The two short stories, Guy de Maupassant’s Boule de Suif and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper would seem to have but little in common, at a first glance. Although not very distant in time, the texts are written using a very different narrative technique. Maupassant’s story is told from the point of view of the traditional, omniscient narrator who oversees the development of the action and the interaction of the characters from a vantage point. On the other hand, Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper makes use of an unreliable narrator, a young woman who is mentally unstable.
However, the texts interestingly intersect in their theme: both of the stories are centered on the story of a woman and the way in which she is treated and represented by society. Maupassant’s Boule de Suif is the story of a courtesan, during the Prussian occupation of France. The title of the story is actually the sobriquet of the courtesan, whose real name is Elisabeth Rousset. The name “Boule de Suif” or “Tallow Ball” is an allusion to the character’s rounded and generous figure. The story revolves around the journey of several French people by coach and their subsequent stay at an inn.
While at the inn, the courtesan is accosted by a Prussian soldier, who requires her services. Revolted and full of dignity, the girl refuses him and her refusal entails the soldier’s determination that none of member of the party leave before he has had a gratification of his desire. Maupassant focuses her both on the social differences between the people of the company and on the status of the defenseless girl who is forced to comply with the soldiers’ wishes, because this is “her trade”.
The narrator intentionally focuses on a young woman who is not only of a low social status, but also a courtesan who cannot have a husband and therefore is not “respectable”. The other characters are used as contrastive elements in the narrative, which point again to the injustice done to Boule de Suif. The company of people assembled is formed of pairs, of different social statuses but all respectable because they are rich. Madame Loiseau is characterized as vulgar and unfeminine, the countess is well versed in social skills but otherwise plain and Madame Carre-Lamadon is herself a courtesan, the joy of the officers.
The hypocrisy of the assembly of people who get bored at the inn and decide that it is the duty of Boule de Suif to sacrifice herself and save them is plain to see. By contrast, none of the women in the company can definitely be called virtuous or holding high moral standards. Madame Carre-Lamadon is especially corrupt and depraved, but her status in the world and the cover offered by her husband protect her from society. In the world described by Maupassant, the women are frail and unprotected if they are deprived of a social status and of a husband.
Another contrastive device of the narrative is given by the pair of nuns who accompany the travelers. They seem at first to be simple and devote but prove to be just as hypocrite as the rest in the end. Moreover, they are also protected because of their “holiness” which prevents them from being targeted by the others disapproval. The narrator is the one that intermediates all these allusions in the text, by subtly throwing light on his characters. The defenseless courtesan is therefore surrounded by women who are either protected by their social status and their marriages or by nuns who are protected by their devotion.
The moral hypocrisy of the others appears plainly in their urge to believe that the goal justifies any means. By contrast, Boule de Suif’s simple patriotism and dignity are not appreciated or protected, since she is considered disreputable. Consequently, the narrator ironically unmasks the hypocrisy of the company who would have it understood that the woman’s role in the world is merely a series of sacrifices to the caprices of soldiers: “A listener would have thought at last that the one role of woman on earth was a perpetual sacrifice of her person, a continual abandonment of herself to the caprices of a hostile soldiery.
” The narrator of the story is an omniscient author who imposes his story on the audience. He is ironic and bitter at points, showing the hypocrisy of his characters. The narrative elements that he uses serve to heighten the contrast between his main female character and the rest of the characters, and also to show indirectly that a woman without a husband and a social standing was entirely unprotected in the society of his day. The woman is therefore clearly dependant on the male authority for her will and she is constrained to act against her own principles.
The context of the story serves to emphasize the status of the woman in the nineteenth century world through various elements. The war itself and the soldiers, as part of the exclusively masculine social order are very important because they obliterate even more the woman’s independence. Also, the profession of Boule de Suif increases her vulnerability, because she fails to comply with her prescribed social role as a wife and a mother. The fact that she does have a child and no husband is also to her disadvantage.
Thus, Maupassant employs an objective narrator who constructs the story such as to convey meaning through plot, characters, setting and contrastive narrative elements. Gilman’ The Yellow Wallpaper is told from the point of view of a young married woman, who is unreliable because of her mental instability. The story is told thus in such a way to draw attention to the nightmare that the person telling it actually lives, without directly making any allegations or stating any facts. The text seems to translate the irrational and incoherent flow of consciousness of the young woman.
The device of the unreliable narrator serves here a very complex design. The audience is forced to distrust the young woman, because of her disabilities and her irrationality, which is a hint at the way in which the heroine is herself seen by the other characters, especially her husband. Moreover, she is unable to judge de situation for herself and thus conveys the appearances in a potent manner. This is important precisely because, in order to be effective, this story needs to be constructed as a game of appearances.
The young woman seems happily married, surrounded by the perfect care of her amiable husband and that of his sister: “He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction. 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. ” Underneath the pleasant appearances that the unreliable narrator conveys so well, the reader feels fully the pressure of suffocating male authority.
The woman is trapped in a cage-like enclosure, symbolized by the chamber with the yellow wall-paper that confines her, at the recommendation of her husband who is also her physician. The profession of love made by the husband impedes the woman to have the liberty to write or employ herself in any other way, so as not to become exhausted: “There comes John, and I must put this away,—he hates to have me write a word. ” Thus, the utter inactivity and speechlessness to which a woman was confined by the “law” of marriage and by male authority is obvious.
The husband typically treats his wife as a weak woman, assuming that in her confinement she has everything she wants and that her illness is only a caprice: “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him. Of course it is only nervousness. It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way! ” The allusion to the “woman’s duty”, as perceived by nineteenth century society, is extremely important because it conveys with full force the absurdly dependent condition of the women.
The main symbol of the text is actually closely tied with the unreliability of the narrator. Among her other imagining, her fancy of seeing a “creeping woman” behind bars in the maddening pattern of the yellow wallpaper appears to be only a delusion, which proves her unreliability all the more. However, the symbolic reality that the nameless narrator discerns is that of herself as a representation of the man’s authoritative view. The young woman perceives herself in her own confinement and along with herself, all the other women who share her condition.
Riveted in her role as prescribed by men, she is not allowed to think or to act. The mental condition from which the narrator suffers is therefore only a “social disease”, the disparagement of women by society in the nineteenth century. A proof for this is the fact that women were generally considered and termed, the “weak sex”, not only regarding their physical abilities but also their intellect and their power to reason. The narrator is a woman who thinks and imagines, and therefore her husband perceives her as having a too powerful fancy and as being prone to nervousness.
Other important allusions are those related to her interdiction to write, again as a medical advice. She is considered inapt for having a voice and thinking, and therefore is silence. The wall-paper is on the other hand the representation of woman in the eyes of the male authority: “I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere. There is one place where two breadths didn’t match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other.
” This is perhaps the most disabling interdiction for women: the fact that they used to be considered unable to have any valuable ideas or opinions: “But I must say what I feel and think in some way—it is such a relief! ” The story ends with final liberation of the woman who symbolically tears at the wall-paper where she feels confined in the male representation of herself: “The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.
” Thus, the text is told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator, a metaphor in itself for the way in which women used to be perceived by society. The woman was an unreliable narrator, who could not be trusted to think for herself and who was dependant on male authority for all her actions. Through very different narrative devices, the two texts actually tell the same story of woman’s dependence on man in the nineteenth century society. Bibliography: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. New York: Dover Publications, 1997. Maupassant, Guy. Boule de Suif. New York: Mass Market, 2001
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