Wide Sargasso Sea/The Yellow Wallpaper Oppression of Women

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Wide Sargasso Sea/The Yellow Wallpaper Oppression of Women

  1. 1. Centre Number: 64910 Candidate Number: 9823 Candidate Name: Emma DillawayCompare the ways in which the authors Jean Rhys and Charlotte Perkins Gilman explore theoppression of women within their respective novels; Wide Sargasso Sea and The YellowWallpaper.Wide Sargasso Sea (Sea) and The Yellow Wallpaper (Wallpaper) are both examples of authors exploring theoppressive, male-dominated society of the 19th century and its influence on their female characters. Themale voices of both novels force control over the female characters and decide how they may appropriatelybehave, leaving female identities suppressed. Both novels represent how the oppression of women trapstheir existence and show the female characters’ attempts to defy this.Social norms of the 19th century expected women to act only as dutiful wives and mothers. The femalecharacters of both novels have little power or freedom as their husbands dominate their existence.Published in 1966, Sea is retrospective novel from a feminist angle; Rhys explores gender inequality bywriting an unconventional prequel to the classic nineteenth-century novel, Jane Eyre, giving its voicelesscharacter, Bertha, a story. Wallpaper also reads as a feminist novel, which is an unusual angle for a Victorianwriter. Gilman herself suffered post-natal depression and was encouraged to undergo ‘the rest cure’ withthe advice to ‘live as domestic a life as far as possible’1and to ‘never touch pen, brush or pencil again.’2Some critics say ‘Gilman wrote this story to illustrate how womens lack of autonomy is detrimental to theirmental, emotional, and even physical well being.’3At the start of the story in Wallpaper the narrator is passive and naive; ‘John laughs at me… but one expectsthat in marriage.’4The phrase ‘in marriage’ is showing her feelings of entrapment by the institution ofmarriage. The narrators husband, John, is a ‘physician of high standing,’5therefore his opinion on her ‘slighthysterical tendency’6overrules her own, even though she ‘disagree[s] with their ideas.’7Rochester in Sea is awhite male and a member of the gentry which means he has the power to impose control over his Creole1Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” (Oct 1913) Published in The Forerunner2Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” (Oct 1913) Published in The Forerunner3Dock, Charlotte Perkins Gilmans "The Yellow Wallpaper" and the History of Its Publication and Reception, pp. 23-24.4Narrator, Page 1 (The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Dover Thrift Edition [TYW])5Narrator, Page 1 [TYW]6Narrator, Page 1 [TYW]7Narrator, Page 1 [TYW]
  2. 2. Centre Number: 64910 Candidate Number: 9823 Candidate Name: Emma Dillawaywife and the black people in Jamaica. He owns Antoinettes dowry and therefore owns Antoinette. Tochallenge a husbands power would jeopardise a womans social and financial security. Women are forced todepend on the very world that excludes them. However, Antoinette and the narrator in Wallpaper doeventually transgress against these social conventions as they are wild, passionate and imaginativeindividuals.Christophine, Antoinettes nurse, does not allow herself to be solely oppressed by society as she is ‘not likethe other women.’8Antoinettes description of her appearance depicts a strong, unique individual; ‘she worea yellow handkerchief... no other negro women… tied her handkerchief Martinique fashion.’9Christophine isthe only female character of both novels to not rely on a man; ‘no husband… I keep my money. I dont give itto no worthless man.’10However by the end of the novel Christophine comes to realise there are limits toher freedom and that she must conform to Rochester’s male-dominance, as he tells her to ‘go, or *he’ll+ getthe men to put *her+ out.’11You could argue that both authors use symbolism to represent the oppression. Rhys uses the parrot, Coco,to portray the restrictions placed on Antoinette and Annette, Antoinette’s mother, by Mr Mason,Antoinette’s step-father. He ‘clipped *its+ wings,’12essentially removing their free spiritedness. The parrotwould sit ‘on *Annette’s+ shoulder *and+ darted at everyone who came near her.’13The symbolic language todescribe the parrot shows that Rhys is using it as an extension of Annette to reveal her suppressedfrustrations. The burning fall of Coco as ‘his clipped wings failed him and he fell screeching’14seems topredestine the fate of Antoinette and her mother, in which they both will fall in their fight for freedom. InWallpaper, Gilman uses the wallpaper in the attic to psychologically dominate the narrator, which isparticularly distressing as wallpaper is seen as a predominantly female expression, yet it ‘constantlyirritate*s+ and provoke*s+’15her. Differing from Sea, the symbolism in Wallpaper also expresses the narrator’s8Antoinette, Page 6 (Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys, Penguin Edition [WSS])9Antoinette, Page 6 [WSS]10Christophine, Page 83 [WSS]11Rochester, Page 126 [WSS]12Antoinette, Page 25 [WSS]13Antoinette, Page 24 [WSS]14Antoinette, Page 25 [WSS]15Narrator, Page 3 [TYW]
  3. 3. Centre Number: 64910 Candidate Number: 9823 Candidate Name: Emma Dillawaypower. The ‘woman’ she sees in the paper seems to be a reflection of the narrator and a device used byGilman to reveal her frustrations; ‘she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.’16Repetition of theword ‘creeping’17to describe the woman highlights the narrator’s irritation of constantly having to hide hercharacter to please ‘dear John.’18As the narrator develops into the ‘woman’ she begins to distrust John as he‘pretended to be loving and kind’19and she transgresses against his authority, naming him ‘that man’20and‘creep*ing+ over him.’21The wallpaper no longer oppresses her, and neither does John, ultimately leading toa role reversal as she now dominates them.The narrator of Wallpaper is an unnamed whereas John and Jennies names are mentioned frequently,showing her lack of significance as she is female and classed as mad. Although, others may argue that sheremains unnamed to allow her to embody all women who are struggling with oppression. Ultimately, thenarrator is a nameless stereotype of female oppression. John calls her ‘little girl,’22showing the lack ofequality in their marriage. However at the end of the novel the narrator says; ‘Ive got out at last... in spite ofyou and Jane.’23Never before mentioned in the novel, it is likely that Jane is the name of the narrator. Itcould be argued that Gilman decided she was previously referred to as Jane, a name that lacks uniquenessand personality, to emphasise her prior passive and dreary nature. Escaping the name shows how thenarrator has escaped her oppression.Rochester takes away the small identity that Antoinette has by renaming her Bertha. In Brendan Mahers2006 adaptation of Sea, Rochester says that he renames her as Antoinette is ‘too complex’ and that Bertha is‘simpler... a proper English name.’ Rochester doesnt understand Antoinettes untamed and vibrant Jamaicanculture; ‘too much blue, too much purple, too much green.’24Thus he oppresses her by changing her namein the hope it will make her the plain, submissive, English wife he desires; ‘it is a name Im particularly fond16Narrator, Page 12 [TYW]17Narrator, Page 12 [TYW]18Narrator, Page 7 [TYW]19Narrator, Page 13 [TYW]20Narrator, Page 15 [TYW]21Narrator, Page 15 [TYW]22John, Page 8 [TYW]23Narrator, Page 15 [TYW]24Rochester, Page 49 [WSS]
  4. 4. Centre Number: 64910 Candidate Number: 9823 Candidate Name: Emma Dillawayof. I think of you as Bertha.’25You could argue that Rhys fights back against the oppression of Antoinette byleaving Rochester unnamed. He did not deem Antoinette worthy of keeping or choosing her own nametherefore to provide justice for this oppression Rhys does not deem Rochester worthy of a name at all.The first person narrative is shared between Antoinette and Rochester in Sea, with extra inputs in the formof letters and dialogue from Daniel Cosway, and a short narrative perspective from Grace Poole. Jean Rhysbelieved Charlotte Brontë oppressed Berthas character in Jane Eyre; ‘I was convinced that Charlotte Brontëmust have had something against the West Indies.’ By giving her a voice in the narrative, Rhys has givenAntoinette an identity and her character can develop beyond ‘the mad woman in the attic’ and tell her story,as she says; ‘there is always the other side’26when explaining her past to Rochester. As Sea includes thestory of Antoinettes childhood we are able to understand and sympathise with her character more deeplythan Bertha in Jane Eyre. She had a lonely childhood; ‘I got used to a solitary life.’27A lack of attention fromher mother is clear as she ‘made excuses to be near her,’28and growing up as a minority meant she had littlecompanionship or affection; ‘They hated us.’29As Antoinette marries Rochester it is her last chance to beaccepted and loved, however her own husband disregards her; ‘the woman is a stranger.’30The relentlessrejection of her character oppresses her free spirit, and is bound to have influenced her subsequentmadness. However characters such as Rochester and Daniel Cosway, as well as Charlotte Brontë, are allproducts of their Victorian society, and would dispute that her madness is hereditary; ‘bad blood.’31The narrative switch to Rochester establishes another viewpoint of Antoinette that ascertains her mentaldeterioration; ‘she smashed another bottle against the wall and stood with... murder in her eyes.’32As wehear his narrative we have a degree of empathy for his character so we do not solely blame his oppression asthe cause of her madness. At the start of their marriage, when he seems fond of the ‘beautiful’33Antoinette,Rochester is already noticing the madness in her. ‘All day shed be like any other girl... but at night... angry or25Rochester, Page 105 [WSS]26Antoinette, Page 99 [WSS]27Antoinette, Page 3 [WSS]28Antoinette, Page 8 [WSS]29Antoinette, Page 8 [WSS]30Rochester, Page 49 [WSS]31Daniel Cosway, Page 72 [WSS]32Rochester, Page 116 [WSS]33Rochester, Page 57 [WSS]
  5. 5. Centre Number: 64910 Candidate Number: 9823 Candidate Name: Emma Dillawaysilent for no reason.’34Rhys parallels the light and shade of Antoinettes disposition with the light and shadeof the day to emphasise her unstable nature. Yet, by hearing Rochesters narrative we are made aware of hisreasons to oppress Antoinette, who he says is a ‘stranger who did not think or feel as [he] did.’35He cravesEngland and rejects the unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people that alienate him; ‘I hated them andwas afraid of their cool, teasing eyes.’36His route of resolution is to take control and dominance over heractions; ‘She trusted them and I did not. But I could hardly say so. Not yet.’37Any evidence of prior insanity isweak; therefore it could be argued that Rhys is placing the blame of Antoinettes madness on Rochester andhis tyranny over her.In Wallpaper the narrative voice is solely placed on our first person, unnamed narrator; our protagonist.However we hear the narrative voices of other characters, such as John and Jennie, through their dialogue.Gilman has not allowed John his own narrative therefore we are unable to relate to his character. It could besaid the narrator is an extension of Gilman herself, undergoing the same ‘rest cure.’ Therefore the narrativemay be unreliable as it is blameful of authoritative male figures such as John. Told by an intrafictionalnarration, the story is also limited in the sense that we are only made aware of what the narrator wishes totell us, and her knowledge is determined by what she does or does not see and hear. Moreover, the mentalstate of Wallpaper’s narrator is deteriorating as she loses her rationality, saying that ‘to jump out of thewindow would be an admirable exercise.’38The thoughts of insanity combined with the controlled andformal language builds a disturbing narrative showing that the narrator is in denial over her mental state.However, the single narration allows us to build a close relationship with the narrator. Having no narrativefrom John makes him the antagonist as we agree that his oppression of her ‘is one reason *she does+ not getwell faster.’39Arguably, both women of the novels suffer oppression from their domestic environments. Antoinette feelstrapped in a marriage where she cannot freely express herself due to Rochester’s disapproval; ‘I watched her34Rochester, Page 67 [WSS]35Rochester, Page 69 [WSS]36Rochester, Page 102 [WSS]37Rochester, Page 66 [WSS]38Narrator, Page 14 [TYW]39Narrator, Page 1 [TYW]
  6. 6. Centre Number: 64910 Candidate Number: 9823 Candidate Name: Emma Dillawaycritically.’40This oppression of her identity and lack of acceptance leaves her isolated and confused over whoshe is; ‘I often wonder who I am and where is my country’41Wallpaper is a short story therefore we miss theroot of her ‘slight hysterical tendency,’42however a clear influence was the birth of her child; ‘such a dearbaby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous.’43This indicates that the narrator is sufferingfrom post-natal depression, and feels oppressed by the stress of motherhood and the responsibility it holds.It is important to note that the child is a ‘him,’ another male character removing her freedom, though as achild is not a blameful character.Both women are wild, imaginative and creative characters. The suppression of their spirit drives both womeninto a spiral of insanity, until they are both transformed into ‘the mad woman in the attic.’ Rhys and Gilmanhave used their respective novels to transgress against nineteenth-century patriarchal society by giving theirfemale characters a strong voice and allowing them to fight against male dominance. Although theirtransgressions result in madness, the female characters’ triumph is in not conforming to the socialconventions expected of them. Both novels emphasise a need for female expression and freedom in orderfor society to have gender equality.Word count: 1,99940Rochester, Page 46 [WSS]41Antoinette, Page 76 [WSS]42Narrator, Page 1 [TYW]43Narrator, Page 3 and 4 [TYW]

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