In comparing the three authors and the literary works of women authors, Kate Chopin (1850 -1904), “The Awakening”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s (1860-1935), “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and Edith Wharton’s (1862-1937) “Souls Belated”, many common social issues related to women are brought to light, and though subtly pointed out are an outcry against the conventions of the time. In these three stories, which were written between 1899 and 1913, the era was a time in which it seems, women had finally awaken to realize their social oppression and were becoming rebellious in their pursuit of freedom from the male-dominated societal convention in which they existed. They commenced viewing their social stature as unjustly inferior, and they realized that these conventions placed deterrents on their intellectual and personal growth, and on their freedom to function as an independent person. All three of these women authors have by their literary works, voiced their strong unfavorable feelings about the patriarchal society in which they lived.
These women authors have served as an eye-opener for readers, both men and women alike, in the past, and hopefully still in the present. (There are still cultures in the world today, where women are treated as unfairly as women were treated in prior centuries).
These women authors have impacted a male dominated society into reflecting on of the unfairness imposed upon women. Through their writings, each of these women authors who existed during that masochistic Victorian era, risked criticism and retribution. Each author ignored convention and proceeded to write about women’s issues. They took the gamble and suffered the consequences, but each one stood by what is just and reasonable. They were able to portray women as human beings, rather than as totally self-sacrificing and sanctified women, as was expected of women in that era.
Today’s women are privileged that there were daring women such as Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It is also fortunate for us all, that from the late 1800’s to the early part of the 1900’s there were women, rich enough to have the luxury of leisure that enabled them write about what they felt were very important issues for women.
In Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” and Edith Wharton’s “Souls Belated” the two main characters admirably brave, daring, and courageous women. They were women whose souls were belatedly awakened and seemed to have gone through metamorphoses. These two women found that they no longer desired to live by the imposed social moral conventions of the time. They dared to act upon their passion and emotions by opting and daring to live in sin, in order to exercise their own independence and personal freedom; in other words, they refused to live with the public.
Though Kate Chopin’s character, Edna, is portrayed as less than a devoted mother, in the end, she gives up her life for her children sake. She commits suicide so that in the future, her children would not be the objects of malicious societal gossip because of her infidelities. In Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” the main character’s (name not mentioned) motherly instincts, are nearly non-existent, since it is implied that part of her mental illness has been triggered by post-partum syndrome. “This lack of motherly instinct is depicted when she makes one of the few references to her child, “It is fortunate Mary is so good to the baby, such a dear baby, and yet, I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous” (664).
In each of the stories the women took dissimilar paths. The paths taken, though unintentional and unconventional, by Chopin and Gilman’s heroines have very serious consequences, lead them to their desired freedom and out of their intolerable life’s responsibilities. Chopin’s character welcomes death through drowning. Gilman’s character welcomes insanity. Wharton’s character initially chooses to risk losing the man she loves, rather than go back to a life plague by social conventions and expectations. Not one of the main characters chooses to go back to their original situation. In Soul’s Belated, it is implied that Lydia decides to return to Gannet and possibly marry him, in order to restart living a new life with the man she loves, though she detests societies conventions.
All characters were in unhappy marriages where the distribution of love was one-sided. All their marriages seem to have been marriages of convenience, as was the custom of the day, mainly for the upper classes, and all women felt trapped. Chopin’s character, Edna, married Leonce Pontellier because he was financially stable, and because she wanted to go against her family’s wishes. “….Add to the violent opposition of her father and her sister Margaret to her marriage to a catholic and we need seek no further motives which led her to accept Monsieur Pontellier for her husband”.
In the “Yellow Wallpaper”, the main character speaks of a one-sided love when she reflects; “It is so hard to talk to John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so” (663). The author “Soul’s Belated” in giving the reader a pointer as to why Lydia acted on her emotions writes ” ….. from the first, regarded her marriage as a full canceling of her claims upon life” (674).
In all the stories, the authors commonly depict propriety in marriage, a yearning for freedom from convention, loveless marriages, wealth and unconventional women. Chopin and Gilman imply that the mental illnesses experienced by their characters are due mainly, to male oppression. Chopin and Wharton write about infidelity, passion and love; and Chopin and Gilman write about women working for pay. All authors write about women who feel trapped by tradition and convention and all display abhorrence toward the social expectations set for women.
The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 5th Ed. W.W. Norton
& Co. NY. 1998.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening 672-690. Charlotte Gilman Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper 657-670. Wharton, Edith. Souls Belated 467-670.