The idea of the individual is ingrained in modern society, where oppression, at any angle, seems foreign and is looked down upon. In contrast, the female characters in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, are portrayed fighting against the “man’s world”, an atmosphere present in our country not too long ago. Edna, Jane, and Sula all reject the parameters put upon them by society and attempt to remain separate from it ,yet vary in degree of success due to their preparedness.
The needs of individuals take precedence over society’s expectations when they are oppressed; but,if not prepared for the consequences of being outcasted by society, they will inevitably fail. Edna is the least successful among the three women, simply because she was not prepared for her choice of lifestyle. Enda was raised in Kentucky as a Presbyterian, and moved down to the Grand Isle later on. “Though she had married a Creole,[she] was not thoroughly at home with the Creoles”(Chopin, 12) As such, she is innately opposed to their alien lifestyle.
Edna is not confined, but she longs to be separate, distinguished from them: an individual. She recognizes the importance of her identity in saying, “ I would give up the unessential… I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself” (Chopin, 64). Though her aims were clear, Edna remains chained to society, just by having a husband and children. Edna still attempts to have an affair with Robert, effectively breaking the trust and expectations of everyone around her, yet she cannot fulfill her goal, as even Robert pushes her away for that very reason.
It is impossible for her to be independent because of her upbringing. Edna longs to emulate Mademoiselle Reisz, who has reached the pinnacle of independance and freely expresses herself through the piano. The factor which differentiates Reisz from Edna is that she has left society behind, along with the option of family, whereas Edna is held back by that very thing. She sees her own children as “… antagonists… who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew of a way to elude them. ”(Chopin, 151).
This took the form of Edna’s suicide, resulting in not her escape from oppression, but rather signifying her defeat, acknowledging her inability to overcome society’s grasp on her. Edna was prevented from actively rebelling against society, because her pre-existing commitments prevented her from doing so. In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Jane Doe, though confined by her husband, is able to fight for herself to assume some degree of independence. As treatment for her depression, she is put to bedrest by her physician-husband, and comes to terms with the limitation set around her.
This limitation is the assumed position of authority that a man is expected to have over a woman, especially his spouse. She says, “I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad. So I will let it alone and talk about the house. ” (Gilman, 1) Jane has already internalized her husband’s authority into her own mind, even interrupting her train of thought to his instruction.
She seems to walk in line with what he is telling her to do at the end, but her own rebellious nature seeps out, marking a descent into madness. These repressed feelings are projected onto her obsession with the wallpaper, where a portrait of Jane’s mind is shown. It is ultimately John’s disregarding of his wife, the hierarchy of the household, that is responsible for Jane’s mental breakdown. He vetoes her smallest wishes, such as when he refuses to switch bedrooms so as not to overindulge her “fancies. ” The barrier of understanding leaves Jane no outlet for her to freely express herself.
Thus, she writes. But she does this in secret, saying, “There comes John, I must put this away- he hates to have me write a word. ” (Gilman, 2) Jane is actively disobeying her “authority”, but in hiding it from him she is still limited by John’s expectations of her, which is her weakness. Without him, she would be free as an individual, but John is her pre-existing conditions that holds her back. Jane likens the rest of the women in the world to her own struggle with John. “There are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did? (Gilman, 5) Jane clearly resisted in her situation, and she is specific about the women who she thinks have had to break out of the same resistant cage that she had to. They seem so independent, so much freer than her, and after finally escaping that cage, she feels she can relate her situation to theirs. However, Jane’s struggle has driven her nearly to insanity, and is now unable to be the individual that she strove to be in the beginning. In recognizing the barrier to her individuality, Jane is able to actively rebel against the constructs set by society against women, but at the same time she submits because of her commitment to John.
Putting herself in that position causes her to lose herself as a whole, making all of her struggle in vain. Sula differs from both Edna and Jane in that she defies her place in society at a young age and becomes a model individual. When she was a child, Sula lived in a chaotic household, preferring the quiet one of Nel. Sula is not often characterized as the calm individual, but she is described as being able to “sit on [Helene’s] red-velvet sofa for ten to twenty minutes at a time – still as dawn” (Morrison, 29).
It is very easy to forget this Sula as the narrative progresses, but this passage shows Sula’s search for identity. She is shaping her self into who she wants to be, marking a contradiction of craving the order that she does not have in her home. This state does not last indefinitely; there is a corner point where she changes into her defiant self. As she recalls from her deathbed, “The one time she tried to protect Nel, she had cut off her own fingertip and earned not Nel’s gratitude but her disgust. From then on she had let her emotions dictate her behavior. ” (Morrison, 140).
To her, this was logical and rational, but receives the complete opposite reaction from what she had hoped for. This is a defining point in her life, which is responsible for the disruption she causes in all of the people who interact with her. Sula returns to the Bottom as an adult, characterized not so much as a person, than as a force of nature. She has accepted the consequence of alienation and rejection The repressive nature of society still confronts her. Eva berates Sula for not marrying or having children, but in response, she states, “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself”(Morrison, 92).
As a women, she is expected of these things, but it is clear that Sula desires to control her identity. She recognizes that any person or thing that compromises her self-determination will limit her from being an individual, by being bound to society’s standards. Yet even Sula falls prey to to this trap, in her relationship with Ajax. “There was the morning… when she actually wondered if Ajax would come by that day. ” (Morrison, 131) Through their encounters, Sula was always cautious to keep him under her control, but that morning reveals an emotional attachment to him, however small.
This minor detail turns out to be the beginning of her slow death as an individual- this is to be expected-after a life of such detachment from repressive society, the smallest disturbance would amplify itself to ruin her. Only those who are completely isolated from society are able to withstand its parasitic effect on the individual, but Sula, though prepared for the isolation, is caught off guard, and suffers for it. Women in the times of these books are set under strict guidelines by society, and they all recognize it, and attempt to free themselves by seeking their individual self.
Edna, Jane, And Sula vary in degree of success, a product of their upbringing, and their ability or inability to accept the consequences of being an individual. Through these oppressed female characters, we see the various outcome of the sacrifice required for independance, but their ties to society bring them down. Is it ever possible to be a distinct individual in any society? Even Sula, who goes to such extremes, fails. How much more do modern people need to strive for this characteristic? Today’s western thinking has encouraged the idea, but perhaps “their individual” is not truly as free as it claims to be.