Research Paper: Lack of Communication Between Men and Women in Relationships During the 1850s

Pages: 6 (2563 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 6  ·  Level: College Junior  ·  Topic: Family and Marriage  ·  Buy This Paper

¶ … Communication between Men in Women in Relationships during the late 1800s: "The Story of an Hour" and "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Both "The Story of an Hour" and "The Yellow Wallpaper" offer glimpses into gendered relationships in the late 1800s, because they portray women who are apparently trapped in their marriages. The glimpse that they give is of marriage being an unequal relationship, where husbands are dominant and enjoy the benefits of marriage while subservient wives bear the burdens of their husband's expectations. In Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," Louise Mallard, a seemingly-happily married middle-aged woman receives news that her husband has died. The report of his death is false, and the surprise that he is actually alive ends up killing her. In, Perkins-Gillman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," the unnamed narrator, who is married to a physician who believes she is suffering from some type of depression, is confined by her husband to a single bedroom and deprived of all stimulation. She goes mad, and the madness takes the form of her obsession with the room's yellow wallpaper. Both stories reveal a serious lack of communication between spouses in marriages at that time.

What is interesting is that, even at that time, society as a whole was beginning to question the appropriate role of women in society. In fact, one can hardly read these two stories without considering the historical background of that time. Women had already declared their desire for greater civil rights at the Seneca Falls Convention and there was a raging public debate about feminism and whether women were liberated or oppressed by being thrust into the domestic sphere. This was reflected in social movements and in family law, a critical area because family law becomes more and more important as relationships between men and women decline:

The movement of twentieth century family law in the United States has been away from a patriarchical model and toward a more egalitarian one. Formerly, the husband was the legal head of the household, responsible for its support and its links to the external society, while the wife was the mistress of the home, responsible for the day-to-day management of its internal affairs and the care and education of children. More recently, these roles have tended to converge and the family is sometimes characterized as a partnership or a family firm. This trend did not, of course, begin in the twentieth century. Its origins can be traced to the greater independence enjoyed by married women in the American colonies and on the frontier than by their British sisters (Kay).

While the overarching trend may have been greater independence and cooperation between partners, looking at these stories one does not see women as members of partnerships, but instead as subservient members of a household where the husband is the one in control. What these stories reflect is that while the cultural background may have been shifting, the reality for most women was that "marriage was the primary occupation for women" (Kay). These women were not expected to have interests outside of their marriage or to do things that distinguished them as anything other than wife and mother.

In "The Story of an Hour," one does not see the communication between the husband and the wife, so one must make some assumptions about how the two of them communicate. This can be seen in Chopin's use of a sexual description to describe Louise's meeting with the realization that she has been freed by the news of her husband's death. This sexual scene takes on the trappings of rape, at least according to Daniel Deneau, who suggests that this element of force helps free Louise of responsibility for feeling joy at her husband's death (Deneau). While this passage does not speak directly to communication between Louise and her husband, it suggests that Louise has grown accustomed to feeling coerced in her interactions with men, perhaps particularly her sexual interactions. This should come as no surprise given that in the Victorian era, female sexuality was very repressed and for a woman to initiate sexuality, even with her spouse, would have been inappropriate. While Chopin does not go so far as to state that Louise was unable to express even her most basic sexual needs to her husband, the rape-like language of her spiritual awakening, certainly suggests a woman unaccustomed to expressing or acknowledging her own desires.

In fact, when one looks at how the narrator describes Louise's reactions to the news of her husband's death, one can see that there was a lack of communication in her marriage, even though the story only shows one interaction between husband and wife, and there is no communication at that moment. After realizing that she is "Free! Body and soul free!" The narrator moves on to contemplate what that freedom means (Chopin). She does not insert a gendered bias into her reflections, labeling husbands oppressors and wives the oppressed, but instead suggests that it is the institution of marriage that stifles the individual and threatens freedom. Now that her husband is dead, "There would be no powerful will bending her in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature" (Chopin). This suggests the idea that it is both men and women who ignore their actual spouses, substituting, instead, their beliefs and ideals for the real people to whom they are married.

While the marriage in "The Story of an Hour" has a surface serenity, even that seem missing in "The Yellow Wallpaper." In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator's husband, a physician, has assigned a period of bed rest for her, presumably to help her overcome postpartum depression. Confining her to an upstairs bedroom in a summer rental home, the husband ignores the narrator's suggestions that confinement is not helping her and that what she really needs to do is to interact with others. In fact, the narrator's husband goes so far as to forbid his wife to engage in the most basic forms of self-expression; she cannot write in her journal. The narrator ignores her husband's order forbidding her to write in her journal, and the resulting journal describes a woman's descent into madness.

It is only through the journal that the audience can see how the narrator and her husband communicate, and the picture it reveals is of a husband that is very dismissive of his wife. She describes him laughing at her when she speaks to him, and actually seems to think that is a normal facet of communication in a marriage (Perkins Gilman). In fact, his language goes from the relatively benign laughter to scoffing at her and losing patience with her (Perkins Gilman). The picture painted by the narrator is of a husband who absolutely disregards what his wife says. John is so entrenched in the idea that his wife has nothing to communicate, that he does not even want her communicating with herself, as evidenced by the narrator's concern that John will find her writing in her journal, "There comes John, and I must put this away- he hates to have me write a word" (Perkins-Gilman). Moreover, even in her own journal, which the narrator does not intend for anyone else to read, she speaks subserviently about her husband.

In fact, the narrator's husband, along with her other doctors, have determined that she is sick. This gives them a reason to ignore her protests and to completely dismiss anything that she has to say. "There is no escaping the words through which the doctors deliver their diagnosis, their prescription of a rest cure, or the language the narrator must produce to maintain their sanity" (Golden). For anyone even remotely familiar with Perkins Gilman's personal history, "The Yellow Wallpaper" clearly takes on an autobiographical tinge. At one point in her life, Perkins Gilman suffered from a nervous breakdown and what would currently be known as a clinical depression. She went to a specialist in nervous diseases, S. Weir Mitchell, who prescribed the rest cure, limiting her intellectual life, and forbidding her from touching pen, brush or pencil (Hume). Gilman felt that this rest cure treatment almost killed her. She wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" in part to try to convince Mitchell that his cure was not only helpful, but was actually harmful to women. The narrator in the story expresses the same belief about her recovery, and those thoughts are dismissed by her husband. She writes, "I sometimes fancy that in my condition, if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus- but John says the very worst thing I can do is think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad'" (Perkins Gilman).

Take, for example, the narrator's stated desire that the summer home actually be haunted (Perkins Gilman). This seems, at first glance, merely to reaffirm her husband's belief that she is sick. However, when one examines the states further, it seems… [END OF PREVIEW]

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