American Literature

When using a feminist perspective to examine and explicate classic works of American literature, the temptation to cite specific examples of socially-driven misogyny or specific examples of chauvinism or even of changing perceptions of gender-roles often excludes an examination or discussion of the underlying themes which actually drive the given works and raise them to a universal, rather than culturally specific, articulation.

In the case of three classic works of American short fiction: Sarah Jewett’s “The White Heron,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Sherwood Anderson’s “Death in the Woods,” the examination of gender-based experience (and oppression) is closely tied to ecological, psychological, sexual, and moral ideas and consequences, with the underlying gender-based schisms and alienation thematically articulated as a part of a deeper psychological or even spiritual rift between the moral, sexual, and cultural perceptions of men and women.

The fascinating attribute which links all three of the stories is that in each case, the women protagonists of the stories are revealed not as objectified persons in a male-driven story, but the centralized figure from which extend the themes, symbols, and ultimate value-judgments made by the stories. The ultimate consequence of this inversion of story-theme (from the point of view of women rather than men) results in an expansion of narrative techniques within each of the stories.
In each narrative, techniques such as shifting narrative point-of-view, shifting story-tense, and unreliable narrator are used to represent the fragmentary sense of feminine experience in a patriarchally driven culture. The diverging narrative techniques within the same story, used by all three authors, also indicates the attempt of each writer to delve deeper inhto the subjective experience of women and to express and embrace embrace the ambiguities of human experience, rather than seeking final closure or thematic summation, as is typically the case in traditional narrative.
Jewett’s “A White Heron” remains the most traditionally composed story of the three stories under present discussion; however, even within the context of her predominantly linear narrative, Gilman finds occasion to radically depart from the linear narrative form near the story’s end, shifting from past-tense to present-tense narrative as Sylvia experiences the true climax of the story as internal revelation: “Here she comes now, paler than ever, and her worn old frock is torn and tattered, and smeared with pine pitch”; when contrasted with the opening description of Sylvia in the story: “A little girl was driving home her cow, a plodding, dilatory, provoking creature in her behavior” the images reveal the thematic thrust of the story purely by the images revealed by these descriptions and the change in narrative tense.
In the first passage of description, Sylvia is envisioned as typical girl with typical relationship to the bucolic life she was born into; in the second description, with its urgent shifting to present-tense, Sylvia is seen in more viscerally symbolic terms, almost as an avatar of Nature itself, and the radical shift in her appearance and in the narrative technique suggests the underlying “coming of age” theme of the story. Opposite Sylvia’s “coming of age” or initiation into womanhood which is closely and positivistically ties to nature, the character of the young hunter symbolizes male-initiation and a correspondent alienation from nature. Sylvia first fears, then admires, then nearly falls in love with the hunter, only to later successfully transfer her burgeoning sense of sexual and emotional maturity not to the hunter, but to the Heron, which is the symbol for natural innocence and for Nature itself. When Sylvia feels drawn to the hunter, the single aspect of his person which gives her pause is his gun, which is an obvious phallic symbol.
Sylvia reflects that she: “would have liked him vastly better without his gun; she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much”; keeping in mind the gun n as a phallic symbol this reflection indicates Sylvia’s instinctual aversion to phallic power and that she has rightly associated herself, in the context of the hunter’s world, with the birds to be killed. Jewett’s story represents female initiation into sexual awareness and into an awareness of the destructive phallic capacity of males and also of male-identified women. In choosing the Heron over the hunter, Sylvia chooses to preserve her feminine orientation to the world, to celebrate it and to cherish it while not precisely rejecting, but learning to accommodate without surrendering, the male-imperative that holds so much power and so much potentially destructive power over her world.
Unlike Jewett’s ultimate affirmative and empowering tale, Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” combining complex symbolism with forthright dramatic irony and stream of consciousness narration to address the theme of patriarchal repression and gender persecution with profound realism and reader-identification. These latter qualities are all the more technically accomplished given that the story involves the apparent mental deterioration (or derangement) of the narrator, resulting in a a narrative which, as is the case in all three works presently under discussion, utilizes a fragmented and thematically dense narrative style which breaks with traditional storytelling techniques and strategies. The theme of male-oppression of women is introduced from the story’s opening lines, which comprise the narrator’s self-reflective “monologue.
” An odd line of reasoning, or peculiar form of rationality guides the opening lines of “The Yellow Wallpaper” initiating the reader into a sense of alienation and disempowerment. The narrator remarks that is highly unusual for an “ordinary” couple such as herself and her husband to “secure ancestral Halls for the summer. ” The intimation is that something quite disturbing and unusual has brought about a dramatic change to the “ordinary” world. Though the narrator imagines the house may be haunted: “I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity,” the reality of the situation soon becomes clear, that the narrator’s predicament is every bit as terrifying as being caught in a haunted house.
The comment clearly indicates the narrator’s ability (contrary to the opinions of other characters in the story) to distinguish fantasy from reality, indicates that her sense of irony and humor is quite intact, and that she (the narrator) can clearly distinguish not only the specific of her whereabouts and surroundings, but invest them with whimsy and historical color, as well. (Gilman). The function of the opening scenes of the story is to prepare the reader for a deep identification with the narrator and initiate the reader into a “world turned upside down;” that is, a world where the typical day to day accouterments of self-empowerment and self-gratification have been denied, based solely on the inherent chauvinism that allows men in society to view women as an inferior “other. ” In contrast to the narrator’s colorful and imaginative description of the mansion, her husband John is described as coldly analytical and pragmatic. “John is practical in the extreme.
He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures,” (Gilman). Though it would be “romanticism” to believe the mansion haunted, the astute reader is perfectly correct in assuming the mansion a desolate and unhappy place, given the narrator’s almost mawkish longing for a haunted mansion as opposed to the cold, oppressive place of ‘rest” that is the mansion. The narrator’s solace is in writing, which is forbidden her by her “doctors” who are, respectively, her husband and brother. “I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.
” The narrator after divulging her true feelings about the mansion, confides to her readers, “John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster,” (Gilman) So, after only a mere handful of lines in the opening of “The Yellow Wallpaper” have been read, the reader is initiated into a world of alienation, where a brother and husband have kept a woman against her wishes in a cold and desolate mansion for “rest” and the narrator, though suspicious of their acumen and intentions, is powerless to change her situation.
This type of powerlessness forms the root of the thematic impetus for Gilman’s story, with the events of the story enumerating with increasing intensity and hopelessness the de-humization of the narrator by the men who surround her, all performed under the most accomplished and correct social circumstances. “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do? ” (Gilman) The last words in the above quote “what is one to do? ” can be rightly imagined as a cry of desperation; the attentive reader will feel a strong sense of pain and foreboding at the narrator’s cry from the heart.
The impact of these words will likely separate readers immediately into two categories; those who will identify so closely with the narrator’s subsequent experiences that they virtually share them, or the reader will be left feeling alienated from the narrator, the story, and will likely be unable to grasp the important thematic assertions made via the symbolism and action of the story. In some ways, this potential (or even likely) separation of readers into diametrically opposed groups mirrors the gender based social fragmentation with which Gilman is concerned in this story. Such a dynamic extension of the story’s important themes elevates “The Yellow Wallpaper” into superlative articulation and long-lasting profundity. After this point in the story, when the narrator remarks “what is one to do! ” an intense reader-identification is established which will allow the following remarks by the narrator to attain their intended ironic expression.
The reader understands that the highly regarded physicians — her husband and her brother — have medicated her for a condition they have not actually diagnosed, that they may not actually believe afflicts her, and have not bothered to explain the nature of the treatment they are administering to their patient (and loved-one). Through the intense reader-identification created by Gilman, the story’s gender based social themes emerge at the focal point of ironic expression. The reader now “believes” in the narrator much more than in the “authority figures” who dominate her world and there is a real question, given the cavalier treatment of her medical (or mental) problems as to which of the parties is truly “insane:” the establishment or its victim.
Finally, the narrator admits: “Personally, I disagree with their ideas. ” This statement sets up a rebellious energy and tone, with which the reader will be sympathetic; however, the narrator quickly repeats “But what is one to do? ” (Gilman) A description of isolation of the narrator ensues wherein the reader is led to understand that the narrator has been isolated not only physically, but mentally — reduced to the state of a dependent child. But beneath the veneer of malleability, the narrator questions her situation and doubts the efficacy of her custodians. “I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more. ” (Gilman)
Because she is isolated both mentally and physically from the “ordinary” world, the narrator is able through creative introspection to intuit not only the mechanisms by which she is being held captive : drugs, legal guardianship, money and medical expertise — but she ultimately grasps the nature of the psychological and emotional reasons for her oppression and exploitation by the men in her world. This realization is indicated symbolically through the text of the story, most significantly by the story’s central image: the yellow wallpaper in the narrator’s room. She contemplates the wallpaper which she despises in a room she despises and begins to understand the symbolic connotations of the paper: “”I lie here on this great immovable bed—it is nailed down, I believe—and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you.
I start, we’ll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion. ” (Gilman) What first appears as a “pointless pattern” ultimately leads the narrator through a progression of psychological and aesthetic realizations all for which define the self-liberation and individuation which smolders in the narrator’s resentful ironies. She searches the paper, first with male inspired logic, scientifically: ” know a little of the principle of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of. ” (Gilman).
However, subsequent and less-linear “studies” of the paper begin to yield an understanding to the narrator, who begins to realize that the offense of the paper, aesthetically, indicates a disturbance at a deeper intuitive level of consciousness and she begins to associate the paper with the meaning of her oppressors’ actions and the reason for them: “On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind. The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing. You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are.
It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream. ” (Gilman). By now, the reader has been initiated into a world of alienation, personal disempowerment, objectification, and political and physical captivity. In addition to this initiation, the reader has identified with the narrator and has correctly determined that she is not only sane, but perhaps brilliant and artistically gifted — in contrast to the dullard and unimaginative men who control her life. Gilman now leads the reader through the process of self-individuation brought upon through the narrators unique and presumable “insane” psychological processes.
The narrator begins to discern within the patterns of the wallpaper not only the image of her captivity (jail bars) but an image of her liberation: “At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be,” (Gilman) The reader will realize that the “woman behind it” is, in fact, the narrator herself, a projection of herself as a complete and liberated person. The image of the woman in the wallpaper is as dynamic as it is arresting: “I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman. By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour. ” (Gilman)
The narrator’s understanding of the “meaning” of the yellow wallpaper allows her to understand its socially adhesive function: “I have watched John when he did not know I was looking, and come into the room suddenly on the most innocent excuses, and I’ve caught him several times looking at the paper! And Jennie too. I caught Jennie with her hand on it once. ” (Gilman) The wallpaper involves everyone in society, at all levels. It is at once a symbol for social oppression and mechanisms of normalcy (thin, decayed, without meaning or design) and also a symbol for self-liberation, as the narrator is quickly able to intuit exactly what course of action to take given the wall paper’s intuitively aesthetic repercussions and meanings.
Having followed through on her isolation and alienation from “ordinary” life with a strong will toward self-liberation, the narrator is able to correctly deduce the “logical” next-step in her symbolically active relationship with the yellow wallpaper. She begins to tear it up, to release the woman within. Readers apt to cheer at her actions, will also realize that to “normal” minds (remembering Gilman’s steady ironic inversion throughout the story) the narrator’s actions will seem insane. However, the consistency of the story’s symbolism and the intensity of reader-identification with the story’s protagonist allow Gilman to bring her readers to a climax which is both surprising and — in retrospect — logically inevitable. The narrator’s progression from victim to “conquerer” is clear in the image of her husband sprawled unconscious at her feet.
Gilman’s deftly executed symbolism, along with her verisimilar characterization and story-development allow for “The Yellow Wallpaper” to elucidate important themes of gender discrimination and social prejudice by way of a narrative which involves readers deeply enough to make these issues personal. Anderson’s “Death in the Woods” while taking as many daring chances with narrative technique as Jewett and Gilman’s stories, adheres to more of a male-centered thematic vision than either of the others. Whether or not the fact that the story was written by a man is responsible for the less-than-feminine overall vision of the story is debatable; however, Anderson’s tale results in no less of a profound revelation of gender-based conflict and misogyny than the other two tales.
In contrast to the subjective feminine experience recounted in the Jewett and Gilman tales, Anderson’s story embraces the objective description of women. In the opening lines, the “old waomen” is described as: “nothing special” and as “one of the nameless ones that hardly anyone knows” and this observation brings the tension of the story into intense focus, as the narrator continues to tell the story of someone who is evidently of little interest or value. This basic equation of a nameless old woman with “nothing special” can be taken ironically, as Anderson begins to extend the narrative precisely by demonstrating why the old woman was, indeed, special and was, indeed, important.
The basic inversion of expectations and of the portrayal of an old women who is regarded as “nothing” forms the central thematic thrust of Anderson’s story. Over the course of the narrative which is largely expository and fleshed out with flashbacks and cutaway memories, the old woman is revealed to the reader as embodying heroic capacity. the reader learns of her struggle to raise and protect her wayward sons, of her difficult marriage, of her internal and external struggles to survive. Over the course of the narrative, the reader is led to deeply identify with the old woman, just as in the Gilman story, the reader is eld to deeply identify with the narrator. This reader-identification then results in a complete inversion of the original expectation that the old woman means “nothing.
” By inverting this central idea, Anderson plants a seed of doubt in his readers’ minds as to whether any of their surface level assumptions about people, and specifically women, are based in reality or are the result of callous superficiality. In this sense, the story is a social critique of the shallowness of cultural bigotry and gender-based bigotry, but the story does not necessarily seek to delve deeply into the subjective experience of women as do the Jewett and Gilman stories. The conclusion that seems most evident regarding the feminist evaluation of these three classic works of American literature is that fiction can be a powerful tool for social and psychological revelation and even social protest.
The stories when looked at from a feminist point of view illustrate the attempts of three writers to “balance” out what they viewed as a socially biased vision, primarily male-driven, which had occluded and in many cases misrepresented or failed to represent the experiences of women in American culture. Of the three stories, Jewett’s is the most hopeful and positive, Gilman’s the most psychologically profound and technically sophisticated, but also the most condemning and alienated, and Anderson’s story is the most traditional — if still somewhat technically experimental. Each of the stories demonstrates the profound influence that gender based cultural values and ideas have exerted in American society and each of the stories brings to light the profound sense of alienation and loss which accompanies gender-based oppression and discrimination.


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