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Female writers constantly try to negotiate their identities in a society that exalts male opinion. That the protagonists of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Chopin’s “A Pair of Silk Stockings” are married women places both discourses within a patriarchal, institutional framework. Immediately, a critique of marriage arises, and we are forced to examine how women are oppressed, either by patriarchy or by stereotypes placed on them as mothers and nurturers. It is evident that both stories serve to highlight the plight of women, though it remains arguable whether a solution is proposed. Gilman’s nameless protagonist goes mad, while Chopin’s “Little Mrs. Sommers” dreads going back to the boring routine of a housewife. The conclusions, as such, do not seem to empower women, but suggests a futility of fighting against patriarchy. Even if the madness of Gilman’s nameless protagonist is seen as a form of transcendental sanity as suggested by some critics, how empowering is it for females to be represented as mad? Besides, her transcendence – if it is interpreted as such – is temporary, for she might be placed in an asylum for further treatment. Consumerism too, is only a temporary relief for Mrs. Sommers’ mundane existence, for her money will run out eventually.
The fact that both women are married is an important consideration in this analysis. Marriage inscribes patriarchy into the narrative, because it forces the identity of wife and husband onto the characters. Immediately, stereotypes of each label are being invoked: the wife is submissive, caring and sacrificial while the husband is aggressive, clinical and egocentric. In both stories, the women are silenced and powerless in their marriage. Gilman’s protagonist does not have a name, and is mollycoddled like an infant while it is clear that Mrs. Sommers’ life revolves around taking care of her children’s needs, with little regard for her own. By not giving her protagonist a name and emphasizing that her husband and brother were both physicians “of high standing” (115), Gilman locates the story within a patriarchal structure. As Karen Ford notes, “John is identified in relation to the patriarchy first and in relation to his wife only afterwards” (310), and the physician is the “quintessential man” (310), therefore “the epitome of male discourse” (310). For Mrs. Sommers, her desires are usually repressed, and the story describes what happens when she succumbs to her desire. Mrs. Sommers is the embodiment of the perfect wife, with her children as her source of pride and excitement. Her life also exemplifies the life of all women who become housewives and devote their lives to their family because that is expected of them. Both stories are not that different in the sense that they depict marriage in chronological order: Gilman’s protagonist, should she “recover”, would end up living the life of Mrs. Sommers. Through marriage, both stories reveal the oppressive force of patriarchy that reduces them to what Paula Treichler terms, “domestic slavery” (64).
In both stories, the protagonists devise their own ways of escaping patriarchy. For Gilman, we are immediately introduced to the protagonist’s private thoughts and become complicit with her writing in her “dead paper” (115) that she calls her journal. We are offered insight of her struggles to construct an identity that is not imposed by society. Elaine Showalter recognizes that writing is a powerful tool of expression for the feminists, even if they continue to do so within a patriarchal culture (Belsey and Moore 6), and this is exactly what Gilman tries to show in her short story. The language of patriarchy as epitomized by the language of medicine has, as Treichler observes, “considerable power over what […] reality is now to be” (65). Once John has pronounced that she is suffering from “temporary nervous depression” (115), she is confined to imprisonment in the room with the yellow wallpaper. Through her writing, we are confronted with wallpaper that is hideous with “sparkling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin” (117). Through her journal, the wallpaper comes to life, and takes on human features – “broken neck and two bulbous eyes” (119). It slowly becomes clear to her that the pattern is “like a woman stooping down and creeping about” (122). At this point, it is crucial to note that as John’s voice becomes more absent when he leaves the protagonist alone, the woman behind the wallpaper takes on a more prominent form, and Treichler notes that at this junction “the figure grows clearer to her, to the point where she can join her from behind the paper and literally act within it” (67). The figure’s visibility is a measure of her empowerment through her writing. As the figure becomes clearer, she becomes quieter and her husband sees this reticence as an indication of her improved wellbeing. This suggests a fallacy of the privileged male, medical observation and potentially undermines it as the patriarchal voice is revealed as disempowering for females.
Despite the revelational potential that writing has, Carol Neely warns that “when women’s language is reduced to the level of style alone, attempts to isolate or prescribe stylistic features which are or should be peculiar to women’s discourse fail […]” (315). For Gilman’s protagonist, her writing is atypical of patriarchy. While John advocates “self-control” (116), she states that “it makes me very tired” (116). While John condemns “imaginative power” and “fancy” (118), she deciphers “great many women” (126) climbing through the wallpaper pattern. Identifying a specific women’s language has the danger of taking the women out of typical patriarchal discourse and placing them in the category of “Other”, thus reinforcing the binary opposition that is set up by patriarchy in the first place. Females are sentenced to a perpetual “otherness” (319) as males continue to be logical and level-headed, while females continue to be the opposite: illogical.
For Mrs. Sommers, she experiences momentary respite as she indulges in consumerism. Whilst Chopin seems to exalt her as “one who knew the value of bargains” (153), she also mockingly implies that she is wasting her time by “stand[ing] for hours making her way inch by inch toward the desired object that was selling below cost” (153). When the story sees Mrs. Sommers pampering herself on “soft, sheeny, luxurious things” (153), and then further treating herself to a proper meal and a comedy before culminating with her in a cable car making her way home and experiencing a “powerful longing” (156) that the ride would “go on and on with her forever” (156), we immediately interpret Chopin’s consumerist approach as temporary reprieve. However, I opine that she is suggesting that financial independence is the key to freedom.
The story starts by painting a picture of Mrs. Sommers’ financial prudence as “the question of investment was one that occupied her greatly” (152) and “it was during the still hours of the night when she lay awake revolving plans in her mind that she seemed to see her way clearly toward a proper and judicious use of the money” (152); the narrator then hints of “‘better days’ that Mrs. Sommers had known before she had ever thought of being Mrs. Sommers” (152). Unlike the females of Jane Austen who saw marriage as a solution to future stability and happiness, Gilman and Chopin foreground marriage as stifling and regressive. Neely offers reconciliation for Gilman’s solution of an alternative women’s discourse by quoting Virginia Woolf- “In order to create this alternate discourse […] they must have 500 pounds and a room of their own – that is, financial, social, and psychological independence” (318). Her approach merges the solutions of Chopin and Gilman, and implies that women have to be sufficient, thus not depending on the patriarch, before their writing can be taken seriously as a collective female voice.
Whilst Neely’s approach echoes some contemporary feminists, it is too idealistic and parochial. Woolf’s postulation places females in a one-dimensional construction that mirrors the males. Essentially, her underlying statement is that females have to appropriate the male’s definition of success in order to be seen as successful. Her suggestion reminds me of a quote by American writer Timothy Leary, who postulates that, “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.” The fact that John’s insistence that his wife should not write, an activity that promotes thought and intellect, suggests that he has to continually render his wife weak-minded so that he will remain unchallenged. Mary Jacobus further expounds that “otherness is domesticated [and] made safe, through narcissism” (69). John fainting in the end is evidence of the vulnerability of his ego. Treichler interprets this as the “unflappable husband” fainting because he is taken aback by “the dramatic power of her own freedom” (67). She expands further the protagonist’s triumph since “she has followed her own logic, her own perceptions, [and] her own projects to this final scene in which madness is seen as a kind of transcendent sanity” (67). I am inclined to agree with Treichler’s reading of language as Gilman’s protagonist “changes the terms in which women are represented in language and extends the conditions under which women will speak” (74).
That both stories end inconclusively connotes the ability for women to embody contradictions and ambiguity. This, in my opinion, is what makes women different from men. While the male identity is stable and fixed, the female identity can be negotiated and renegotiated, just like how Gilman’s protagonist constantly tries to interpret the wallpaper, first as an “artistic sin” (117), then as a face with “unblinking eyes” (119), “fungus” (123) and finally as women trying to escape (126). Mrs. Sommers embodies contradictions too when she is a poor woman surrounded by wealthy people, yet creating “no surprise” (155) with her appearance. As Treichler astutely observes,” Woman is both passive and active, subject and object, sane and mad” (74). It is impractical to compete with males on their platform, because it only supports the binaries that patriarchy upholds. Instead, it will be more productive to engage in a discourse that accepts the female’s inherent duality, because by doing so, gender lines are blurred and patriarchy is displaced.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” and “A Pair of Silk Stockings” essentially protest against male exclusivity. Both stories highlight the oppression of women through the male institution as epitomized by marriage. The inconclusive resolution of both stories hints at possibilities for change. Both stories criticize marriage, and portray it as oppressive and disempowering for the female. For the texts to be interpreted correctly as a critique of marriage and patriarchy, it is crucial to examine the seemingly arbitrary endings that hint at the futility of resistance. The central difference that celebrates women is her ability to embody the binaries that patriarchy asserts. By embodying it, not only does she appropriate it, she displaces patriarchy and exposes its vulnerability.
Belsey, Catharine, and Jane Moore, eds. “Introduction: The Story So Far”. The Feminist Reader. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1997.
Ford, Karen. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Women’s Discourse”. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. Vol. 4, No. 2, pp 309-314. JSTOR. 29 Oct. 2007. < http://links.jstor.org/sici? sici=0732- 7730%28198523%294%3A2%3C309%3A%22YWAWD%3E2.0.CO%3 B2 -D>
Jacobus, Mary. “The Difference of View”. The Feminist Reader. Eds. Catharine Belsey and Jane Moore. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1997.
Neely, Carol Thomas. “Alternative Women’s Discourse”. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. Vol. 4, No. 2, pp 315-322. JSTOR. 29 Oct. 2007. < http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0732-7730%28198523%294%3A2%3C315%3AAWD%3E2.0.CO%3B2-9>
Treichler, Paula. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper'”. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. Vol. 3, No. 1/2, pp 61-77. JSTOR. 29 Oct. 2007. < http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0732-7730%28198421%2F23%293%3A1%2F2%3C61% 3AETSDAD%3E2.0.CO%3B2-1>
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