Female Liberation in The Awakening & "The Yellow Wallpaper"


Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Charlotte Perkin's "The Yellow Wallpaper" were both initially published in 1899 (Mahin). A time in which women were not seen as anything more than wives and mothers. Both texts present similar stories of the oppression of women within a certain society. They both contain a tone of feminist bias, as they are both narrated from a female's point of view. In both stories, the lead characters struggle to deal with the restrictive conventions of an anti-feminist society. Similarly, both of these stories have a tragic ending; The Awakening ends with a suicide while "The Yellow Wallpaper" ends in insanity. Some people may argue that because both lead characters are flawed by their mental instability, the stories are told by unreliable narrators. Yet, both women give up their sanity and their life rather than endure enslavement by society. They view separation from the conscious world as their only escape, their only way to achieve complete liberation from their oppressive male-dominant society. The tragic endings in both The Awakening and The Yellow Wallpaper serve as a cry for the injustice of women in a male-dominated society.
Female liberation and empowerment (feminism) is a thought-provoking topic in both Chopin's and Gilman's work, because both main characters resort to such drastic measures in order to obtain their individual freedom. For example, after Mrs. Pontellier moved out of her husband's home, she still was dissatisfied with her life and had to resort to taking her own life in order to find escape. Similarly, the main character of Gilman's story, having struggled with confinement and isolation, finally descended into insanity as the only method to free herself from her oppression.
Some readers may argue that we as readers are unable to conclude from the texts that escape from the world is the only feasible way to obtain freedom. This argument is based solely on the fact that both women had emotional and mental issues. It is reasonable to argue that the choices an emotionally or mentally unstable character makes do not reflect the thoughts and/or desires of the entire female population. However, Mrs. Pontellier and Gilman's main character are ordinary women who inherit their flaws because of their environment. Which means that the lust and insanity that they develop are products of their oppression. Until the series of events that took place in The Awakening, Mrs. Pontellier had been married to her husband for decades. She had an epiphany after her vacation in the Grand Isle, but up until that moment in time, she had only ever functioned as a submissive wife, never once questioning her role in society. The main character of The Yellow Wallpaper begins the story as a mentally stable individual. The way in which Gilman's main character describes the "garden- large and shady, full of box-bordered paths" and "those sprawling flamboyant patterns" (Gilman 11) of the wallpaper in a clear and comprehensible manner indicates that she is capable of speaking from a rational point of view. Additionally, she had been sent away to the countryside not because she is mentally unstable but because her husband has diagnosed her with depression. She herself confesses in the text that if she "had less opposition and more society and stimulus," her condition would improve (Gilman 10).
Both The Awakening and The Yellow Wallpaper share a similarity in regards to the oppressiveness of the dominant male figures in these stories. The husbands in both stories share similar qualities; they are doting, arrogant, and domineering (Lanser 415). The other characters ignore their flaws because the men symbolize the values of individuals in a male-dominant society. The men are the moneymakers who hold prominent positions in society. John is a physician of high standing and Mr. Pontellier is a well-known businessman in New Orleans. Their status gives them power over their wives, supporting their standard views of the inferiority of women.
By portraying stereotypical males as the husbands of their main characters, Chopin and Gilman are able to depict marriage for what it truly was, a union that restricts women. During the time in which the characters of both stories live, society functions with the understanding that the