
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Vol. 8. Ed. Thomas
Research Inc., 1991. 64-65.
“The Story of an Hour.”
Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. 3rd Ed.
and Stephen R. Mandell. Fort
Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wall-Paper.”
Literature: Reading, Reacting,
3rd ed. Ed. Laurie Kirszner and Stephen Mandell.
Fort Worth: Harcourt
Brace, 1997. 160-172.
Short Story Criticism.
Vol. 13. Ed.
David Segal. Detroit: Gale
Research Inc., 1993.