A comparison between similar short stories in two literary works is the significance behind the feminine struggles. Females have faced multiple challenges throughout history. In Tillie Olsen’s work “I stand Here Ironing,” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s work “The Yellow Wallpaper,” both stories are effective in their description of the women’s struggle with gender roles in their motherhood. The possible meaning of both works can be examined by applying the reader’s opinion and views. Even though the narrators in the stories have different experiences, they are both familiar with the poverty and repression that women have encountered.
In the article “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: A Rediscovered ‘Realistic’ Story” by Beate Schöpp-Schilling, there is a connection between Gilman’s life experience and the story in “The Yellow Wallpaper” (284). In Gilman’s autobiography, she “speaks of her desire to convince Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, famous for his rest-cures, of the errors of his medical treatment, which she herself had to undergo” (Schöpp-Schilling 284).
The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” suffers from a mental health breakdown and undergoes the rest and cure treatment as well. The critiques about the story claim that the female narrator is a victim of a male supremacy system (Schöpp-Schilling 284). On the other hand, the story in “I Stand Here Ironing” represents the life of a woman and the struggle to balance the work and family obligations as a single mother. It “introduces a feminist literature that scrutinizes mother-daughter relationships in a modern world where women must work and children are not absorbed in an extended family” (Pratt 132).
Olsen wrote the story after the “turbulent years of the early to mid-thirties, [when she] lived fully as an artist, as activist, as worker, and as women/wife/mother, though often suffering from the conflicting demands” (Rosenfelt 380). It is believed that she was “motivated by her experience” (Olsen 217). Therefore, both stories may be characterized as semi-autobiographical which can represent how the women’s psychological, mental, and physical health were affected by the male-controlled society.
The main characters in both stories share several similarities. Both narrators describe the struggles that they encounter as females. The stories were told by women whose lives were affected by the obligations towards their families. The narrators in both stories are women that are restricted in society and don’t have freedom. They also speak of the physical poverty and expectation of women during that time. Therefore, both stories can be seen from a feminist point of view. The narrator in “I Stand Here Ironing” also brings up the financial struggle of the poor working class and due to the poverty that was surrounding her, she cannot change the way she raised her daughter and furthermore she adds that her daughter “is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear” (Olsen 224).
The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” experiences a mental breakdown when challenged with motherhood and marriage. Her husband, who is a doctor, places her on the well-known rest and cure treatment of that time, even though she “disagrees with their ideas” (Gilman 434). Although she described John as a good husband and says that “he loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick,” (Gilman 440) her situation was controlled by him who had authority over her. Unfortunately, her feelings and thoughts are being suppressed and disregarded by her husband throughout the story.
Moreover, the single mother narrator in “I Stand Here Ironing,” has a different story, but still explains the female struggles in balancing work and family obligations. She describes the struggle that she encounters as a mother when she was left alone at a young age to raise her daughter alone. Although she doesn’t suffer psychological failure, her feelings are of the same nature. She describes the struggles with the growing family and the mistakes she made while raising her daughter Emily. The narrator as a single mother was forced to leave the children and search for one of the low paying jobs to help her with the family needs. Even though she lived in a society that thought women to depend on men, she learned that she was left alone and had to accept the effect by the patriarchal society.
Apart from the similarities, the stories share some difference as well. Gilman’s narrator describes her situation with the treatment for her psychological condition that she suffers right after she had a baby which is well known as “postpartum depression” (Ford 309) today. The narrator’s psychological breakdown “starts with depression and feelings of guilt and aggression, then develops into increasing withdrawal from reality and persecution complex, odor hallucinations, synesthesia, and ends in the complete breakdown of her ego” (Schöpp-Schilling 285). The narrator further describes her obsession with the yellow wallpaper as she is being trapped in the nursery while she undergoes the treatment. The story covers the period of the narrator’s treatment.
In different circumstances, Olsen’s main character analyzes her life and her mistakes. In the story” all of the action takes place inside the mother’s head as she stands ironing, trying to gather the strands of her earlier life with her daughter, to “understand” what had gone wrong between them, and to decide whether she should speak with the high school counselor who has requested an interview and share her thoughts about her daughter” (McElhiney 77). Although the story covers a short period of time, the narrator was able to reach self-understanding “as a result of her realization and acceptance that “what is past is past and there is nothing she can do about it” (McElhiney 77).
Both narrators share another characteristic by being nameless. The name of the character in “The Yellow Wallpaper” not being mentioned “argue against her individuality” (Ford 309). The narrator describes how her husband referred to her by different terms such as “blessed little goose” (Gilman 437) or “little girl” (Gilman 441). She lived in a time where women were not allowed to have an individual identity and they had no independence. Such a role of women in society had an impact on the narrator’s mind when she was writing her story. She was forbidden to write and she was forced to do it in secret as she was controlled by her husband and had many restrictions in place. The outcome of her continuous challenge to hide her writing results in a decrease of self-expression, which furthermore exacerbates her illness.
The nameless narrator in “I Stand Here Ironing” represents a search for individual identity, despite the challenges enforced by a history of poverty and social limitations. The story is a monologue, where the narrator focuses on the challenges she experienced as a single mother which weakened her relationship with her oldest daughter Emily. She feels guilt about overlooking Emily, especially after she receives a concerning phone call about her. The story is actually an internal thought of the narrator where she lists a number of mistakes and how missing a father figure was a cause of a failure.
Gilman’s narrator describes the misunderstood nature of psychological illness throughout the story. She willingly accepts her husband’s treatment. However, being prohibited to write, banned from friends and even her newborn child, and complete rest caused her psychosis to escalate until converts into a full-blown madness. She tells her husband that she is free and she has liberated herself at the end of the story by peeling “off most of the paper” (Gilman 447).
Olsen’s narrator analyzes her life and motherly skills while raising her children as a single mother. That was prompted by a phone call by a person from her daughter’s school who is concerned about her because “she’s a youngster who needs help” (Olsen 217). The narrator describes her feelings of guilt and regret, but she also recalls the poverty problems, the struggles she encounters as a single parent, and the need to work and leave her baby with baby sitters. At the end, she acknowledges that she was young and her “wisdom came too late” (Olsen 224). The narrator finishes the story with a hope that her daughter is “more than [the] dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron” (Olsen 224).
According to Schöpp-Schilling, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is one of Gilman’s story that is considered “as realistic” and “is seen today by feminist scholars primarily in the light of Gilman’s life” (284). Olsen’s story is as broadly recognized as Gilman’s story. The story “has been particularly valued by contemporary feminists, for it has contributed significantly to the task of reclaiming [woman’s] achievements and interpreting [her live]” (Rosenfelt 373)
Both literary works tell a women’s story. In both stories, there is a representation of men’s effect on the life of the female narrators. Although the narrators describe their struggle differently, both stories can be seen through the view of feminism. It is interesting that the stories are written many years apart, but both authors incorporated their personal experiences from the time of women’s regression. According to Denise Lynne in “Gilman Reconsidered,” Gilman addressed the sexual, social, and economic oppression of women, and they drew on [her] personal life, including her relationship with men” (134). In different circumstances, Olsen’s story covers the time in the past “when we were hungry to find a literature that was not just about growing up female, but also about ourselves as an adult, as women connected to the world of children, work, and other women” (Pratt 130).