Not many of us think about the way life was hundred, or fifty, or even ten years ago. Even less of us ponder on the topic of the change in society, for example, human rights. However, when one encounters a work of art, for example, a literature piece or a film that was created in a certain period of time and inherent to it, the differences can be easily distinguished. Every time period and its habits, socio-cultural norms and traditions are usually reflected in one work or another, like in a mirror. An argument such as this means that a reader should be able to use the given works of three authors to determine how the women rights and their treatment has changed over time, what the life was like for them and how the literature piece reflects their way of living. This paper aims to investigate and explore the following works of art, as well as other reliable sources to prove or dispose of the abovementioned thesis.
In Kate Chopin’s short story named “The Story of an Hour”, describes a woman who believes that her husband has died in a railroad accident, and her subsequent thoughts, emotions and self-reflections regarding the accident in the next hour constitute the backbone of the story. Some researchers believe that Kate Chopin in her story has depicted the patriarchal code that affected every degree of freedom for a woman in the late XIX century, while others search for the roots of the story in other explanations, for example, the emotional sensitivity of the protagonist. However, the clear antagonism to the cult of domesticity, marriage, and patriarchal traditions cannot be overlooked, as even the editors of the collected volume where the story is being published, make an author’s note mentioning the marriage issues and restrictions of the patriarchal code for the women at the time (Kirszner & Mandell, 2013, p. 205).
A researcher of Chopin’s works and biography, Emily Toth (1999) in her book “Unveiling Kate Chopin” agrees with this point of view: “The Story of an Hour” can be read as the story of … the submission of a young woman to someone else’s will. It can also be read as a criticism of marriage itself, as an institution that traps women” (p. 10). This opinion can also be easily supported by taking a closer look at the story itself and at the thoughts and feelings that the author shows through the protagonist of the story: “She would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime” (Chopin, 1894, p.206).
In John Updike’s “A&P” the reader may also gain an insight into everyday social life of that time and find a description of women and their behavior, as well as the society attitude and a public opinion, illustrated by a situation seen through the eyes of a young man who works as a cashier in a large supermarket. The story was written in 1964, and that period can be characterized mostly by the women’s liberation movement of the 60s, the second wave feminism and an overall fundamental shift in public conscience regarding women’s rights (Wood, 2010, par. 1-2). However, the new trends were also counterbalanced by the persisting patriarchal tradition, especially in southern states that were notoriously known for their conservativeness. The swings from one extremity to another were also common at that time, and in Updike’s story, we may see how a conflict unfolds based on the clash of these two cultural trends.
The best reflection of the conflicting society becomes the protagonist of the story, who sees three girls walking into a supermarket in bathing suits, and later confronts a manager who accuses the young women of indecency, in order to protect them. The protagonist, young boy of nineteen, cynical and romantic at the same time, represents both points of view at the same time; he objectifies the girls, regarding them as sexual objects in his descriptions: “chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it” and “The longer her neck was, the more of her there was” (Updike, 1961, p. 234-238). However, he also admires how brave the girls should have been to go against the public morale, and compares them to other customers, acknowledging the traditional social roles and challenging them: “house-slaves in pin curlers”, “the sheep pushing their carts down the aisle” (Updike, 1961, p. 234-238).
David Auburn’s short play “Proof” is a humorous and dramatic work of literature, where the author apart from telling a story of a family and reminiscing on the differences between the genius and mentally ill person, also raises the issues of equality in education and occupation, as well as the trends in family life. According to Women’s Educational Center, “groups of women continue to experience extreme vulnerability, demeaning gender-based stereotypes, and gender-based poverty … the gains made by even the most privileged women, are constantly threatened by right wing conservatives” (Women’s Educational Center, 2015). These arguments are well illustrated in the play, where the main character is a young woman, Catherine, who sacrificed her education and career to take care of her father, a genius mathematician, by the end of his life experiencing dementia.
Shortly before his death and after it, she feels depressed and conflicted, but also acknowledges that she has inherited her father’s talents and, probably, his mental illness, too. She writes a proof to a very difficult mathematical problem, but no one believes her, as she did not receive the proper education and spent a large part of her life as a housekeeper, taking care of an ill man. With short and precise phrases, Auburn allows the reader to grasp the essence of the conflict, how the society diminishes the role of a woman to a house-sitter while denying that a person without proper education can be as intellectual as graduates or even exceeds them. Catherine’s friend and her sister do not believe her – neither when she tells them about the proof: “Could you tell us the proof? It would show it was yours,” nor ever before: “I know your dad taught you some basic stuff … but you couldn’t [do it]” (Auburn, 2000, p. 1208-1259). Catherine feels the insecurity of her position and searches for inspiration in the stories of famous women mathematicians working centuries before her. The tragic conflict of a person, confronting the society that does not value or believe him or her shows how acute the topic of social inequality still is.
Due to the abovementioned arguments and quotations, it can definitely be said that the idea of literature works reflecting the socio-cultural patterns, particularly related to women’s rights and treatment, proves itself. The works that were researched allow seeing that this topic was important for a very long time, and the variety of viewpoints shown through the eyes of fictional characters emphasize that the public opinions were and still are rather divided regarding the problem of treating the women equally. The authors of different time periods refer to various aspects of this problem that are matching the troubles that the society faces at the time. Although every voice supporting the right cause makes a change and even the works that do not directly appeal to the topic, but only subtly touch upon a problem or simply mention it, have the capability of setting the reader thinking, it is clear that throughout the centuries the world takes steps to equality and protection of human rights, which are inexcusably small. However, there is still hope for the future, as the looks at an issue are becoming more intent and its investigation becomes deeper at every historical cycle that follows.
Auburn, D. (2000). Proof. In L. G. Kirszner & S. R. Mandell (Eds.) Compact Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing (8th ed.). (pp. 1208-1259). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Chopin, K. (1894). The Story of an Hour. In L. G. Kirszner & S. R. Mandell (Eds.) Compact Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing (8th ed.). (pp. 205-206). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Kirszner L. G., & S. R. Mandell (2013). Compact Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Toth, E. (1999). Unveiling Kate Chopin. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Updike, J. (1964). A&P. In L. G. Kirszner & S. R. Mandell (Eds.) Compact Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing (8th ed.). (pp. 234-238). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Women’s Educational Center (2015). Women’s rights. Web.
Wood, L. M. (2010). The Women’s Movement. Web.