• 07Nov

     

    the awakening

    I have just finished reading this moving and absorbing book.

     
    My immediate impressions were that of loneliness, alienation, confinement and oppression. Kate Chopin reflects women’s oppression and alienation in their roles as mothers and wives at the end of the 19th Century.

     
    But sadly it is far too familiar for women in the 21st Century. It is a battle that women still struggle against.

     
    Interestingly, Kate Chopin’s original title was A Solitary Soul, which highlights the loneliness of women recognising that the role they are confined to, not only does not fit but is oppressive.

     

    The book is about Edna Pontellier‘s awakening to her authenticity as a woman and her inability to continue in her restrictive and false life as a mother and wife.

     

    “As the critic Per Seyersted phrases it, Kate Chopin “broke new ground in American literature. She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardy fathom today; with an uncompromising honesty and no trace of sensationalism, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life. She was something of a pioneer in the amoral treatment of sexuality, of divorce, and of woman’s urge for an existential authenticity. She is in many respects a modern writer, particularly in her awareness of the complexities of truth and the complications of freedom.” Rosemary F. Franklin 

     

    It is interesting to compare this with the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

    Both address the issue of women’s oppression and alienation within patriarchy. Both of the women central characters find that their only option is to rail against this oppression.
    I was discussing “The Yellow Wallpaper” with two other women who had different interpretations of the ending. One thought that Jane finally went crazy; the other saw her as committing suicide. I saw Jane as finally being able to liberate herself.

    Edna Pontellier finds her only solution is to commit suicide – to swim into the ocean, naked. This is her liberation.

    “She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.”

  • 14Aug

    “A frank, intimate, urgent voice.” (Maggie O’Farrell)

    I have just finished reading the collection of short stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman titled after the first short story

    “The Yellow Wallpaper”

    Written in 1890

    yellow wallpaper

    I was amazed at how this short story has resonance for me, as a woman, in 2014.
    The story is assumed to be autobiographical and describes a young married woman who is suffering from “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency”.
    As a result she, her husband (John) and her husband’s sister (Jane) spend some time in a rented house in the country. She is mostly confined to the upstairs bedroom with yellow wallpaper. The young woman becomes fascinated and obsessed with this ugly, yellow wallpaper, which in many ways symbolizes the oppression under which she lives.
    Her husband is a medical doctor and takes control of his wife and her illness. He has legitimate patriarchal power. He confines her to the bedroom and she is told to have complete rest. She is forbidden to do any work, including her beloved writing.

    “He is careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.”

    As a result she is forced to write secretly. Writing stories she is informed by her husband will stir up “all manner of excited fancies”.
    Despite her initially desire to please and obey her husband, we learn of her frustration and anger with his oppression and control of her…

    “The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John”.

    And the sister-in-law’s role is that of monitoring her – the role of all good patriarchal women. She is … “so careful of me.”

    As Anne Summers (Damned Whores and God’s Police) highlighted these are the women who are placed in the position of being the moral guardians of the community – to ensure that women follow the patriarchal line.

    Damned whores

    Maggie O’Farrell writes in her introduction to the book this is an angry story:

    “…fury crackling off the page”.

    It is the writer’s relationship with the yellow wallpaper that is so creatively told. She begins to see things in the wallpaper that nobody else can and a woman begins to emerge.

    “It is like a woman stooping down and creeping behind that pattern” and the woman becomes many women… “…trying to climb through”.

    This story is about oppression – the oppressive nature of marriage and power and control of men over women.

    It is also about mental illness. According to Maggie O’Farrell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself suffered some form of mental illness following the birth of her child. It is suggested that we may now know this as post natal depression. Charlotte was also forced to go through draconian treatment similar to the woman in her story where she is virtually imprisoned and not permitted any activity including writing.

    Phyllis Chesler wrote a ground breaking book in 1972 (revised in 2005) “Women and Madness”

    phyllis cheslerin which she documents how women are labelled as “mad” when they do not comply with the feminized norm or are unable to cope with the effects of patriarchal domination – and the harrowing treatment that has been imposed on women in the name of healing. There are many examples of this treatment of women throughout history – mad or bad – and it continues today.

    The uplifting aspect of this story is the powerful ending.

    She locks the door and peels off the wallpaper.

    “’I’ve got out at last’, said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane. And I pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back.”

    “What the Yellow Wallpaper does is give the mad woman pen and paper, and ultimately a voice of her own” (Maggie O’Farrell)

     

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