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Identity Suppression in Literature

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2018 has become a monumental year for cultural and sexuality and gender acceptance. Not only women have come forth with allegations of sexual assault, but genders are no longer limited to only male and female. Even Hollywood is beginning to show signs of change when it comes to the ethnicities or sexuality of leading roles; Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Marvel’s Black Panther are good examples of that. However, whether it be as long ago as the Victorian era or as recent as today, many still attempt to change their identity for fear of discrimination due to physical traits. This is observed through several works of literature and art. More specifically, the works of Kate Chopin, Maya Angelou, and Andrew Wyeth all share a similar theme: one may adopt public identities due to the critical and discriminatory world that surrounds them.

The first struggle with identity due to discrimination is observed in Kate Chopin’s short story, “The Story of an Hour”. In the short story, the main character, Mrs. Mallard, lives in a male-favored society where women don’t have much control over their lives. Mrs. Mallard’s husband recently died and she processes this news in her bedroom. “She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her,” Chopin wrote. Chopin first depicts Mrs. Mallard as a grieving widow who is terribly upset. However, Chopin went on to write: “She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other in the west facing her window. ” This is quite a contrast to what Chopin wrote earlier; using the literary element of visual imagery, Chopin now describes the scenery to be lush, bright, and beautiful. Those three adjectives are typically associated with light and life- happy things. Death, however, is not something that is “ aquiver with new spring life. ” In literacy, movies, and art, death is typically viewed as dark, wretched, and somber. Chopin’s use of juxtaposition shows the first change in Mrs. Mallard’s view of her husband’s death. Mrs. Mallard even begins to question her love in her husband. “And yet she had loved him — sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter!” Not only is Mrs. Mallard beginning to shed her mask as a loving, dependent, submissive woman, but she is also beginning to show the identity beneath it all: a free woman who exists for herself and herself alone. “‘Free! Body and soul free!’ she kept whispering. ” As Mrs. Mallard sits in her room, Chopin uses visual imagery to hint at the fact that she’s beginning to suffer from a heart attack. One can infer that for Mrs. Mallard, her death will free her from the boundaries, constraints, and expectations of her society. In the last paragraph of “The Story of an Hour”, Chopin wrote: “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease — of the joy that kills. ” This shows how Mrs. Mallard’s death was her freedom, for she can no longer be suppressed.

Mrs. Mallard was freed from the chains of marriage; the woman in Maya Angelou’s poem, “The Mask”, however, still feels the constraints of racism that forces her to don her “mask”. Angelou’s use of juxtaposition, metaphors, and onomatopoeia can help the reader realize that the woman in her poem lives in a turbulent, racist world. Stanzas 1-9 are from Paul Laurence Dunbar, speaking of a person who hides their pain away from the world by donning a fake, satisfied mask. Angelou then begins to write her own words: “We smile but oh my God Our tears to thee from tortured souls arise And we sing Oh Baby doll, now we sing.The clay is vile beneath our feet. But let the world think otherwise We wear the mask. ” Angelou uses juxtaposition; at first, she speaks of a hell-like world but then mentions singing. Singing is often viewed as light-hearted and wholesome, not a way to express agony. However, it seems like the woman in the poem sings to show the world that they’re “fine”, hiding behind a mask in order to protect themselves from society’s harsh critic. Angelou went on to write on stanzas 33-37: “They grow the fruit but eat the rind. Hmm huh! I laugh uhuh huh huh. Until I start to cry when I think about myself And my folks and children. ” Growing the fruit but eating the rind is a metaphor for laboring but suffering from it. Perhaps Angelou is mentioning the slavery past of African Americans; they labored and bled endlessly for the South and yet they do not have a better world. They may have been emancipated, but are still discriminated against. I believe that Angelou is using onomatopoeia to show how much the woman is trying to disguise her pain by laughing. However, the woman begins to cry when she thinks about the world around her and how this era may not be any better than it was for African Americans many years ago. Angelou wrote a metaphor on stanzas 42-45 saying: “My fathers sit on benched gnarled like broken candles, All waxed and burned profound. They say, but sugar, it was our submission that made your world go round. ” Candles are often used to light up rooms, but as soon as they’re unappealing or used, they’re discarded. Perhaps the woman’s “fathers” (elders, perhaps,) have seen the cruelty of the world and learned to yield to anyone to make it easier for the future generation.

“The Story of an Hour” and “The Mask” focus on the issues of gender and race through the use of literary elements; however, “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth is a painting that gives a powerful message of a struggle with identity due to physical discrimination. It features a girl sitting in the peaceful scenery of what one can assume is the countryside. Upon closer inspection though, we realize that this painting may not be as peaceful as it appears, for one can begin to realize that the girl’s right arm seems slightly distorted. This raises questions to the surface: what is “wrong” with her? Why is she alone in the field? With background knowledge, I know that “Christina’s World” was painted during 1948- the height of a polio outbreak. Perhaps the girl has been disowned due to her ailment, that could explain why her left hand is hesitantly reaching towards the house as if she’s yearning to return. Wyeth used an element of art, space, to show how far the girl is from the house- it could be a metaphor for how the inhabitants of that house have pushed her away. Other elements of art Wyeth used are contrast and line; the field that the girl sits in is darker than the fields by the house. That could represent how the girl is in a darker time due to the discrimination she suffers because of her physical disability. As for the use of line, Wyeth cleverly uses tractor lines and a fence to show the boundaries between the girl and the house. All of these elements of design tie into the message that this girl is trying to find who she is amidst this dark time. Others have discriminated against her physical disabilities, so she is trying to salvage her true self since no one has control over her.

We are so used to an accepting and politically correct world that we often forget how life was before. African Americans must still wear a “mask” to stay alive; while there may not be segregation, there is police brutality that terrorizes them daily. They must wear their mask because it “ kept my race alive. ” (61) Not only is there racism amidst the world, but there is still sexism and racism. Every day, women are being catcalled are harassed; every day the disabled are mocked for something they can not change. Authors and artists never create without a purpose; even in our young adult fiction, there is always a message. History teaches us to learn from our mistakes, and literature does too. We must learn to heed other’s words; listen, learn, and let our world become a better, more just place.

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Identity Suppression in Literature. (2019, November 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from
“Identity Suppression in Literature.” GradesFixer, 26 Nov. 2019,
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