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“The Women’s Theme” takes an important place in the creative heritage of American writers, appearing one of the markers of the historical and cultural process. Being one of the dominant themes of American literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it provides the key for understanding the place of a woman in society and her role in the development of social progress. Showing considerable interest in the destiny of an American woman, exploring the features of the femininity, a woman’s view of the world, and women’s values, and studying the role of women in various areas of society, American novelists endeavored to reflect the woman’s life, the problems of women’s emancipation, and feminist movement objectively. A characteristic feature of that time was that in the American family a woman continued to be an exploited being. Since the right to make decisions remained with a man, so the norms in the family and at work were built according to the patriarchal model; therefore, woman’s involvement in professional work would have turned this exploitation into a double one. According to Erich Fromm, “Men’s dominance of women is the first act of conquest and the first exploitative use of force; in all patriarchal societies after the men’s victory, these principles have become the basis of men’s character”(116). Nevertheless, the most advanced and educated part of American women has matured the determination to achieve equal rights with men for education, freedom of professional activity, the right to dispose of property and raise children, freedom of divorce, and women’s suffrage. The idea of women’s equality in the second half of the nineteenth century embraces a wide range of American public and finds expression in the feminist movement, which begins to challenge the roles imposed on men and women by society. The theme of
social and moral release of women in the late nineteenth – early twentieth centuries is one of the main in American literature. Among a whole pleiad of talented writers of that time should be noted Kate Chopin and her extraordinary work “The Story of an Hour” and John Steinbeck with his immortal “Chrysanthemums.” Although the struggle for gender equality, which was conducted in all possible ways, including literature, was inherent mainly to women, male writers were able to describe the state of the female soul as stunningly as female writers. Despite the difference in the time of writing and the plots of the stories, the key idea – the desire of a woman to be fully recognized – remains unchanged in both these works. The heroine of Steinbeck, Elisa Allen, is thirty-five years old woman who lives in a valley surrounded by mountains and “closed from all the rest of the world,” as Steinbeck describes this place (258). She is a nice, intelligent, and interesting woman with a strong character. However, her life, subordinated to marriage with Henry Allen, is not a source of warmth and happiness. Even though her husband is a hardworking person and an exemplary family man, she does not receive full satisfaction from her marriage or life in general. Henry does not perceive her equally, so he treats Elisa as a child by successfully taken care of her. However, all of this is not enough for her because she wants something more – she desires a life full of adventure. Instead of this she has to dedicate her life to the care of flowers. In her turn, the heroine of “The Story of an Hour” Mrs. Louise Mallard is a young married woman suffering from a heart disease. According to the Chopin’s description, her beautiful face shows a state of violent submission and at the same time a certain hidden inner strength that reflects a sign of grit (73). Similarly to Eliza, her marriage is an imprisonment, a cage from which there is no way out. She lives without knowing the joy of family life, patiently enduring all the adversity and dislike of her husband, doomed to such an existence by the will of fate. Therefore, when she is cautiously informed of the death of her husband, who apparently died in a railway accident, she is enveloped in a whole palette of feelings from a sudden feeling of grief and sadness, to victorious jubilation from the realization of her long-awaited freedom. At first glance, in the eyes of the reader, she appears as a selfish, heartless creature, almost a soulless monster, unable to express the mourning, which the situation seems to require. However, what is behind all this? Long years of loneliness outspread there, for even being together, one can feel lonely. The burdensome perception of the futility of such an existence, which brings nothing but new wrinkles on the face, presents behind that side of her life, which is hidden from reader. Her behavior causes the reader to have ambivalent emotions. It might be anger, due to the fact that the Louise allows herself to pass through the deeply feelings inside of her, which the society in that situation would consider immoral. On the other hand, it may be a sense of compassion and comprehension of the motives of her actions. This understanding comes at a time when the reader is invited to feel the air of freedom that Louise breathes greedily through the open window. “The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves” (72). Her sudden death, at the moment when she sees her husband alive and unharmed, puts things in order. The report of the train crash was a mistake he does not even suspect about; therefore, he comes home without warning, which causes his wife a heart attack. The doctor’s conclusion that she died being unable to cope with the joy that deluged her at the sight of a living husband sounds plausible, but it is not true. In fact, her heart does not bear the deepest disappointment from the awareness that all her hopes for a free and happy life collapses abruptly… According to Freud, Louise’s inner conflict lies in the confrontation between her innate desires or “ID,” governed by the libido and public opinion or the “Superego” (Kagan, Segal 336-337). Then enters her consciousness or the “Ego” trying to find a balance between the “principle of pleasure” and the “morality principle,” which strive to forbid her from feeling that vague sensation that she cannot determine initially:
There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air. … She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will — as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been. (Chopin 73)
However, in the end she is completely given to it, remaining in her room. In public, she cannot show her jubilation because this is unacceptable. Relatives expect her to show grief, which she successfully demonstrates, but fate disposes by other way, and her inner triumph and release the chains of an oppressive marriage turn into intolerable bitterness from the understanding of the wreck of her dreams. At this moment, the reader may be puzzled by the question – to what extent her own life must be disgusted, that only the death of a spouse seems to her a way to get rid of suffering?! The story of Elisa is not so tragic but not less dramatic. Her life seems quite predictable; a string of dull days similar like two drops of water awaits her. Since her vain attempts to delve into business of the ranch are condescendingly rejected by her husband, and the absence of children deprives her of the opportunity to experience the joys of motherhood, all that is left for ambitious Elisa is care for the house and her favorite chrysanthemums, for in this her joy. However, her serene existence is disturbed by a wandering repairman of household utensils. His unusual image, and probably, her sexual dissatisfaction combined with a rich imagination push her to flirt with him, but he sees a completely different interest in their conversation. In an attempt to sell his unnecessary services, a cunning traveler applies various ways to make her more relent, at first, trying getting soft on her, then praising his own professional qualities, thereby groping for her weak spot. Using his discernment, he shows a pretended interest toward her passion – chrysanthemums – and even then gets to the target not immediately. “They smell kind of nasty, you get used to them,” he said. “It’s a good bitter smell,” she retorted, “not nasty at all.” He changed his tone quickly. “I like the smell myself” (Steinbeck 232). Eliza, who is touched by his interest, has no doubt purity of his intentions, so she opens her soul to him and becomes more benevolent, giving him the opportunity to earn money. However, the tinker, having received what he wanted, namely money for his work done, leaves her in messed feelings. After his departure, she feels completely devastated, which leads to the assumption of how unhappy her marriage is that some vagrant traveler could so easily inflame her. During a conversation with him, she describes her feelings and desires so brightly, as if she was just waiting for this moment to unfold herself for him. “I’ve never lived as you do, but I know what you mean. When the night is dark—why, the stars are sharp-pointed, and there’s quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp and—lovely” (Steinbeck 234). It is obviously that she does not often succeed in expressing herself, for there is no one to appreciate it. In an attempt to cope with her feelings, she tries to joke with her husband, then she expresses a desire to go to bloody men’s fights, and finally to drown sorrows in wine, but none of these ideas seems to bring her full satisfaction. The reason for her emotional confusion is a state of frustration, related to unmet needs. Here, the emptiness lies due to dissatisfaction of her natural needs for love and recognition. According to the Abraham Maslow theory, human needs are innate and located on several levels, from simple to more complex, ranging from physiological one’s such as eating, sleeping, sex and ending with the needs for self-actualization (McLeod).
It is quite true that man lives by bread alone — when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled?
At once other (and “higher”) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new (and still “higher”) needs emerge and so on. This is what we mean by saying that the basic human needs are organized into a hierarchy of relative prepotency.
To get rid of the constant internal mental stress, she directs all her energy into caring for flowers, using the protective mechanism that Freud named sublimation:
Sublimation is the defense mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or desires are consciously transformed into socially acceptable behaviors or actions, possibly resulting in a long-term conversion of the initial impulse. Freud believed sublimation to be a sign of maturity, not only individually but also societally, allowing people to function in culturally acceptable ways. Freud defined sublimation as the process of deflecting sexual instincts into acts of higher social valuation. He saw it as an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development. Sublimation is what allows for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life. (Siegfried)
However, in this case the tinker serves as a trigger and this mechanism misfires and ultimately her accumulated tension pours out by a stream of tears, giving her temporary relief. Although Elisa and Louise are different in their lifestyles, they both have an inner strength, a powerful potential of unspent feelings, and energy that does not find an outlet. Suffering from the inability to fulfill themselves, both women are unhappy in their marriage and full of the desire to change something in their lives, but society does not give them such an opportunity.
Kate Chopin concerns about the fate of a woman who is trying to find herself in a life, rethinking the usual values. She sees a woman as an independent person and not as a man’s appendix that serve to provide reproduction and for decorating his leisure. As a result, “The Story of an Hour” reflecting the evolution of women’s self-awareness and the features of women’s perception of the world and their place in it becomes the basis for different sorts of feminist ideas (Kate Chopin International Society). In theirs works, both Kate Chopin and John Steinbeck rather accurately depict social institutions and foundations that prevent a woman from finding herself and gaining inner independence. Under the influence of time (the unfolding of the struggle for equal rights with men, participation in the strike movement, women’s trade union activity, and the organization of various associations and clubs), the main content of the writings of these writers becomes a true portrayal of reality and poignant women’s problem. They create women’s images in which the traditional model of women’s behavior, manifested in self-sacrifice and voluntary self-denial, causes spontaneous emancipation. Those images, being in complex love relationships, act without any slogans, declarations, and programs. The heroines show determination and strength of character in defending their identities. However, their personal riots does not have a social orientation so far and spread only to relations with men. To reflect the objective reality of American society radical male and female writers cover the “female theme” in different ways based on their own psychology and artistic thinking. The emergence of a new attitude towards a woman in society, the beginning of a new female identity, the appearance of women of a new type – all these signs of social emancipation did not remain unnoticed by them (The Ohio State University). For this reason, the image of the “new woman” begins to form and actively develop in the literature. The authors refute the traditional perception of a woman and justify her right to be considered as a rightful person like a man. The phenomenon of the “new woman” that is formed in American society force them to give their characters lively and colorful image. They show a new literary heroine possessed a sense of dignity and love of freedom who is in permanent search of that sphere of life that would help her to find herself and her place in life. These stories represent different types of heroines who protest against the enslavement of women in the family and in society as a whole. Despite their differences, they are united by one similar trait – more or less distinct awareness of their own desires and needs. Although the prose writers show various sides of the protest, they have one common thought: a woman has to establish herself as a person and as a representative of the sex; she has to be equal in rights with a man and play significant roles in the public, cultural, and political life of the American society.
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