When one thinks of family, they picture a happy, smiling couple that shares a house, loving kids, and their whole lives. While this portrayal of the family has been engraved into society’s idealistic view for years, with countless spouses trying to replicate it, the perfect image is often far from reality. Literature has been one of the many tools to shine some light on the struggles that families face in everyday life. Sometimes, one can see the hardworking, capable, and loving wife being figuratively caged by the domestic shores, while her husband is free to advance his career, social life, and professional skills. Kate Chopin, in her short novel “The Story of an Hour,” and Charlotte Gilman, in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” explore the concept of family as a figurative restraint for women empowerment through setting and symbolism.
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Firstly, the primary tool for showing the family’s mental constraints for women are the symbols that are prevalent in both literary works. As it concerns “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the dominant symbol to portray the caged and exploitative life of the female protagonist is the wallpaper. This central symbol entails all the domestic struggles that the main character experiences: the abuse from the household members, the limitations of their dominance, and her life fully ruled by others. The narrator claims that “behind that outside pattern, the dim shapes get clearer every day, and it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern” (Gilman 532). By describing the wallpaper, the author implies that the figure of the woman that the protagonist sees is the reflection of herself, being trapped by the pervasive pattern of the decorations. These patterns indirectly symbolize the mental and physical constraints that the husband and his sister impose onto the main character: the prohibition of communicating with the outer world, remote location, forceful isolation.
The author of “The Story of an Hour” projects the struggles of Mrs. Mallard onto the symbol of the heart. Chopin writes, “Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death” (524). In this case, the heart symbolizes the emotional and mental well-being as it relates to her family. At the start of the novel, the character already experienced health issues, meaning that there were some apparent family problems. When the character thought that her husband died, she experienced no pain. On the contrary, when she discovered that the husband returned, “the doctors came, they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills” (Chopin 525). Ironically, the protagonist dies not of happiness, as the doctors claim, but of the final emotional strike that the husband’s return causes. Thus, it can be argued that the heart is a symbol for Mrs. Mallard’s soul that was hurt by an abusive relationship.
The setting is another powerful tool that both writers utilize to strengthen the message of family trapping women in a vicious cycle of unhappiness. More specifically, in “The Story of an Hour,” the author places the character who experiences the revelation about her freedom in front of the window. Chopin writes, “She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life; the delicious breath of rain was in the air” (524). By observing the setting of the awakening nature, the protagonist realizes that her soul can transform and be youthful again in the absence of her husband. Therefore, the reviving and hopeful atmosphere of the spring landscape serves as the tool to reflect the ongoing mental changes of Mrs. Mallard.
Gilman also does not hesitate to use setting as an effective literary device to contribute to the story. The place where the family lives is a “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, … a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity, … and there is something queer about it” (Gilman 526). Such a setting does not only contribute to the overall atmosphere of eeriness that the story aims to communicate to readers but also represents the isolation that the narrator experiences. As the audience finds out, the main character struggles with mental health and is thus trapped by her husband and sister in a remote location for therapeutic purposes. However, instead of being a lively and healthy atmosphere to thrive in, the setting only perpetuates her pain by inflicting total exclusion and domination of other family members. Consequently, the environment of this novel also indirectly portrays the constraints of the protagonist.
In conclusion, it can be argued that setting and symbolism are two literary devices that were used by Kate Chopin and Charlotte Gilman to communicate the despair that women in families feel. Although not all families experience such struggles, the authors of these novels aimed at portraying some of the extremes that females faced in the 19th century. Through symbols of the wallpaper and the heart, the writers project the characters’ problems onto the inanimate objects. Various settings also reflect the inner battle of women in families – the lively spring landscape communicates the hope of Mrs. Mallard, while the isolated mansion tells a story of social exclusion and mental abuse.
Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly Mays, W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2019, pp. 523-526.
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Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly Mays, W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2019, pp. 526-537.