Emotional Abuse and Depression in Feminist Short Stories
Feminist literature created on the verge of the 19th and 20th centuries signifies the inequalities between women and men in society. This inequality was manifested through the economic dependence of women on their husbands, female isolation due to the restrictions of their domestic gender roles, and the emerging existential and psychological issues women faced. In particular, short stories deliver strong messages of persistent inequalities by focusing on the symbolic representation of female experiences and burdens induced by the excessive control of men. In “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Charlotte Perkins Stenson meticulously builds her plot around the obsession of the main character with women’s confinement behind the wallpaper as a representation of her mental deterioration due to freedom and deprivation in marriage. This symbolic and plot-related element is at the center of this paper’s argument that holds the following. Emotional abuse, men’s oppression, and isolation in marital life hindering women’s mental well-being and identity imply biased gender roles conveyed through the plot of “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” The unfolding of the theme will be examined in parallel with such short stories as “Story of an Hour” and “A Jury of Her Peers.”
The Theme of Women’s Freedom Deprivation as Emotional Abuse
Isolation and confinement are persistent in the plot of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” since they serve as a background for the unfolding events. The woman is kept in a room without any access to any leisure or communication as a means for her recovery after a nervous episode. She is not in control of the situation because the decisions have been made by her husband. It is through the journal writings that the readers learn about the main character’s emotional suffering in confinement, which is a supposed treatment that only harms her. Being unable to influence her state, the woman explains that since her husband is a reputable physician, he cannot be resisted. Indeed, she states that “if a physician of high standing, and one’s husband” states that “there is nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression, […] what is one to do?” (Stenson 648). The husband does not consider his wife accountable for her actions and life in general, thus demonstrating no empathy for her condition.
The lack of freedom and control of her life makes liberation the main character’s ultimate goal, which she tries to achieve by transmitting her disturbance on the wallpaper. Tearing the wallpaper during the climax of the story symbolizes mental illness as a manifestation of the diminished well-being of women in a patriarchal society. Although the theme of madness is prevalent in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” the connection between females suffering from inequality in marriage and their lack of mental wellness is apparent in other supporting works.
Mental Disturbance as an Immediate Attribute to Female Marriage Experience
The idea of deprivation of activities that might be emotionally fulfilling and beneficial in terms of mental health persists in the short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and is similarly reflected in “Story of an Hour” and “A Jury of Her Peers.” Indeed, the main character in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” not only remains unnamed but does not have an opportunity to engage in any meaningful activity such as her time-spending in the room. Her husband and the doctors insist on her complete isolation as a way of resting expected to cure her nervous disturbance. However, the main character has an opposite opinion suggesting that any work would help her overcome her illness. Indeed, she states “I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good” (Stenson 648). The woman is bound to sit in her room with windows barred and with no access to the outside world for communication or recreation.
She is discouraged from any intellectual practices, including reading and writing. The records she makes in her journal are kept secret because everyone who surrounds the main character does not allow her to write, especially her husband, John. At some point in the short story, the woman states, “there comes John, and I must put this away, – he hates to have me write a word” (Stenson 649). Nonetheless, secretly indulging in writing allows the main character to reflect on her experience and contemplate logically the suffering she endures in confinement. However, being isolated from the world and activities eventually leads to the woman’s insanity as she tries to project her desire for liberation onto the imaginary women captivated behind the yellow wallpaper of her room.
Similarly, mental disturbance stemming from isolation and deprivation of freedom and creativity emerges in other feminist short stories. Indeed, in her work “A Jury of Her Peers,” Glaspell uses descriptions and allusion to draw a picture of Mrs. Wright’s life. Indeed, she lives in a house that is situated in a secluded location “down in a hollow” where “you don’t see the road (Glaspell 1). People describe it as an unpleasant house because “it’s a lonesome place, and always was” (Glaspell 1). Mrs. Wright’s inability to engage in creative recreational activities she enjoyed is implicitly and symbolically delivered to the readers through the image of a bird in a cage.
Indeed, the women in the short story recall that Mrs. Wright might have bought a canary that lived in a cage in her house that she enjoyed listening to because “she used to sing real pretty herself” (Glaspell 1). A singing bird in a cage is a symbol of Mrs. Wright’s isolation and deprivation of an activity she loved for the sake of house chores and her husband served. Such a deprivation had an oppressive effect on the main character’s mental well-being, triggering her anger and the consecutive murder of her husband.
Similarly, Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” conveys an intrinsic connection between women’s isolation and activity freedom deprivation, and mental illness. Indeed, in the course of her imagining of the life she anticipated without a husband, the main character of the story, Mrs. Mallard, contemplates the variety of things she might do. She is portrayed standing by the window and looking at the big wide world before her as a promising glimpse of an unconstrained future. She thinks that “there would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature” (Chopin para. 12). She will be able to “live for herself” and be free to do the things that would unfold her identity without compromising it (Chopin para. 14). She does not suffer from losing love because “what could love, the mystery, count for in the face of this possession of self-assertion” (Chopin para. 15). The feeling of suddenly obtaining freedom and the ability to fulfill her life with meaning became overwhelming for Mrs. Mallard.
Such strength of feelings triggered by the understanding of freedom implies the severity of oppression this woman endured during her marital life. A glimpse of insanity appeared as she exited the room, which is characterized by her looks and “a feverish triumph in her eyes” (Chopin para. 20). Her sister even thinks that Mrs. Mallard “will make [her]self ill] not realizing that the reason for her mental state is not grief but the anticipation of freedom (Chopin para. 17). Thus, all three short stories demonstrate the burden of the isolation and deprivation of fulfilling and identity-revealing activities of women in a patriarchal society as a contributing factor to their deteriorated mental health.
In summation, the portrayal of female marital experiences in the short stories written at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century demonstrates a multitude of negative issues. One of the most significant elements persisting in several works is the deterioration of women’s mental well-being and their inability to unfold their identities due to the oppression of their husbands. As the analysis of the plots of the three short stories for the persistence of the element of mental disturbance as a result of isolation and freedom deprivation shows, patriarchal marriage is destructing. Through the use of the symbols of the entrapping wallpaper patterns, barred windows, a caged bird, and the life observed through a window, the authors of the analyzed short stories convey women’s suffering in marriage. In such a manner, mental health deterioration is attributed to the abusive execution of power and control of men over women.
Chopin, Kate. “Story of an Hour,” 1894.
Glaspell, Susan. “A Jury of Her Peers,” 1917.
Stenson, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wall-Paper.”